Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree: The Ultimate Guide

If you’re interested in having a positive impact on patient outcomes or making policy changes as a hands-on nursing leader, the DNP (Doctorate of Nursing Practice) is an essential qualification.

The DNP, along with the PhD, is the highest level of nursing education you can attain. The degree prepares you for a variety of positions in both leadership and administration and direct patient care.

Whether you’re looking for a nursing role with more responsibility and a higher salary, or you’re simply passionate about having a big impact on the healthcare facility you work at, you should definitely consider going for your DNP.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the Doctorate of Nursing Practice to help you decide if it’s the right educational pathway for you.

What Is A DNP Degree?

A DNP, or Doctorate of Nursing Practice, is a terminal-level nursing degree.

Terminal level degrees are the highest level of education, so a DNP is the most advanced nursing education you can get. 

While there are other types of terminal nursing degrees, like the PhD, a DNP is a practice-focused pathway designed to prepare students for leadership positions in a clinical setting.

With a DNP, you’re able to take on nursing roles in which you’re responsible for implementing changes to improve patient outcomes and organizational policies. 

Additionally, many DNP-educated nurses practice as Nurse Practitioners. Better yet, they can practice with a greater degree of autonomy than their BSN- and MSN-educated counterparts, and they even play a key role in filling gaps left by nursing and physician shortages.

Is A DNP A Doctor Or Nurse?

A DNP-educated professional is a nurse, not a medical doctor. 

While nurses with a DNP can take on more advanced responsibilities and leadership positions than their ADN-, BSN-, and MSN-educated counterparts, their scope of practice falls outside that of a medical doctor.

However, DNP nurses and nurse leaders are still a critical part of any healthcare facility and play a key role in improving patient outcomes.

What Can You Do With A DNP Degree?

DNP nurses typically fulfill at least one of the following responsibilities: leadership and administration or direct patient care.

When it comes to leadership and administration, DNP roles can include:

  • Nurse managers
  • Organizational or executive leadership
  • Health policy
  • Health informatics

With direct patient care, their roles may include:

While not every position listed above requires a DNP degree, many of them do. Additionally, a DNP will better prepare you for any of these positions by giving you the leadership knowledge and tools you need to be successful.

Why Get A DNP Degree?

Entering a Doctorate of Nursing Practice degree program can be a big time and financial commitment, so it’s key that you’re aware of why you’re going for your degree.

The following are some of the key reasons to consider earning your DNP.

Higher Salary

While the average salary for a BSN-educated nurse is $80,010, the average salary for a Nurse Practitioner is $118,040.

While it’s true that you only need an MSN to become a Nurse Practitioner, earning your DNP prepares you to practice with an even greater amount of autonomy. Additionally, DNP Nurse Practitioners will tend to earn above the average salary for an NP, while MSN NPs will more likely make less than the average.

A DNP also provides you the educational foundation for executive-level positions.

For example, if you’d like to become a Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), you’ll need to get a terminal degree. The average salary for a Chief Nursing Officer in the United States is $248,610 per year, far surpassing the average for RNs and NPs.

Increased Job Security

Since there’s a projected shortage of both nurses and physicians in the coming years, DNP nurses may be able to fill the gaps between the two.

Additionally, education requirements at hospitals are steadily becoming more intense. For example, CRNAs will require a doctorate-level degree by 2025.

By earning your DNP, you won’t have to worry about shifts in educational requirements. It will also help you stand out from MSN-educated nurses applying to advanced nursing positions.

Improved Patient Outcomes

By enrolling in a DNP program, you’ll learn how to translate theories and research into actionable policies to improve patient experiences and outcomes.

Unlike a PhD nursing program, this practice-focused degree concentrates more on how to implement research, as opposed to conducting the research itself. If you’re more interested in academia and developing theories, a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing degree may be a better option for you.

However, if you want to put theory into practice and work in a more traditional healthcare setting, a DNP is definitely the way to go.

More Responsibility

As we’ve mentioned a few times, a Doctorate of Nursing Practice prepares students to take on leadership positions at healthcare facilities. DNP-educated NPs can practice with more autonomy, while others with this degree may take on executive-level leadership positions.

While this additional responsibility may seem a little overwhelming at first, it does come with added benefits, like a higher salary and job security.

More responsibility also means you can make a bigger impact on the lives of patients and your fellow nurses. If you care about having a positive influence on your healthcare facility, earning your DNP will be essential.

Flexible Degree Programs

One more reason to consider earning your DNP is that most programs are designed with working nurses in mind. This gives you the option to complete your degree on a flexible schedule.

Many schools now offer online DNP programs, meaning you can learn where and when you want.

Finally, these online programs also tend to be less costly than traditional, on-campus degree programs, making them a more time- and cost-efficient way to get your degree.

How To Get Your DNP Degree

There are several different routes you can take to earn your Doctorate of Nursing Practice degree depending on your current level of education and nursing experience.

Below, we detail how to earn your DNP starting from zero experience.

1. Become a Registered Nurse

The first step in obtaining your DNP is to become a Registered Nurse.

While the minimum requirement to become an RN is an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), we recommend you go for your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN). Not only does a BSN make you more employable as a nurse, but it also sets the academic foundation that will be key to your success in advanced degree programs.

There are tons of BSN programs you can choose from, but we recommend checking out our rankings of the best online BSN programs to get started.

Once you complete your BSN program, you’ll be able to take the NCLEX. If you pass, you’ll officially be a Registered Nurse.

2. Gain Nursing Experience

After becoming a Registered Nurse, you’ll be eligible to apply to nursing positions at healthcare facilities. 

While some students may opt to skip this step and go straight for their Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN), we recommend getting some hands-on experience as a nurse first. Better yet, you can earn your MSN online while you work as an RN.

This allows you to get a feel for the day-to-day lives of most RNs. If you hope to take on an executive leadership position down the road, it’s key that you understand the roles and responsibilities of nurses at all levels. 

3. Earn Your MSN

While there are some BSN-to-DNP programs available, most aspiring DNP students earn their MSN after completing their BSN and gaining some experience as an RN.

Fortunately, like many DNP programs, there are lots of affordable and flexible online MSN programs. The MSN prepares students to take on a number of advanced nursing roles, like Nurse Practitioners or Nurse Administrators.

Additionally, the MSN sets the academic groundwork for getting a terminal nursing degree.

However, if you want to attain the highest positions possible, like Chief Nursing Officer, you’ll need to eventually go for your DNP.

4. Enroll In A DNP Program

Finally, once you’ve earned your MSN degree, you’re ready to begin applying to Doctorate of Nursing Practice programs.

To enroll in a program, you’ll want to carefully research universities and program offerings. As we mentioned before, many programs offer flexible scheduling, allowing you to work while you complete your degree.

If you want to get your degree in the quickest and most flexible way possible, we recommend you look into online DNP programs.

Finally, you need to complete your DNP coursework to earn your degree. Once you do this, you’ll have the educational and practical foundation to take on the most advanced roles in the field of nursing.

How Long Does It Take To Get Your DNP Degree?

It typically takes anywhere from one to three years to earn your DNP degree. This usually requires around 33 to 43 credits in addition to 500 hours of clinical practicum.

For those enrolled in a full-time program, it usually takes about one to two years. If you’re enrolled in a part-time program, it will likely take two to three years.

The exact number of credits and time required to earn your degree depends on which school and speciality you decide to pursue. It’s key to research these programs so you know exactly what to expect.

DNP Admission Requirements

While DNP admission requirements vary from school to school, there are a few standard prerequisites to keep in mind. For example, you almost certainly need:

  • A prior nursing degree
  • RN licensure
  • English proficiency
  • Practice experience
  • An updated resume

Additionally, some schools may have more requirements. For example, UCSF School of Nursing’s admission requirements also include:

  • At least one year of experience as an APRN
  • A goal statement
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • An application fee
  • Completion of a college-level statistics course

Some schools may also require that you provide them with GRE scores.

Since admission requirements are different for each school, it’s critical that you do some research before applying to any program.

DNP Curriculum

Like admission requirements, the Doctorate of Nursing Practice curriculum will vary from school to school. However, most programs should provide you all the knowledge you need to achieve your goals.

To give you an idea of the types of courses you may complete over the duration of your program, here is a selection of courses taken from the DNP curriculum at Vanderbilt School of Nursing:

  • Evidence-Based Practice I: The Nature of Evidence
  • Quality Improvement and Patient Safety
  • Scholarly Writing
  • Statistics in Health Sciences
  • Evidence-Based Practice II: Evaluating and Applying Evidence
  • DNP Integrative Application of Evidence-Based Practice
  • Epidemiology and Population Health
  • Health Care Economics and Finance
  • DNP Integrative Application of Evidence-Based Practice
  • Informatics for Scholarly Practice
  • Management of Organizations and Systems
  • DNP Integrative Application of Evidence-Based Practice
  • Health Policy
  • Legal and Ethical Environment
  • DNP Integrative Application of Evidence-Based Practice

The courses in this sample curriculum are split into three courses per semester over five semesters, in addition to two elective courses. However, keep in mind that your DNP curriculum could look different and take more or less time depending on the school and program you choose.

How Much Does A DNP Degree Cost?

According to a study conducted by, the average cost to complete a post-master’s (MSN-to-DNP) DNP program is between $21,318 and $38,912. 

Meanwhile, the average cost to complete a BSN-to-DNP degree is between $40,953 and $74,752.

The study also found that, on average, earning your DNP costs:

  • $561 per credit for in-state students at public universities
  • $968 per credit for out-of-state students at public universities
  • $1,024 per credit for private universities

As with any degree program, the cost of getting your DNP will vary depending on the school you choose. The cost will also be affected by factors like whether you’re:

  • Attending an in-state or out-of-state university
  • Enrolling in a public or private university
  • Completing a BSN-to-DNP or MSN-to-DNP program

Also, keep in mind that the costs we’ve mentioned so far only account for the price of tuition. Keep in mind that you may also need to pay for things like university fees, textbooks, and travel expenses.

However, one way to mitigate the cost of traditional, on-campus DNP programs is to earn your degree online. Online degrees can be completed for less money and time and are typically much more flexible than traditional programs.

How Much Does A DNP Make?

According to ZipRecruiter, the average DNP salary in the United States is around $117,412. However, keep in mind that ZipRecruiter data is not the same as data from an official source like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it’s likely that the average DNP is actually higher.

While this is on par with the average salary for Nurse Practitioners (some of which are MSN-educated and some of which are DNP-educated), DNP nurses have a higher earning potential because of their qualifications to fulfill more advanced nursing roles and leadership positions.

For example, as we mentioned earlier, to become a Chief Nursing Officer, it’s recommended that you earn your DNP. The average salary for this nursing role is $248,610 per year.

DNP Salary By State

The following table breaks down the average DNP salary in each state according to data obtained from ZipRecruiter.

StateAverage DNP Salary
New Hampshire$120,450
New Jersey$108,819
New Mexico$97,574
New York$127,220
North Carolina$82,463
North Dakota$105,840
Rhode Island$108,976
South Carolina$98,369
South Dakota$100,252
West Virginia$107,351

Where Do DNP Nurses Make The Most Money?

According to the data from ZipRecruiter, the state with the highest average DNP nurse salary is Washington, where DNP nurses can expect to earn around $135,356. This breaks down to:

  • $11,279 per month
  • $2,603 per week
  • $65.08 per hour

After Washington, the next four highest-paying states for DNP-educated nurses are:

  • New York ($127,220)
  • Idaho ($121,632)
  • California ($121,359)
  • New Hampshire ($120,450)

As we noted earlier, these figures likely underestimate the average DNP salary.

Keep in mind that earning your DNP in any state will boost your earning potential, because you’ll be qualified to take on more advanced roles and leadership positions.

Is Getting A DNP Degree Worth It?

While earning your DNP does require a commitment of your time and money, there are two main things that make it worth it: higher salary and more influence.

As we just mentioned above, a DNP qualifies you to take on more advanced nursing roles. Since these positions require a greater level of knowledge and skills, these roles also pay a higher salary.

Additionally, because a DNP qualifies you to take on leadership positions, you’ll may have the ability to implement policy changes to improve patient outcomes, nurse job satisfaction, and a lot more.

If you’re passionate about taking research and putting it into practice to make healthcare facilities better, getting a DNP degree is definitely worth it!

3 Best Online DNP Programs

There are an overwhelming number of Doctorate of Nursing Practice programs you can choose from. 

To help you start your search, here are some of the best online DNP programs.

1. Grand Canyon University

GCU Logo

One of the best online DNP programs is offered by Grand Canyon University

To earn your degree, you’ll need to complete 36 credits. Each course lasts eight weeks, and each one is worth three credits.

Some of the core courses you’ll complete in this program include:

  • Healthcare Informatics
  • Emerging Areas of Human Health
  • Population Management
  • Patient Outcomes and Sustainable Change
  • Leadership for Advanced Nursing Practice

Additionally, GCU offers a DNP in Educational Leadership. This pathway allows you to complete the regular DNP curriculum and take an additional three courses focusing on the role of the educator in nursing.

The additional courses for the Educational Leadership cover topics like:

  • Teaching strategies
  • Curriculum development
  • Student assessments

2. Purdue University Global

Purdue University Global Logo

Another great option for getting your online DNP degree is Purdue University Global.

This program requires you to complete 48 to 57 credits, which is equivalent to 32 to 38 semester credits. 48 of these credits are core courses, and you can complete up to nine elective credits.

Some of the courses you may complete in Purdue University Global’s DNP program include:

  • Scientific Foundations for Practice Doctorate
  • Epidemiology and Social Determinants of Population Health
  • Ethics, Policy, and Advocacy for Population Health
  • Clinical Decision Making for Practice Doctorate
  • Transforming the Health Care Organization

Additionally, Purdue provides a seamless pathway to earn both your MSN and DNP with its MSN-to-DNP track. While you need to complete your MSN before you can advance to DNP courses, this is a straightforward way to earn your DNP at the completion of your master’s degree.

The university also offers a Nurse Educator Postgraduate certificate to prepare students to:

  • Teach patients and families
  • Provide staff development
  • Evaluate programs
  • Instruct undergraduate nursing students

Finally, Purdue offers a Nursing Executive Leader Postgraduate Certificate to prepare students for roles involving health facility administration and public health and policy.

3. Walden University

Walden University Logo

The last school on our shortlist of best DNP programs is Walden University.

This program requires the completion of between 45 and 53 credits depending on the number of incoming practicum hours. The credits you complete throughout the program consist of:

  • Doctoral Writing Assessment
  • Foundation Course (five credits)
  • Core Courses (40 credits)
  • Field Experience (up to eight credits for those with less than 600 documented clinical hours)
  • Completion of a DNP Project

Some of the courses you can expect to take over the duration of this program include:

  • Foundations and Essentials for the Doctor of Nursing Practice
  • Leading Organizations for Quality Improvement Initiatives
  • Transforming Nursing and Healthcare Through Technology
  • Epidemiology and Population Health
  • Healthcare Policy and Analysis

Additionally, you’ll have the option to specialize your DNP in one of six areas:

  • Executive Leadership
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP) Primary Care
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

It’s also worth noting that Walden offers both BSN-to-DNP and MSN-to-DNP pathways for each of the specializations above.

If you’d like to get a more research-focused degree as opposed to a clinically-focused degree, Walden University offers a PhD in Nursing. With the PhD, you can specialize in areas like:

  • Nursing Education
  • Healthcare Administration
  • Interdisciplinary Health
  • Leadership
  • Population Health

Finally, if you earn your DNP, you can also opt for Walden’s Bridge Option, which allows students who hold a DNP to earn their PhD in Nursing in less time.

Other Types of Terminal Nursing Degrees

The DNP isn’t the only type of terminal nursing degree. 

In fact, there are several different terminal degree pathways you can consider, with the DNP and PhD being the most common.

PhD In Nursing

The PhD in Nursing, or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, is a terminal-level degree preparing students to develop and conduct scientific research relevant to the field of nursing.

The main difference between a DNP and PhD in Nursing is that the DNP is more clinically focused, while the PhD is more research focused. In other words, PhD nurses tend to develop research and theories, while DNP nurses tend to implement research from leadership positions in healthcare facilities.

So, someone with a PhD in nursing tends to work in academic and governmental settings, while someone with a DNP usually works in a more traditional healthcare setting.

Unsurprisingly, the coursework for a PhD is different than a DNP. For example, some of the core courses for University of Pennsylvania’s PhD in Nursing program include:

  • Inquiry and Nursing
  • Evolving Nursing Science
  • Quantitative Research Design and Methods
  • Qualitative Paradigm Empirical Nursing Research
  • Nursing Doctoral Teaching Residency

If you’re passionate about conducting research, enjoy analyzing data, and want to have an impact on the theoretical foundations of nursing, a PhD in Nursing may be the right choice for you.

Ed.D. in Nursing Education

The primary purpose of the Ed.D. in Nursing, or Doctor of Education in Nursing, is to prepare students to become nursing professors and educators.

While a PhD in Nursing also prepares students to become educators, the PhD leans more heavily on learning how to conduct original and independent research. Meanwhile, the Ed.D. in Nursing Education focuses more on:

  • Applying research
  • Developing effective instructional methods
  • Implementing new solutions for educational challenges

While many students who get this degree pursue faculty positions at universities, there are also roles available in healthcare organizations. For example, the Ed.D in Nursing would also prepare you to take on a role like Director of Hospital Training Programs.

To get an idea of the coursework requirements for this type of degree, here are some sample courses from the Ed.D in Nursing program at Columbia University:

  • Nursing Knowledge in Nursing Education
  • Curriculum Development in Nursing Education
  • Teaching and Learning Strategies in Nursing Education
  • Innovations in Nursing Education
  • Assessment and Evaluation in Nursing Education
  • Simulation in Nursing Education

If you’re more interested in teaching than conducting research, and if you’d like a quicker option than the PhD in Nursing, the Ed.D in Nursing may make a great option.

Doctorate of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)

The Doctorate of Nurse Anesthesia Practice, or DNAP, is a terminal-level degree preparing students to practice as Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists. 

The difference between the DNAP and DNP with a specialization in anesthesia is a bit confusing. Both degrees prepare you to practice as a CRNA. Right now, an MSN degree is the minimum requirement to practice as a CRNA. However, beginning in 2025, all CRNAs will need either a DNP or DNAP to practice.

The key difference between the two degrees is that the DNP is accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, while the DNAP is accredited by the Nurse Anesthetists Council of Accreditation.

Additionally, it appears most of the DNAP programs we looked at are aimed at BSN-educated nurses, allowing students to complete both their master’s and doctoral work in one seamless pathway. The DNP, alternatively, seems to more frequently target MSN-educated nurses.

To summarize, either a DNAP or DNP is sufficient to practice as a CRNA. If you want to become a CRNA, the best degree type will depend on your own preferences and current level of education. 

Do a little research into both DNAP and DNP with a specialization in anesthesia programs before making your final choice.

Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS, DNSc, DSN)

The Doctor of Nursing Science, DNS, DNSc, or DSN, is a research-oriented, terminal-level nursing degree equivalent to the PhD in Nursing. 

The DNS has been discontinued in most, if not all, universities. Instead, students interested in a research-focused nursing degree should pursue a PhD in Nursing.

Since there’s very little information readily available and it doesn’t appear that universities are still offering the DNS degree, we won’t say any more about it.

Find A DNP Degree Program Now

Since it’s the highest level of nursing education you can attain, the DNP can open up a host of new and exciting opportunities in the field of nursing.

You’ll be well-prepared to take on leadership positions and make a positive impact on the healthcare facility you work at. Additionally, the added responsibilities and leadership duties will earn you a higher salary than your BSN- and MSN-educated counterparts.

If you’re ready to get your DNP and become a hands-on nursing leader, click here to discover a DNP program suited to your needs and interests!

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