Are you considering earning your doctoral degree in nursing? If your career goals include becoming a family nurse practitioner or nurse executive, or providing leadership at an institutional policy level, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree may be the right path for you.
Below, we’ll walk through how to earn your DNP, the time it typically takes to do so, and what makes this advanced nursing practice program worth it.
What Does a Doctor of Nursing Practice Graduate Do?
Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice boosts your credentials, potentially opening more career doors in your chosen field. For clinical nurses, it prepares you to lead nursing and interprofessional teams.
A DNP degree is also designed for those who are pursuing management and executive leadership roles. Depending on the nursing practice program you enter, you may need to choose from:
- A clinical role such as family nurse practitioner (FNP)
- A non-clinical focus such as nurse executive
- Curriculum that elaborates on the research, policy, and practice of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
What Are the Steps to Obtaining a DNP Degree?
Although we’re presenting these steps as a linear progression, they’re not set in stone; there are different levels of nursing, and your timeline may be flexible depending on your chosen university and program.
With that in mind, let’s look at the traditional steps toward obtaining a DNP a bit more closely.
#1: Start Early
If you’re among those with a clear life plan at an early age, high school can sometimes serve as a solid launching pad. Taking advantage of biology and other science courses, and looking at government and history through the lenses of public health policy and medical history, can help prepare you for a collegiate nursing education.
There is no specific DNP requirement for a high school diploma, but you may need to graduate, obtain a GED, or test into a college program before you can apply for other DNP program prerequisites, like a BSN degree.1
#2: Get Your BSN
A four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree provides the educational platform needed for entry-level nurses to work directly in patient care. It includes foundational liberal arts courses and general electives, as well as science classes.
A BSN is one of two educational options for becoming a registered nurse (RN); you can also earn a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), take the licensing exam, and become an RN.
However, the BSN tends to be a more successful building block for a career that includes moving into nursing leadership roles or advanced practice nursing—not to mention that it may provide a smoother transition when enrolling in an MSN program and/or the DNP. Many such programs require a BSN for enrollment.
#3: Pass the NCLEX
In order to become a registered nurse, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN exam) within three years of completing your BSN (or ADN), although this may vary by state.2
In 2020, more than 85% of test-takers passed the multi-format NCLEX on their first try.3 If you need to retake the exam, almost all states allow you to wait 45 days before trying again.4 You can typically expect to receive your results within about six weeks of your exam date.4
#4: Get Your RN License
Next, you’ll need to register for an RN license in your state. Since nursing—like law, accounting, and other registered professions—is licensed at the state level, requirements vary slightly, but you’ll primarily need to:5
- Show evidence of a nursing degree from an accredited school
- Submit your record of passing the NCLEX exam
- Fill out and submit any additional paperwork required by your state
- Pay a fee, usually around $100—although it can range from $70 (West Virginia) to $375 (Alaska)6
- Pass a criminal background check
#5: Gain Work Experience
You may prefer to commit to long-term employment in a single role, or you may choose to bolster your resume with a diverse mix of work environments and roles that allow you to:
- Be at home in multiple clinical settings
- Build skills over time
- Show career progression based on growth in responsibility, title, or skill set
The hands-on aspect of your nursing education will be interwoven with different levels of study. By the time you begin your DNP degree, you will most likely be a seasoned nurse with several years of on-the-job experience.
#6: Complete an MSN degree
A Master of Science in Nursing is a post-graduate advanced nursing program that builds toward a leadership role in either practical nursing or non-clinical work. Nurses choose their role specialty at the master’s level, so MSN programs typically have a wide range of specializations to select from. For example:
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Primary Care
- Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner
- Nurse Executive
- Nurse Educator
But you don’t have to gain your master’s-level education in a separate program from your DNP. Some universities offer BSN-entry DNP tracks as well as MSN-entry tracks. For students entering with their BSN, the program will be significantly longer, as they essentially earn their master’s degree before moving on to the doctoral phase of the program.
But what if you have your ADN, not your BSN, and you decide you want to work toward an advanced nursing career? And what about career changers who aspire to advanced nursing practice after previous roles in healthcare or management?
You can either return to school to complete a BSN–or you can essentially skip the BSN requirement through:
- An RN-to-MSN bridge program for RNs without a bachelor’s degree8 (foundational BSN courses are part of the curricula, and students typically have nursing experience)
- Direct-entry or an accelerated MSN program for non-nursing BS/BA graduates
Learn more about the differences and similarities between an MSN vs. DNP degree to see which level you should strive for.
#7: Successfully Complete a DNP Program
Similar to the MSN, Doctor of Nursing Practice programs typically allow for flexible entry, timing, and areas of focus. It’s the highest clinical nursing degree, in contrast with the research-focused Ph.D. in Nursing degree. Those who opt for a DNP, whether with a clinical or non-clinical focus, typically have years of direct patient experience, and may already be nurse leaders.7
However, after completing your DNP, you will still need to meet continuing education requirements in order to maintain your RN license. You may choose to obtain different specialty certifications, but there’s no higher degree level to pursue.
A DNP degree could help you:
- Influence all aspects of healthcare using evidence-based practices
- Provide top-level leadership to nursing associations and healthcare networks
- Consult on public health policy connected to nursing practices
- Train and set educational policy for nursing degrees and specializations
- Gain a higher salary in the nursing field of your choice
With a DNP degree, a nurse executive, nurse practitioner, and family nurse practitioner salary could increase.9
How Many Years Does a DNP Degree Take?
So how long does it take to become a DNP? Obtaining your degree is usually done over the course of two to four years, depending on your entry point (BSN or MSN) and area of specialization.
On average, BSN-DNP programs typically take three to four years when studied full time. That said, most DNP programs also require a completion of MSN requirements.10
The duration of your DNP degree will vary depending on several factors, including:
- Program requirements at the university you attend
- Whether in-person courses, clinics, or practica are required
- If your university allows flexibility to accelerate or extend the program to fit your needs
- Whether you can study full-time or part-time, if you plan to work and attend school simultaneously
What’s the Difference Between a DNP and a Nurse Practitioner?
A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a degree, while a nurse practitioner is a profession.11 Obtaining a DNP may qualify you to work as an NP, or it can provide the educational background for:
- Advancing to a leadership role in nursing management
- Leading nursing and interprofessional clinical teams
- Exploring a career related to public and institutional health policymaking
- Remaining in your current role, such as nurse anesthetist, but with updated credentials and knowledge
Additionally, the ruling bodies for the following specialities require that all students accepted into accredited entry-level programs must graduate with a doctoral degree:12
- Nurse practitioner (NP)
- Clinical nurse specialist
- Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
Is a DNP Right for You?
A doctoral degree is a challenge that requires the investment of both time and money–but that can provide you with increased knowledge and expertise as well as the potential for career and income growth. Depending on your background and goals, there are multiple ways to apply for and complete a DNP.
USAHS Nursing Programs
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our nursing degrees are offered online, with hands-on elements depending on the program and role specialty. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Earn your advanced nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.
- “Doctor Of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree Overview,” Nurse Journal, last modified September 2022, https://nursejournal.org/degrees/dnp/
- SimpleNursing Team, “How Many Times Can You Take the NCLEX?,” Simple Nursing, last modified February 2022, https://simplenursing.com/how-many-times-can-you-take-the-nclex/
- Kaplan, “NCLEX Pass Rates: What You Need to Know”: https://www.kaptest.com/study/nclex/nclex-pass-rates-what-you-need-to-know/
- “After the Exam,” NCSBN, https://www.ncsbn.org/exams/after-the-exam.page
- “Licensure,” NCSBN, https://www.ncsbn.org/nursing-regulation/licensure.page
- Angelina Walker, “RN Licensing Requirements by State,” Nurse.org, last modified July 2022, https://nurse.org/articles/guide-to-registered-nurse-licensure-by-state/
- Danielle LeVeck, “What Is a DNP and Is It Worth It?” Nurse.org, April 6 2022, https://nurse.org/articles/how-to-get-a-dnp-is-it-worth-it/
- Anna Giorgi, “Earning a Master’s of Nursing Degree,” All Nursing Schools, https://www.allnursingschools.com/msn/
- “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Salary for 2022,” Nursingprocess.org, https://www.nursingprocess.org/dnp-salary/
- “BSN-DNP Programs for BSN-Prepared Nurses,” Doctor of Nursing Practice DNP, https://www.doctorofnursingpracticednp.org/post-bachelors-bsn-to-dnp-programs/
- Linda A McCauley, et all, “Doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree in the United States: Reflecting, readjusting, and getting back on track,” Nurse Outlook, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7161484/
- “Standards For Accreditation Of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs,” Council On Accreditation Of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, last modified May 2022, https://www.coacrna.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/2004-Standards-for-Accreditation-of-Nurse-Anesthesia-Educational-Programs-revised-May-2022.pdf