DNP vs PhD in Nursing Degree Differences

When you are looking at advanced degrees in nursing, you will see that you can earn either a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Ph.D. in nursing. Which you earn depends upon your interests and career goals.

The simplest way to understand the difference between the degrees is this: The DNP is an advanced nursing practice degree, and the Ph.D. in nursing is a research and academic degree.

More details about the differences between these degrees are below.


The Doctor of Nursing Practice is a doctoral degree that is usually earned by the experienced nurse who wants to advance in his or her clinical nursing career or move into executive leadership. Most who obtain their DNP move on to become advanced nursing practice professionals, such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives or even nurse anesthetists. Or, they become senior nursing executives in charge of a large healthcare facility or department.

In the past, it was sufficient to earn your Master of Science in Nursing or MSN to become one of these nurses. Today it is slowly becoming standard to earn your DNP.

According to the DNP program at Duke University, the purpose of the DNP degree is on nursing practice. The objectives of a DNP degree are to create nursing leaders in healthcare teams by giving students the skills and tools they need to translate evidence they obtain through research into practice. There also is a goal to improve patient care systems, and to measure outcomes with patient groups and populations.

The DNP is focused on the advancement of understanding of nursing practice. The DNP curriculum will usually stress both leadership and clinical skills. Graduates will be ready to translate research in nursing into new nursing standards of care. This will help them to lead interdisciplinary healthcare teams, improve patient care, and effectively evaluate outcome among specific patient populations.

DNP programs also have a focus on information technology in many cases. The healthcare system in the US is evolving very quickly, and new technology has the chance to greatly improve patient care and outcomes. Some of the technology that is often covered in a DNP program are:

  • Electronic medical records
  • Telehealth technology
  • Decision support tools
  • Data mining systems

DNP graduates develop the advanced clinical and leadership skills to act as leaders and role models in their organizations. They also can help to update policies and reduce barriers that prevent technological improvements in the healthcare system.

Many of the DNP programs that are available have different tracks. At Duke University, for example, has a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthesia and an executive leadership track. The executive leadership track provides experienced nursing leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to lead complex healthcare organizations.

The curriculum in this program emphasizes the following:

  • Lead large and complex healthcare organizations by having a complete understanding of people, organizations and how to use multiple sources of data
  • Monitor and forecast emerging trends in healthcare legislation and patient care
  • Develop advanced skills in designing, evaluating and implementing care of vulnerable populations
  • Learn how to manage complex, fast-breaking situations, such as outbreaks of illness or an emergency in the healthcare organization

Courses that are required in this DNP executive leadership track include advanced decision making in healthcare; advanced topics in leadership; and planning and evaluation care for populations.

A major difference between the DNP and the Ph.D. is in required clinical hours. The DNP degree at Duke, for example, requires at least 400 supervised clinical hours, while the Ph.D. has no such requirement.

To summarize, if you desire the opportunity to expand your clinical nursing and executive leadership skills in a hospital or healthcare setting, a DNP is probably the best choice for you. An MSN degree has previously been adequate for many of these clinical and leadership roles, but the DNP is becoming standard. More healthcare employers in the next decade will require a DNP to work in these advanced nursing positions.


The focus of most Ph.D. in nursing programs is on research. The purpose of the Ph.D. program is to prepare nursing scientists to develop entirely new nursing knowledge to advance the science and practice of nursing. Graduates of a Ph.D. in nursing program have the skills to lead nursing research teams, and can design and conduct clinical studies. Then, they can disseminate that new knowledge for nursing and relevant disciplines.

Common learning outcomes for a Ph.D. in this field are:

  • Be able to generate and disseminate nursing knowledge to bring advances to the field, and to facilitate translation into practice with patients
  • Design and evaluate nursing care innovations to improve outcomes in healthcare environments
  • Engage in and be a leader of nursing research teams with the goal of enhancing nursing patient care
  • Influence the health science agenda in a way that leads to better nursing practices and patient outcomes

One of the most common paths for Ph.D.s in nursing is educational leadership and teaching in nursing. Nurses who study the education concentration in a Ph.D. in nursing program are prepared to design, research, implement and evaluate educational programs for nurses. This includes formal academic nursing programs that leade to a degree.

Typical courses that are taken in a Ph.D. program with a focus on nursing education are:

  • Foundations and Essentials of Doctoral Study in Nursing
  • Research Theory, Design and Methods
  • Quantitative Reasoning and Analysis
  • Qualitative Reasoning and Analysis
  • Advanced Quantitative Reasoning and Analysis
  • Theoretical And Scientific Foundations for Nursing
  • Transforming Nursing and Healthcare Through Technology
  • Advanced Theoretical and Scientific Perspectives in Nursing

A difference with some Ph.D. programs is that a mentored teaching experience is often required. This is because many Ph.D.s in nursing eventually become instructors at a university. With the Ph.D. at Duke, a mentored teaching experience of 140 minimum hours is required, while the DNP does not feature this requirement.

A Ph.D. also usually requires a dissertation, while DNP program do not. DNP programs do often have a capstone project requirement, which is based upon practice with a certain type of patient or patient care situation.

A DNP degree generally will take two or three years to earn full time, while a Ph.D. takes longer – up to four or five years.


Earning a doctoral degree in nursing certainly is a wise career choice. There is a very strong, increasing demand for all types of nurses – from regular floor RNs to nurse practitioners to nurse educators to nurse anesthetists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that there will be 30% increase in demand for advanced nursing professionals in the next seven years.

Whether you earn your DNP or Ph.D. boils down to what motivates you as a nursing professional. Do you want to continue to work as a clinician, or in executive leadership in charge of a healthcare department or facility? A DNP may be your best choice. For those who want to work in nursing research, education and academia, a Ph.D. may be the best educational fit.

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