Getting a Doctorate in Nursing? Learn the Difference Between Nursing Ph.D. and DNP

With years of clinical experience as a nurse, you might be thinking of taking your career to the next level. With only 1-2% of nurses holding a doctorate degree, the leadership roles in healthcare make for a lucrative career path. It will not be surprising if you are considering going for a doctorate. Like any other field, a Ph.D.—Doctorate of Nursing—is often a clear-cut path for professionals interested in research and academia. However, the world of nursing has developed a lot recently. DNP, Doctorate of Nursing Practice, focuses on clinical practices and trains professional nurses to treat patients as a doctor in the medical setting. 

With two options on the road to a doctorate, having a good comparison can help you make an informed decision. Let’s discuss the two degrees and figure out which one is the best for you!

DNP vs. Nursing Ph.D. Degree – Covering the Bases 

While Ph.D. is an academia-oriented degree that focuses on research and thesis work, the DNP translates innovation into practice. With the Ph.D. degree, you can conduct research or critique it; the work is more literary and theoretical. But research is not for everyone. If you’re passionate about the practical and clinical aspect of healthcare, you might want to consider DNP. With DNP offering advanced knowledge and specialization, your duties in medical care are more direct, however the two specializations can go hand-in-hand. Often, the DNPs rely on the research produced by the Ph.D. nurses to improve medication administration. A DNP degree is of about one to three years, and nurses working full-time jobs can find DNP programs online that allow them to study while working, balancing study and work simultaneously. 

Depending on the course and university, your credit hours can be anywhere between 30 to 40. You would also be required to complete 10,000 clinical hours. For nursing Ph.D., students usually take about 3 to 5 years in which you are generally expected to cover over 45 credit hours – at times 70 credit hours. Like any other Ph.D., the nursing degree does not need any renewal, however, the DNPs have to renew their credentials every five years.

Degree Curriculum 

Since both doctorates have very different work areas, credit hours, and degree durations, it is a given that the courses taught are degree-specific and vary substantially.

Ph.D. education might involve understanding current practicing challenges, the history of the discipline, and the potential development. As a nursing Ph.D. student, you will be taking classes revolving around qualitative and quantitative research designs, mixed-method research, grant writing, integrated interdisciplinary research practicum, and dissertations. You might have worked on a dissertation in your bachelor’s or master’s, but as the degree advances, so does the dissertation criteria. For your Ph.D., you would be required to conduct and present original research before a committee.

However, instead of a dissertation, most DNP programs usually demand the completion of a capstone project. It is to present gained knowledge and practical experience. The threshold clinical hours and the curriculum for DNP are diverse. You can expect classes covering clinical information systems, clinical reasoning and pharmacology, evidence appraisal, advanced leadership, and healthcare policy. The main focus of the degree is on the skill development for taking leadership roles. It aims to produce nurses that can stay up-to-date with new developments in practice to renovate healthcare. The DNP specializations offer a variety of pathways and you can select from multiple options, including but not limited to public health, nursing administration, neonatal and mental-health nurse practitioner- depending on your interests. To expand your skills further, you can even consider taking online medical courses to obtain a certificate in ACLS.

Eligibility Requirements 

The general requirements and documentation—official transcripts, accredited BSN or MSN degree, your RN number and experience, minimum GPA, resume, goal statement and personal essay—are similar for both specializations. 

While the prerequisites and documents needed are similar, the letters of recommendation have fundamental differences. When applying for a Ph.D., your letters need to come from an academic source to highlight your academic strengths. For the DNP application, letters from your clinical supervisors are crucial. Other than the general requirements, remember to check if you need to provide for TOFEL or ILETS score. Moreover, you might be invited for interviews to evaluate your candidacy.

Job Prospects and Salary

Upon earning either of the doctorates, your plans for the future might change significantly. As a nurse researcher, your areas of study could include pharmaceutical research, public health research, disease research (control, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment), and systems development. While a Ph.D. is majorly a research job and you would expect your work environment to compose lab equipment and flying research grant letters, there are other prospects as well. Many Ph.D. holders prepare new nurses by becoming instructors and mentors. 

According to the BLS report, Ph.D. nurses as instructors earned a median salary of $84,060 in 2020. While teaching appeals to some, others can become the authority for approving and reviewing publications or the director of clinical services. Other job options which open with the degree are administrative jobs in research and technology facilities, pharmaceuticals, and health advocacy organizations. Moreover, with a Ph.D., you can also open solo clinic practice in Columbia and 20 other states. Since an MSN (a prerequisite for a doctorate) is enough to initiate solo practice, the management and administration skills learned through Ph.D. can be used here.

Holding a DNP degree allows you to have more practicing autonomy in the clinic and administration. In 23 states, a DNP does not require any doctor supervision and can practice full authority. You can conduct all tasks of a nurse practitioner; prescriptive privileges also come with the doctorate, while 49 states also allow you to administer substances and prescriptions for patients. As a DNP, you can use innovative healthcare strategies to improve patient health while also using healthcare informatics to develop new policies. Although the realm of the DNP job is more practical and clinic-based, DNP nurse educators can have academic jobs as instructors too. Different DNPs receive different paychecks depending on their area of specialization and the state they are practicing in. In almost all states, the average salary earned by the DNP practitioners is a whooping 6-digit income. The limited BLS report data projects the highest paid specializations are nurse-midwives and nurse anesthetists. 

In Conclusion

Choosing to earn a doctorate degree as a registered nurse means you have two options to choose from—DNP and Nursing Ph.D. 

Ph.D. is research-focused, takes more years, and requires more credit hours compared to its clinic-based equivalent DNP. Both produce multiple satisfactory job prospects even with vast differences in curriculum. If you’re thinking of enrolling in a doctorate degree, don’t forget to consider your interests and future plans before making a decision.

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