DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: What’s the Difference?

Female DNP student doing work on a tablet

When it comes to advancing your nursing education, it’s important to explore all the options available to you. If you’re looking to achieve the highest level of nursing education, you may be wondering about the differences between a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program vs. a PhD in Nursing. Although there are similarities, it’s essential to understand the differences so you can effectively choose which degree program fits your career aspirations. 

Comparing the DNP vs. PhD

Although DNPs and nursing PhDs both work with research, there are differences within each program that can make one a better fit for your goals.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice

A DNP program is extremely practice-focused. This degree is meant to guide nurses to apply current research to improve healthcare systems and thereby enhance patient outcomes. Students will learn many valuable skills and information pertaining to nursing practice through a rigorous curriculum, including courses such as: 

  • Emerging Areas of Human Health 
  • Patient Outcomes and Sustainable Change 
  • Leadership for Advanced Nursing Practice 
  • Scientific Underpinnings

These courses and the hands-on learning aspects of a DNP degree prepare students to pursue leadership roles within the nursing field and at the forefront of patient care, such as those of a public health nurse, nurse informaticist or advanced practice registered nurse in a variety of settings.

The PhD in Nursing

A PhD, on the other hand, is rooted in research instead of clinical practice. In this program, nurses learn to conduct original research to add to the body of academic theory and nursing knowledge. As you might expect, a PhD in Nursing may likely lead to a career that is heavily focused on research and academics rather than directly into the field of patient care.

This includes careers in nurse education, teaching the next generation of nurses and working as a nurse researcher, conducting research to advance the profession of nursing in a variety of subject matters. Because those who earn a PhD in Nursing create new knowledge through their findings, they are more likely to work with information rather than directly with patients.

Completing Each Program

Regardless of whether you choose to pursue a DNP or a PhD in Nursing, some form of a final project will be required to complete the degree. For most DNP programs, this is an extensive project presenting an issue and describing how addressing it will improve patient care. This final project may involve an array of different elements, depending on the chosen program. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to include patient care through real-world solutions that can be carried out in the field. Those in a DNP program will also need many hours of practicum/field experience to complete their program.

For a PhD in Nursing student, a dissertation is usually the final project of the program. Like any other dissertation, this final project adds to the existing body of knowledge through original research done by the learner rather than finding a solution to an existing issue, which is the goal of a DNP final project.

Choosing Between a DNP vs. PhD in Nursing

While deciding whether to choose a DNP vs. PhD in Nursing, the most helpful tool is to consider your career goals and what type of nursing profession you want to pursue. If you are passionate about conducting research or teaching the next generation of nurses, then a PhD in Nursing may be the right fit for you.

However, if you enjoy working with others, making a positive difference in the lives of patients and want to be a leader in your field, then consider pursing a DNP. This may allow you to advance to the top of your field in patient care within a variety of different settings such as hospitals, clinics, public health offices and even independent practice.

In addition to considering the type of career you want to have, be sure to explore the options available when it comes to earning your education. For example, earning your nursing degree online may be a great option if you’re already a busy professional. This can allow you to gain the knowledge necessary to take your career farther without having to sacrifice your current occupation to pursue higher education online. 

Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. The College of Doctoral Studies offers a variety of terminal degrees, including the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree to help you reach the top of your field. To learn more, click on the Request More Information button at the top of this page. 

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.

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