DNP vs. NP: What’s the Difference?

DNP student in scrubs holding stethoscope

Healthcare and nursing is a field replete with acronyms, making it difficult for newcomers to understand common terms. For example, what are DNP vs. NP designations, and is there a difference between DNP and NP healthcare providers? If you’re considering taking the next step in your nursing career, you may be thinking about earning a higher-level designation, but are unsure of exactly what these acronyms mean.

This guide compares the DNP vs. NP designations and explores your potential career pathways in the nursing field. Keep reading to gain a clearer idea of the nursing credential that appeals to you and suits the next step to take in your career.

The Main Difference Between DNP and NP Designations

There is a significant difference between a DNP vs NP. A DNP is a Doctor of Nursing Practice. This isn’t a professional title; rather, it’s a doctorate degree program. A nurse can use the “DNP” academic designation after fully completing their degree program.

The DNP is a terminal degree program, just like other doctorate degree programs, such as the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In fact, a PhD in Nursing is an alternative to earning a DNP. A PhD in Nursing program would be a more research-focused role compared to a DNP, which is intended for nurses who wish to further their education and remain active in the field, providing direct patient care or alternatively stepping into managerial leadership roles.

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the DNP credential, it’s time to take a look at the NP acronym. This refers to a nurse practitioner, which is different from the registered nurse (RN) designation.

An RN is a nurse who has completed either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in nursing. RNs must also pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain licensure in order to practice. This role is considered to be an entry-level one.

RNs may decide to climb the ladder and enhance their career qualifications by heading back to school. If an RN earns either a master’s degree or a doctorate degree and completes advanced clinical training, including a certification; then they can become qualified to pursue the nurse practitioner designation.

An NP is a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). NPs may also be referred to as certified nurse practitioners (CNPs). The category of APRNs also includes the following:

  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified nurse-midwife (CNM)

All certified NPs are trained to deliver healthcare at a high level. They are skilled clinicians who are authorized to independently provide patient care in various settings. NPs focus on health education and promotion, disease prevention, diagnostics and the management of acute and chronic medical conditions.

A nurse practitioner may specialize in a particular patient population. For example, they may focus on pediatrics, family practice or geriatrics. Women’s health and internal medicine are other specialization possibilities.

Should You Earn a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate Degree?

If you’ve decided that you want to further your nursing career and become a certified nurse practitioner, your next decision is which degree to pursue. It’s currently possible to become an NP with either a master’s degree or a doctorate degree, along with advanced clinical training and an appropriate APRN certification.

It can be tempting to choose a master’s degree program because it requires less of a time commitment. However, think carefully before you opt for a master’s over a DNP. There are many compelling reasons to choose a doctorate degree instead, not the least of which is the potential that credentialing requirements may change, rendering a master’s degree insufficient.

A task force with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) invested nearly four years of research into investigating the issue of whether APRNs should be required to earn a doctorate degree. That culminated with a vote by the AACN’s member-affiliated schools, which endorsed the move toward a doctorate requirement.1

Currently, a DNP is not yet a requirement. However, it may become a requirement at some point in the future, possibly before aspiring NPs have even completed their master’s degree and obtained certification as an APRN.

In addition to the possibility that a DNP may become a requirement for aspiring NPs in the near future, there are several other compelling reasons for nurses to consider pursuing a doctorate degree.

  • A higher quality of care – Nurses who have earned a terminal degree like the DNP are better prepared to offer the best possible care to their patients. This is particularly important in cases of complex healthcare challenges, such as co-morbidities.
  • Better patient outcomes – Earning a DNP shows that a nurse is a true expert in their field and can ensure high-quality point-of-care for their patients, leading to improved patient outcomes.
  • Nursing leadership – The nursing master’s degree is typically selected by nurses who wish to specialize in a particular clinical area. In contrast, those choosing to pursue a DNP aspire to hold a leadership role within their field while still providing high-quality patient care.
  • Independent practitioner – A DNP-holding APRN is able to act as an independent healthcare provider. These senior-level professionals can manage the healthcare of even the most complex of patient cases.
  • Furthering knowledge in the field – Nurses who have earned a terminal degree are qualified to initiate nursing research projects designed to expand the body of knowledge in the field and therefore facilitate better patient outcomes. In fact, earning a doctorate degree requires the completion of an original research project.
  • Academic role – Compared to a PhD in nursing, a DNP degree is designed for nurses who wish to continue providing direct patient care, rather than focusing exclusively on medical research. However, a DNP can still prepare nurses to transition to teaching positions at universities if they wish to educate the next generation of healthcare professionals.

It’s worth noting that it’s not necessary to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) prior to pursuing a doctorate degree. However, some nurses do indeed decide to earn an MSN first, particularly if they have been out of academia for a while. 

What to Expect From Your Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree Program

Aspiring NPs may choose to pursue a general Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. It’s also possible to select a degree with a specialization. For example, if you think you might like to enter academia in order to teach future nurses, you could earn a DNP that has a specialization in education leadership.

The specific DNP curriculum will vary from one school to the next. In general, however, you may expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Healthcare informatics, with a look at ethical, regulatory and legal requirements
  • Emerging challenges in human health
  • Fundamentals in evidence-based healthcare delivery, including literature reviews and the application of research in real-world contexts
  • The development of strategies intended to improve patient outcomes and patient safety

Courses for your DNP program may be available in online formats, allowing you to learn from anywhere and fit courses around your work schedule. However, you’ll need access to a clinical site in order to complete the required practicum hours.

Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. If you would like more information about GCU’s nursing programs, including the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program, visit the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions or click the Request More Information button at the top of this page.

1Retrieved from American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet in February 2022

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.