DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing: What’s the Difference?

As more nurses prepare to further their careers and advance their education, the choice between a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D. in Nursing) degree can be overwhelming. While they’re both terminal degrees, the DNP and Ph.D. are two very different pathways in nursing. Because each degree has its own admission requirements, scope of practice, and career outcomes, it’s important for prospective doctoral nursing students to fully understand how the DNP vs. Ph.D. programs differ.

In this guide, you’ll find more clarity on the two different doctorate programs, from curriculum and program admission requirements to salary and job outlook.

What is a DNP degree?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree that focuses on the clinical advancement of the nursing profession. Upon graduation, DNP-prepared nurses have the tools to use evidence-based practice in a clinical setting and in high-level leadership roles.

What is a Ph.D. degree?

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is a terminal degree that heavily focuses on research and prepares graduates to work as educators or researchers. Ph.D. candidates are active educational theory analysts and are taught to apply that knowledge in the classroom.

DNP curriculum & admission requirements

A DNP program prepares its students for advanced nursing clinical skills. The program is practice-focused, with a Capstone or DNP Project needed for graduation. In addition, the program requires students to complete 1000 clinical practice immersion hours. But the time it takes to complete the program varies by school. (Note: Aspen University’s online DNP program can be completed in as little as 24 months.)

Admission to most DNP programs require:

  1. The applicant to have a current, unrestricted license as a registered nurse (RN) in the United States or a U.S. territory
  2. Evidence of a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or a relevant discipline
  3. GPA of 3.0 or greater

Are you considering a DNP degree but not sure if you’re prepared to go back to school? Here are three signs that you’re ready to pursue your DNP.

Ph.D. curriculum & admission requirements

A dissertation consisting of original research is needed to complete the Ph.D. program. Throughout the program, graduates are prepared for research-focused careers. Depending on the school, a Ph.D. can take three years to complete.

Admission to a Ph.D. program generally includes:

  1. Unrestricted license as a registered nurse (RN)
  2. Letter of recommendation
  3. Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  4. Interview with faculty
  5. GRE scores may be required
  6. Writing sample
  7. GPA of 3.0 or better

DNP vs. Ph.D. growth chart

DNP scope of practice

Because the DNP is a practice-focused degree, many nurses obtain their DNP as a requirement for an advanced practice role. DNP-prepared nurses work in high-level or advanced roles such as:

  • Nurse Practitioners
  • Chief Executive Officers
  • Nurse Anesthetists
  • Chief Nursing Officers
  • Chief Clinical Officers
  • Clinical Nurse Specialists

Where DNPs work

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing Homes
  • Home healthcare agencies
  • Managed care organizations
  • Consulting firms
  • Medical supply companies
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Insurance companies

DNP salary and job outlook

Salary for DNP-prepared nurses depends on the role, experience, location, and organization. In general, the job outlook for RNs is expected to grow 7% through 2024.

  • According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners was $117,670 in May 2020.
  • Payscale determines that nurse executives earn $121,423 per year.
  • points out that the average Clinical Nurse Specialist salary in the United States is $109,054 as of May 27, 2021.
  • Payscale also found that clinical nurse leaders earn around $70,636 annually.
  • For healthcare management in general, employment is projected to grow 32% through 2029.

Ph.D. scope of practice

Ph.D. programs develop students' research and writing skills and prepare students to use research to advance nursing practice. Most PhD-prepared nurses work as:

  • Nurse educators
  • College professors
  • Researchers
  • Health policy

Where Ph.D. nurses work

  • Colleges
  • Universities
  • Hospitals
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Medical laboratories
  • Research facilities
  • Government agencies

Ph.D. salary and job outlook

Salary for Ph.D. nurses also depends on job location, education level, experience, and organization.

  • As of 2020, the BLS reports that 61,100 nurses work as nursing teachers and educators nationally.
  • The BLS also projects the employment of nursing instructors and teachers will grow by 18% by 2029.
  • The mean salary of nurse teachers and educators is $84,060, according to the BLS. The highest-paid nurse educators can earn $133,420.
  • According to Indeed, nurse researchers earn an average salary of $79,459.

DNP vs. Ph.D. The Bottom line 

The goal of the DNP program is to provide nurses with the foundation to excel in advanced clinical nursing practice. In contrast, the Ph.D. is more research-focused and may be better suited for pursuing a career in academia. DNP programs require clinicals or practicals, and the Ph.D. programs require research for a dissertation.

Title DNP Ph.D.
Focus Nursing practice (clinical-focused) Nursing Research
  • Organizational and systems leadership
  • Evidence-based research and advocacy
  • Health policy
  • Business management
  • Population health
  • Advanced nursing practice
  • Information systems
  • DNP Project or Capstone
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN):

  • History and philosophy of nursing
  • Health education
  • Policy research
  • The development and testing of nursing and other healthcare techniques
  • The social, economic, political, and ethical issues important to the nursing
  • Data management and research methodology
  • Dissertation
Clinical Practice Hours Needed 1000 None
Dissertation No Yes
Point of Entry MSN or relevant discipline MSN
GRE Requirement No Program preference
Job Roles
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Chief Nursing Officer
  • Chief Clinical Officer
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse educator
  • College professor
  • Researcher
  • Health policy


If you are interested in advancing your clinical expertise or becoming a nurse leader, consider an online DNP program with Aspen University. 

The article originally appeared on Aspen University's Altitude blog, written by Portia Wofford. Aspen University is a United States-based private, for-profit, accredited distance-learning university, reputable for its affordable nursing programs, including its online DNP programAltitude is the official blog of Aspen University that features informative nursing articles, compelling tips, and professional accomplishments.


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