Difference between a DNP and a PhD in nursing

Difference between a DNP and a PhD in nursing

Nurses who have earned a master’s of science nursing are increasingly seeking to advance their nursing careers by getting a DNP or a Ph.D. A nurse looking to pursue a career in a leadership path might wonder how to differentiate and choose between these two doctorate programs. While both a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) are considered terminal nursing degrees for APRNs, they differ significantly in various aspects.

The main difference is in the nature and scope of the programs. The DNP is a practice-focused program, while the Ph.D. is research-focused. Because a DNP program focuses on clinical practice, it majorly seeks to advance the nurse’s understanding of clinical and leadership skills. Upon the completion of a DNP program, a nurse can:

  • Effectively integrate evidence-based practice into practice
  • Spearhead various interdisciplinary care teams
  • systematically evaluate and translate care outcomes
  • develop policies to improve care systems

On the other hand, a Ph.D. program focuses on academic research. The programs pay more emphasis on developing and enhancing the student’s research and writing skills with the primary goal of enabling them to develop and improve evidence-based knowledge in the nursing field. Besides, the program also stresses understanding the origin and evolution of nursing as a profession.

A Ph.D. graduate can work in education research, be tasked to lead research teams, and be involved in developing and implementing different forms of studies.

Educational requirements

To graduate with a DNP, a student must complete a capstone project that shows that they have acquired adequate knowledge and clinical practice skills.  On the other hand, a Ph.D. program requires a student to complete and defend dissertation research before a committee.

A DNP program also requires the student to complete at least 1000 hours of supervised clinical practice as a graduation requirement. A Ph.D. program, in contrast, does not require the student to complete any clinical hours of practice because most of their tasks are based outside the clinical setting.

Choosing between a DNP and a Ph.D.

Both DNP and Ph.D. are rewarding programs, and making a choice is therefore personal. If I were to choose between these two doctorate programs, my decision would be influenced by various factors.

For instance, if my goal is to continue working in clinical practice but in a leadership role, I would go for a DNP. On the other hand, if I’m looking to work in research, education, and academia, a Ph.D. program would be my ultimate choice.


Canady, K. (2020). Practical and philosophical considerations in choosing the DNP or Ph.D. in nursing. Journal of Professional Nursing.

Yancey, N. R. (2020). DNP or Ph.D. as a Credential for Nurse Faculty: Choices and Consequences. Nursing Science Quarterly33(3), 217-221.

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