What Is The Difference Between a DNP vs. PhD?

Like other fields of study, nursing has its share of terminal professional degrees—programs that indicate the absolute highest level of study in a particular subject. The pair of terminal professional degrees in nursing are known as the Doctor of Nursing Practice and the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing. Usually abbreviated as the DNP (or DNSc) and the Ph.D., respectively, they are offered at several educational institutions, including Duke University, Vanderbilt University, and NYU (New York University). Although Ph.D. has been the traditional terminal degree in nursing for decades, the DNP is a newer addition, thus presenting a pair of choices for doctorate candidates.


The DNP and Ph.D. prepare doctorate students for leadership roles, albeit with differing focuses. The DNP is designed as a practice degree, which means nursing students are groomed to become leaders innursing practice in their workplaces—where it is in hospitals, clinics, or educational institutions. The Ph.D., on the other hand, is a research degree; thus it has a narrower focus than the DNP. In the Ph.D. program, candidates are trained to become leaders in academic research or research-intensive environments.


Getting into a DNP or Ph.D. program usually requires at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, or BSN. Some candidates have a more advanced Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN). At some institutions, DNP candidates might have part-time or distance learning/online options. The Ph.D. program tends to be less flexible, as it sticks with the full-time format and required number of credits. Also, the Ph.D. curriculum might come with mentored teaching requirements, emphasizing its more academic leanings.


The length of the DNP and Ph.D. programs vary depending on the institution and point of entry. At some places, DNP candidates with an MSN degree can shorten the number of credits required for completing the program. Ph.D. programs, however, tend to stick with the designated number of required credits, due to its fixed full-time schedule. While the DNP can take about two to three years to complete, the Ph.D. can take about four to five years. Required credits range from around 30 to 95 credits.


The DNP prepares graduates for careers in health care administration or as part of clinical nurse faculties in educational institutions. In such environments, DNP holders translate their research into practice by improving systems of care and measuring outcomes of public health care. Ph.D. holders usually work as nurse scientists or professors in colleges and universities. They are charged with conducting research, and developing and presenting new knowledge for the science and practice of nursing. So, ultimately, while a nurse with a DNP leads a more public professional career, the one with a Ph.D. leads a more academia-focused one.


The addition of the DNP gives nurses or nursing students more than one doctoral degree choice. Also, the DNP tends to be more flexible than the older, more traditional Ph.D. Some experts have expressed concern about the availability of two doctoral degrees, since the DNP degree may cause a decrease in the number of Ph.D. candidates or nursing academics.

To find out more information on the difference between a DNP vs. PhD, please visit the top ranking schools for their specific degree requirements.

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