Nursing MSN & DNP

| 18 December 2023

The data in this blog is for general informational purposes only and information presented was accurate as of the publication date.

PhD in Nursing vs. DNP: Which Is Right for You?

A USAHS student in the Immersion Lab.

Nurses don’t just care for patients—they can also advance to leadership positions that shape everything from patient care to healthcare policy. We break down everything you need to know about a PhD in Nursing vs. a DNP so you can pick the best degree for your career goals.

Table of Contents

What Is a PhD in Nursing?

A PhD in nursing is one of two terminal degrees in the field, representing the highest level of education possible for nurses.1 A PhD in nursing is a research and science-focused degree, so it centers on preparing nurses for careers involving medical research to advance the entire nursing profession or for teaching nursing at the college level rather than clinical practice.

Definition of a PhD in nursing.

How To Earn a PhD in Nursing

To apply to a PhD in Nursing program:

  1. Earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution.1 This degree prepares you with foundational knowledge on topics such as anatomy, pharmacology, pathophysiology and more.2 This generally takes four years to earn.3
  2. Pass the National Council of Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). All nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN to practice in the United States.4
    The exam assesses your critical thinking skills and knowledge of nursing practices.
  3. Earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Some programs may require an MSN for admission into their program.1 An MSN is a graduate degree focused on specific nursing topics to prepare you for advanced practice or nursing leadership. You can choose from various specializations, including Family Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Executive or Nurse Educator.

Once you’ve completed these steps, begin applying to PhD in nursing programs.

Curriculum Expectations

The specific courses you’ll take in a PhD in nursing program will vary by program, but you can expect your coursework to focus on the following5:

  • History and philosophy of nursing
  • Development and testing of nursing and other healthcare techniques
  • Data management
  • Research methodology
  • Social, economic, political and ethical issues in nursing

You’ll also need to complete a dissertation focused on original research.1

Career Outlook

Earning a PhD in Nursing qualifies you for two specific career pathways: research and nursing education.1

A nurse researcher may work in a hospital, medical lab or other research facility, where they design and perform scientific research to propel the nursing profession forward.1 Their duties include:

  • Craft research questions and write research proposals
  • Conduct research to answer those questions
  • Collaborate with other scientists in nursing and other related medical fields
  • Collect and analyze data
  • Publish their findings
  • Apply for grants and funding for research proposals
  • Create and follow quality assurance standards
  • Train and supervise laboratory staff, including nurses and scientists.

A nurse educator works at universities and colleges to train nursing students.1 Their day-to-day responsibilities include the following:

  • Oversee course curriculum
  • Teach courses for undergraduate and graduate nursing students
  • Supervise students’ laboratory and clinical work
  • Grade student work and rate their performance
  • Mentor and advise nursing students

Benefits of Earning a PhD in Nursing

Earning your PhD in nursing has plenty of benefits that make it appealing to nurses wishing to advance in the profession:

  • A more traditional work schedule.6 Nurses often work 12-hour shifts, including overnights, weekends and holidays. Academia, however, sticks to more traditional work hours and adheres to national holidays.
  • The opportunity to influence healthcare policy and practice.7 Working in academia, you can design and conduct research whose findings could potentially change healthcare policies and nursing practice.
  • Administrative and leadership opportunities.7 A PhD in Nursing provides leadership opportunities in research and academia that a BSN or MSN wouldn’t qualify you for. You can also lead development nurses as they enter the profession.

What Is a DNP?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) prepares you for the highest level of nursing expertise in a clinical setting in addition to management and leadership roles.8 You do not have to practice with a DNP, but it does give you the option.

Definition of a DNP.

How To Earn a DNP

The journey to earn your DNP may vary based on where you start. At USAHS, the path to your DNP follows these steps:

  1. Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). You’ll complete a four-year program consisting of traditional liberal arts courses, general electives and science courses. While you can start your nursing career with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), you’ll need a BSN to qualify for a DNP program. If you have a BSN, you may be able to enter a BSN-entry DNP nursing program, which will include selecting a role specialty.
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Depending on your state, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam within three years of graduating.
  3. Receive a registered nurse (RN) license. The process varies by state, but generally, you can expect to:
    • Submit a transcript that shows an accredited school conferred a nursing degree.
    • Share your NCLEX exam results.
    • Complete whatever additional paperwork your state requires.
    • Pay an application fee, which averages around $100.9
    • Pass a criminal background check.
  4. Gain work experience. Our DNP program requires applicants to have a minimum of one year of nursing experience as an RN by the time they begin their first practicum course. This on-the-job experience builds your skills and allows you to show career progression in responsibilities, titles or skill sets.
  5. Earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). An MSN is a graduate nursing program that prepares you for leadership roles and provides specialized training. If you are applying to USAHS, this step is optional since you can apply with a BSN.
  6. Complete a DNP program. Your final step is to complete a DNP program. The timeline for completing your DNP will vary based on a variety of factors, including:
    • Your entry point (BSN or MSN)
    • Area of specialization
    • Program requirements
    • Acceleration or extension opportunities
    • Whether you are enrolled full- or part-time

Curriculum Expectations

The majority of the curriculum in a DNP program is practice-focused and will include clinical practicums and a final project similar to a dissertation.8,10

The curriculum for a DNP varies slightly based on the program, your entry path and your specialization.

At USAHS, you can choose between two paths to enter the DNP program — BSN-entry or MSN-entry. If you enter the program with a BSN, you’ll earn anywhere from 64-71 credit hours and participate in 1,000-1,035 practicum hours depending on whether you enroll in the Family Nurse Practitioner or Nurse Executive pathway. Students entering the MSN pathway will earn 42-52 credits and anywhere from 540-1,000 practicum hoursPlease note the DNP-FNP program typically takes 3 years and 8 months to complete, based off the most recent 2-year graduate data (2020-2021 and 2021-2022); however, individual experiences will vary based on factors including, but not limited to individual progress, traditional vs. accelerated pathway, credits transferred, and other factors..

By the end of USAHS’ DNP program, you will be able to do the following:

  • Engage in lifelong learning through intellectual inquiry and scholarship.
  • Communicate effectively with various members of a healthcare team, from patients to national leaders.
  • Lead and serve on interprofessional teams to improve population health and outcomes.
  • Utilize transformational leadership, systems thinking and clinical analysis to improve healthcare outcomes for all.
  • Practice critical thinking and evidence-based decision-making in delivering or directing nursing practice and serving as a leader in healthcare systems.
  • Provide leadership in the use of nursing informatics to improve outcomes at the patient and institutional levels.
  • Deliver or direct nursing practice based on sound theoretical frameworks, best scientific evidence, clinical expertise and in collaboration with the patient and family.
  • Exhibit professional and ethical standards while advocating for safe, equitable and cost-effective healthcare and policies for all.


DNP students can specialize in any of the following areas8,11:

Career Outlook

You have several career options with a DNP, including nurse practitioner and other clinical and leadership positions. You can qualify for many of these positions with an MSN degree, but earning a DNP could lead to greater financial compensation.12

If you wish to work in direct patient care, you can use your DNP as a nurse practitioner (NP). NPs usually specialize in one of the following areas:

  • Family: A Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) is an autonomous clinician who assesses, diagnoses and treats patients and families like a family doctor. They work with children and adults in clinics, private practices and hospitals.
  • Adult Gerontology: An Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP) works with individuals, from young adults to seniors, to assess, diagnose, treat and manage illnesses and injuries.13 They can work in clinics, private practices, hospitals and long-term healthcare facilities like nursing homes.
  • Neonatal: A Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP) provides care to premature babies while supporting and educating their parents or guardians.14 They often work in emergency rooms, delivery rooms and outpatient facilities that work with infants.
  • Pediatric: A Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP) is similar to a neonatal NP, except they work with children from infancy to their late teens.15 Since children cannot make medical decisions for themselves, pediatric NPs work closely with their parents in clinics, private practices and hospitals.
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health: A Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) works with patients experiencing mental illness or addiction.16 They diagnose, treat and evaluate patients in hospitals, outpatient facilities, clinics and private practices.
  • Women’s Health: A Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) focuses on helping patients with reproductive, obstetric and gynecological care, similar to a gynecologist.17

Someone with a DNP who wishes to work directly with patients can also pursue the following careers:

  • Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM): A CNM focuses on providing healthcare to women from pregnancy through postpartum.18 They work in hospitals, birthing centers and public health clinics and hold a certification from the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB).
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): CRNAs are advanced-practice nurses who administer anesthesia during procedures and surgeries.19 They treat patients of all ages and can work alone or with anesthesiologists at hospitals, dentist offices and other healthcare providers.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): A CNS supervises and collaborates with other nurses and healthcare team members, conducts research and other evidence-based projects, consults with healthcare organizations to improve system and patient outcomes and teaches or advises future nurses.20

Nurses with DNPs do not have to work directly with patients—they can also hold many leadership and administrative roles:

  • Nurse manager: A nurse manager works administratively, overseeing staffing, personnel, human resources, financial resources, operational efficiency and other day-to-day operations.21
  • Chief Nursing Officer (CNO): A chief nursing officer works in hospitals, clinics, government organizations and other healthcare organizations to ensure they provide high-quality care to patients.22 They serve in a leadership capacity, working with other organizational leaders to maintain patient care standards. These nurse leaders establish patient care standards, design patient care systems, integrate medical technologies effectively and collaborate with other healthcare professionals and hospital leaders.
  • Health Policy Analyst: Nurses with DNPs can work in healthcare policy, which impacts everything from healthcare access, cost, delivery methods and privacy. They often work for government or nonprofit organizations, higher education, research laboratories and hospitals to develop healthcare policies based on data and research.23
  • Nursing informaticist: Nursing informaticists combine nursing with computer and information science to develop medical data systems such as electronic medical records that support nurses and improve patient care outcomes.24 They may educate others on how to use technology, research and develop software or serve as chief nursing officers.
  • Certified Nurse Educator (CNE): A CNE often continues to practice part-time while teaching undergraduate and graduate nursing courses at a college or university.25

Benefits of Earning a DNP in Nursing

There are several benefits to earning a DNP in Nursing:

  • Increased salary. Pay for nurses varies based on education level and length of experience, which means that nurses with a DNP will make more than an RN with an MSN.26 Their advanced education and access to leadership roles may lead to higher earning potential than other nurses.
  • Access to new career opportunities.8 Nurses with DNPs have access to more leadership roles than nurses who hold an MSN, especially those with the Nurse Executive specialization. These leadership positions mean those with a DNP can help shape the future of healthcare policy.
  • Increased autonomy.27 Nurses with DNPs who choose to be nurse practitioners may have more autonomy than traditional RNs. They may also leave clinical practice to work as a healthcare leader.
  • Advanced expertise. A DNP is a terminal degree, so completing a DNP program allows you to advance your education and deepen your expertise in a specialized area.

DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: Main Differences

DNP vs PhD in Nursing.

The main differences between a DNP and PhD in Nursing relate to career goals, program length and clinical requirements.

The DNP prepares students for active practice, while a PhD in Nursing prepares students for careers in research and academia.1 While nurses with a DNP may qualify to teach while they practice, nurses with a PhD will typically not interact with patients outside of a research setting.28

While it varies by program, entry point, specialization and enrollment type, a PhD in Nursing generally takes longer to complete than a DNP. Most students earn a DNP in two to four yearsPlease note the DNP-FNP program typically takes 3 years and 8 months to complete, based off the most recent 2-year graduate data (2020-2021 and 2021-2022); however, individual experiences will vary based on factors including, but not limited to individual progress, traditional vs. accelerated pathway, credits transferred, and other factors., while it takes most students four to six years to earn their PhD in Nursing.1

Because a DNP prepares you for clinical practice, a DNP program will require some clinical experience to prepare for clinical practice. Since nurses with a PhD in Nursing generally work only with researchers, scientists and future nurses rather than patients, the degree does not require students to complete clinical hours.28

Earn Your DNP with USAHS

A PhD in Nursing and a DNP can help you propel your nursing career forward, but a DNP comes with more career options and a shorter timeline, making it a better option for many nurses. Influence health outcomes by caring for patients, advocating for better healthcare policies or leading organizations with a DNP from USAHS.

If you’re considering whether to earn your PhD vs DNP degree, explore our DNP program or apply today. Enter with a BSN or MSN and pursue the right path for you.


  1. Registered, “Getting Your PhD in Nursing,” Registered,
  2. Gayle Morris, “Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Overview,” Nurse Journal, last updated October 2023,
  3. NurseJournal Staff, “How Long Is Nursing School? Breakdown by Degree and Type of Nurse,” Nurse Journal, last updated May 2023,
  4. Sarah Kividen, “What Is the NCLEX?”,, last updated May 2023,
  5. American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “PhD Education,” American Association of Colleges of Nursing,
  6. Jennifer Schlette, “10 Pros and Cons of Ph.D. in Nursing,” Nursing Process
  7. EveryNurse Staff, “PhD in Nursing,” EveryNurse, last modified January 2022,
  8. Danielle LeVeck, “What Is a DNP and Is It Worth It?”, last updated September 2023,
  9. Angelina Walker, “RN Licensing requirements by State,”, last updated July 2022,
  10. NurseJournal Staff, “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree Overview,” Nurse Journal, last updated September 2023,
  11. American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “DNP Education,” American Association of Colleges of Nursing,
  12. Ann Feeny, “What Is the Average Salary With a DNP Nurse Journal, last updated November 2022,
  13. American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as an Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner?” American Association of Nurse Practitioners, last updated June 2020,
  14. American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “  “Are You Considering a Career as a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner?” American Association of Nurse Practitioners, last updated March 2020,
  15. Staff Writers “Pediatric Nurse Practitioner,”, last updated June 2023,
  16. Nursing License Map, “How To Become a Pyschiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP),” Nursing License Map, last updated October 2021,
  17. American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner?” American Association of Nurse Practitioners, last updated April 2020,
  18. Nichole Galan, “Certified Nurse Midwife Career Overview, Nurse Journal, last updated May 2023,
  19. Cleveland Clinic, “Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA),” Cleveland Clinic, last updated March 2022,
  20. NurseJournal Staff, “NP vs CNS: What’s the Difference?” Nurse Journal, last updated March 2023,
  21. American Nurses Association, “Charge Nurse vs. Nurse Manager: What’s the Difference?” American Nurses Association,
  22. NurseJournal Staff, “What Is a Chief Nursing Officer?” Nursing Journal, last updated March 2023,
  23. Carol Dolan, “What Is a Health Policy Analyst?” Master’s in Public Health Degree Programs,
  24. Staff Writers, “Nursing Informatics,”, last updated August 2023, .
  25. Nursing License Map, “What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree?” Nursing License Map, last updated January 2022,
  26. Registered, “RN Salary — What To Expect,” Registered,
  27. Kasee Wiesen, “Exploring the Benefits of a DNP: Is It Right for You?” Health eCareers, last updated July 2023,
  28. Thrive AP, “DNP vs PhD in Nursing: What’s the Difference?” Thrive AP


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