The Nurse’s Guide to Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree Programs

Credit: Elmhurst University

What is a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)?  

A Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree offered in the field of nursing.

A terminal degree is a term used to describe the highest degree available in any academic discipline. When you obtain a DNP degree, it means that you have reached the highest level of education available in nursing science. This is quite an achievement.

A Doctorate of Nursing Practice is the most common terminal degree in nursing. However, other terminal degrees are offered.

Types of Terminal Nursing Degrees

Degrees offered in the field of nursing include:

  • Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Doctorate of Nursing Science (DNS)
  • Doctorate of Nursing Philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctorate of Education (EdD) for nurse educators
  • Doctorate of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)

Doctorate degrees in nursing are either research-focused or practice-focused degrees.

Research-focused degrees emphasize conducting research to contribute meaningful information to nursing practice.

Practice-focused degrees utilize research to create positive nursing practice changes.

Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

The Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is a practice-focused doctorate. It creates scholars who take accumulated knowledge to change nursing practice to produce positive outcomes for

  • Patients
  • Nurses
  • Organizations

This is the most popular terminal degree program in nursing. There are about 384 DNP programs in the United States.

Doctor or Nursing Science (DNS) Degree

The Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) degree may be utilized as a practice or research degree.

Recently, these programs are being converted to PhD programs due to the confusion with credentials and unclear outcomes.

DNS tracks are being converted to PhD programs to focus on research or are being phased out completely. For this reason, DNS programs are the least popular.

Doctorate In Philosophy (PhD) In Nursing Degree

The main purpose of a Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing is to create, research, and publish a dissertation that contributes to nursing practice or nursing science.

PhD degrees are research driven. Candidates can study clinical or professional issues in nursing. Research topics could include anything from nurse burnout to how pain scales affect patient care.

PhD candidates often build on the thesis they created during their MSN program.

Doctor of Education (EdD) Nursing Degree

A Doctor of Education (EdD) nursing degree route can be taken by nurse faculty. Itis considered a research or practice doctorate.

This degree is curriculum-focused with emphasis on administrative and higher education leadership roles.

According to the American Association of Colleges in Nursing (AACN), doctoral degrees are recommended and preferred for professors and faculty members.

The EdD degree focuses on conducting educational research geared toward the nursing profession. It can be viewed as research or practice focused.

Doctorate of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) Degree

Lastly, the Doctorate of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) is a practice-focused degree. It prepares nurses to become Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs).

The National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA) is the nation’s accrediting body for CRNA practice.

Master’s programs preparing CRNAs are currently being transitioned into the DNAP program. This is being done to meet the new requirements of American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA).

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has pushed for the DNP degree to become the requirement for advanced practice nursing. This means in the future you will have to be a DNP to become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

DNP Degree vs Other Nursing Degrees: What’s The Difference?  

Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees differ from other nursing degrees because they are terminal degrees.

They require undergraduate- and graduate-level study prior to entry and are utilized for research and practical purposes.

DNP Degree vs Nurse Practitioner (NP)

The main difference between a DNP and a Nurse Practitioner (NP) is that a DNP is a terminal degree. Meanwhile, an NP is a type of Master’s level degree.

DNPs focus on research and how to improve clinical practices, while NPs are occupations or careers.

A DNP is not a career in of itself but advances your career choice. However, DNPs can train licensed experienced nurses for leadership or certain specialized advanced practice nursing roles.

NPs can also obtain a DNP degree to advance their nursing careers even further. Conversely, DNPs do not have to obtain an NP specialty degree.

DNP Degrees Provide More Opportunities

DNPs are different than other nursing degrees because having a DNP opens doors to higher-level roles such as Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) or other executive roles.

BSN- and MSN-prepared nurses are less likely to obtain such roles. They do not provide a competitive edge in the way a DNP does.

DNP degrees are also different than other nursing degrees because a DNP can unlock lucrative and influential leadership positions in the nursing profession.

Why Should You Consider A DNP?

Pursuing a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree can enable nursing professionals to become innovative practitioners who confront healthcare’s most complex problems.

You would be a visionary of the nursing profession and lead the way to positive changes and best practice solutions.

A DNP offers extensive knowledge opportunities related to:

  • Biophysical science
  • Psychosocial science
  • Behavioral science
  • Clinical science

Validate Your Nursing Expertise

A DNP degree validates your expertise in the nursing field. This gives you more authority in the healthcare community due to your proficiency.

The degree teaches you how to:

  • Translate research evidence into nursing practice
  • Survey healthcare policy
  • Influence changes in healthcare policies

A DNP degree helps professionals adapt to new challenges faced in healthcare today. It gives you skills to transform the way care services are delivered.

Healthcare evolves with new demands daily. A DNP allows you to polish your skills and gives you the necessary tools to increase the scope of clinical nursing. This continues to be applicable over time.


Is It Possible To Get A DNP Without An RN?

The vast majority of Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs only accept candidates with experience as a practicing RN. However, a new breed of training programs has reduced the requirements to the point that no actual nursing experience is necessary to become a DNP.

Some non-nursing degree plans allow students with a Bachelor’s degree in fields other than nursing to enter a MSN or DNP program. Of course, this assumes certain prerequisites are fulfilled.

These prerequisites usually consist of courses in:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy
  • Chemistry

Direct Entry DNP Degree Programs

The programs put students through BSN, MSN, and DNP course criteria. Although you technically become a Registered Nurse (RN) during this process, you have never spent any time at the bedside gaining critical experience.

Even with this controversial approach, non-nursing DNP programs offer those without any nursing experience to obtain the highest degree offered in nursing practice. These programs are often referred to as Direct Entry DNP programs.

For example, if you have a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and take the required pre-requisite courses, you can begin courses to complete the highest practice-focused degree offered in nursing.

How To Get A DNP Degree

Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree programs are ultimately designed to produce leaders in nursing while focusing on nursing:

  • Expertise
  • Knowledge
  • Influence on healthcare outcomes.

DNPs are guided by:

  • Organizational leadership
  • Health policy implementation
  • Direct patient care

The path to a DNP should start with bedside practice as a Registered Nurse. After all, you are working towards becoming an expert in your field. What better way to become an expert than by gaining crucial clinical experiences with a wide range of patient populations?

Getting A DNP Degree Is Usually A Three-step Process

After you have gained some clinical experience as an RN, you can pursue a DNP via the

Traditionally, you would first obtain a BSN degree, then a MSN degree, and finally a DNP degree. This shows the natural progression of:

  • Clinical knowledge
  • Years of experience
  • Research

All the while you’ll be shaped into a nurse leader.

It’s also worth noting that a nurse with a BSN can skip the MSN and go straight to a DNP.

What Are Your Goals?

Assess your long-term goals before committing to a DNP program. For example, consider if you desire to be prepared for practice or academic research.

If the latter, then a PhD may be a better choice.

However, if you want to advance your nursing practice using analytical methods to apply evidence-based practice, then a DNP may be right for you.

DNP programs are extensive and often expensive, so it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

Table of Contents

Top 5 Online DNP Degree Programs

Top 5 In-Person DNP Degree Programs

In-person, also known as on-campus, programs are geared toward students that wish to engage in a more traditional setting.

On-campus DNP programs offer in-person didactic learning. At the same time, they provide clinical rotations at local hospitals.

Students may prefer in-person learning over online for a more structured learning environment. However, according to recent research, more than 75% of academic leaders feel that online education is equal to or superior to on-campus learning.

Of course, in-person learning is necessary for clinical rotations or lab hours.

However, most of the didactic learning is appropriate to put online. This is especially true with the surge in online teaching platforms.

Even so, online classes are not right for everyone. In-person programs are still invaluable to the education system and have remained a constant and traditional method of learning.

The following are the top 5 in-person DNP degree programs.


How Much Does A DNP Degree Program Cost?

The cost per credit hour depends on several factors.

The average cost of in-state, online, accredited DNP programs are $27,745. The most affordable are close to $12,000.

On-campus, private institution DNP programs cost the most. These are followed by DNP public in-person programs, then online DNP programs.

DNP programs that do not require clinical or lab hours will cost less than those requiring clinical time.

Furthermore, online DNP programs are generally cheaper than in-person programs, because online programs have fewer expenditures.

University DNP Degree Programs By Cost

UniversityTotal Program Tuition CostOnline or On-Campus
Aspen University$21,655Online
University of Utah | Salt Lake City$27,592Online
Augusta University$15,910Online
Creighton University$33,372Online
University of Arizona$66,641Online
DePaul University$129,000Online
University of South Alabama$15,000Online
Columbia University$198,468On-Campus
University of Washington$84,321On-Campus
John Hopkins University$73,000On-Campus
Duke University$110,280On-Campus
Vanderbilt University$111,540On-Campus
Texas Christian University$93,080On-Campus

How Much Does A DNP Nurse Make?

Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees can drastically raise your earning potential.

DNP degrees offer many specialties and the pay varies with each one.

For example, a DNP-trained nurse with a Nurse Practitioner (NP) specialty will be paid differently than a DNP with a nursing education or research specialty.

Unfortunately, DNP nurses do not make similar pay. Factors that effect your earnings include:

  • Experience
  • Specialty
  • Location

The following average salaries were determined via the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics.*

TitleSalary (annual pay)*Employment settings
DNAP$174,790Hospitals, surgical centers, OMFS clinics
EdD$83,240Nursing faculty, curriculum director, researcher, educational policy maker
Phd-Nursing$83,240Professor, academic researcher, educational consultant, curriculum coordinator
DNP-Nurse Practitioner$109,820Hospitals, surgical centers, clinics, physician offices
Chief Nursing Officer$237,080Hospital
CEO of Healthcare Organization$274,300Healthcare Facility
Chief Nurse Anesthetists$163,987Hospitals, surgical centers


Is A DNP Degree Right For Me?

When searching your next degree, you should take into consideration:

  • Your long-term goals
  • Total cost of the program
  • Program length
  • Established accreditations

You should also decide if you want to pursue clinical or research tracks.

Research-Focused DNP Degree

First, decide if you would like to be research focused or practice focused.

If you want to be research focused, you should pursue non-clinical tracks such as:

  • DNP with a focus on research
  • PhD
  • EdD

Research-focused roles allow you to pursue a terminal degree that you can implement in academia or leadership roles.

You can focus on leadership, executive, or administrative roles without being an advanced practice nurse.

Lastly, you can conduct research in the realm of academia.

Practice-Focused DNP Degree

If you want to pursue a practice-focused degree track, then you should pursue a DNP with a specialty in nurse practitioning. This will get you licensed as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

Other practice-focused tracks include the DNP with clinical nurse specialist or the DNP-nurse anesthetists track.

Practice-focused tracks allow you to pursue a career in the clinical field. That means your duties will involve direct patient care.

Conversely, research-focused tracks do not end up in the clinical environment. Instead, they work in academia or other administrative roles within a healthcare system.



Overall, nursing remains at the top of the job growth market and has the potential to positively impact changes in healthcare. DNP degrees offer specialties and expertise to make those changes. 

Professional nurses play vital roles in facilitating patient safety and nursing education. According to the National Administration Quarterly, there is a future shortage of doctoral-prepared nurses.

Advance your nursing career today by obtaining a DNP degree and become a leader in nursing practice.



American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. (2021). CRNA careers. Accessed from

Graves, B., Tomlinson, S., Handley, M. (2013). The emerging doctor of education (EdD) in instructional leadership for nurse educators. International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship. 10:1. DOI:

Morgan, D., Somera, P. (2014). The future shortage of doctoral prepared nurses and the impact on the nursing shortage. Nursing Administration Quarterly. 38:1: 22-26

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