Thomas Edison State University By Thomas Edison State University • March 28, 2022

DNP vs. PhD: What's the Difference in Nursing Doctorates?

Two roads diverge in a forest. Many people are encouraged to take the one less traveled. Doctoral applicants, not so much.

For those interested in a nursing doctorate, the answer depends on what nursing path you want to take. Are you more interested in advanced practice or scientific investigation?

Doctoral programs in nursing fall into two categories: practice- and research-based. The practice-focused track grants the Doctor of Nursing Practice, while the research-focused program offers the Doctor of Philosophy Degree (PhD).

One is not better than the other. Both are terminal degrees that assume complementary approaches to the highest level of nursing education. Both are demanding and rigorous. However, understanding key differences between the goals and competencies of each program will guide you along the nursing career path meant for you.

How does the DNP differ from the PhD?

Curriculum Content

The DNP is a practice doctorate that places greater emphasis on direct clinical practice. The curriculum focuses on organizational management, systems leadership, clinical-practice administration, quality improvement, and program evaluation, in addition to other clinical specialty areas, and less on conducting research. Students generally complete an innovative evidence-based quality improvement “final DNP project” in an intensive practice-immersion experience.

On the other hand, a PhD is more research intensive with the goal to create new nursing knowledge. The curriculum for this degree focuses on scientific inquiry and provides the evidence for nursing practice. Students complete an extensive, original research project that culminates in a dissertation. 

Research Competencies

DNP-prepared nurses develop the skills necessary to implement the scientific findings conducted by nurse researchers with a PhD. Graduates develop competencies in analytical methods, decision-making, enhanced knowledge and leadership skills to improve clinical practice and patient outcomes.

PhD programs focus heavily on research methodology and scientific investigation. Graduates of these programs contribute to the improvement of healthcare by offering new scientific nursing knowledge for practicing nurses.

Outcomes and Roles

DNP programs have become the preferred preparation for advanced practice nurses, including nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives or nurse anesthetists. Graduates usually pursue practice-oriented leadership roles, finding advanced positions as executives in healthcare organizations, clinical program directors or quality improvement.

Meanwhile, graduates of PhD programs pursue alternate paths within the field of nursing, commonly seeking roles as researchers, nurse scientists, or scholars. Many accept academic or governmental positions where research is a crucial element.

Why a DNP?

Nurses frequently work alongside other health professionals with practice doctorates - physicians, pharmacists, physical therapists and more. The DNP provides nurses with a clinical option for nursing education that is more commensurate to the education of these disciplines. Likewise, research clearly draws a distinct connection between higher levels of nursing education and improved patient outcomes.

The DNP prepares nurses for the future-tomorrow’s practice. If you are interested in leading these changes, a DNP degree can help you assume key executive positions as a nurse leader.

This article was originally published on March 8, 2016 and has been updated for accuracy.

Thomas Edison State University

Written by Thomas Edison State University

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