FAQ: Can you get a doctorate degree in nursing?

Answer: Yes – There are two different doctoral degrees available in the field of nursing: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). While both are terminal degrees, offering the highest level of training in the field, they are focused on different aspects of nursing, and generally lead to contrasting career paths. The DNP is a practice-based doctorate, primarily for registered nurses (RNs) who want to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) or nurse administrators. A PhD in Nursing, on the other hand, is more focused on research, and designed for prospective nurse scientists and scholars. These two degrees have largely replaced older doctorates in the field, namely the Doctor of Nursing (ND) and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS), which have been phased out at most universities.

There are several different paths students can take to earn either a DNP or PhD in Nursing, based on their current level of education. Most programs require a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) for admission, depending on their particular structure. There are also a number of different specializations students can choose to pursue their doctorate in. DNP programs are available in all of the major APRN specialties, as well as several indirect care specializations, such as leadership and nursing informatics. Nursing PhD programs are typically offered without a specialization, but may be available with a focus in health policy, nursing research, or a similar area.

To learn more about doctoral degrees in nursing, including specifics about both DNP and PhD programs, check out the sections below.

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Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is primarily for nurses who want training in the highest levels of clinical practice or organizational leadership. Students can choose to pursue their DNP in either a direct or indirect care concentration, depending on if they want to work closely with patients in an advanced practice specialty, or take on a more administrative role, leading teams of medical professionals or influencing patient care from a systems level.

Direct Care DNP Program Specializations

Earning a DNP in a direct care specialization is one way RNs can qualify for national APRN certification and state licensure as a Nurse Practitioner (NP), Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), or Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) (as opposed to first pursuing an MSN in an APRN specialty). Current APRNs, who already hold an MSN in an advanced practice specialty, might also pursue a DNP to earn certification in a second specialty, instead of just pursuing a post-master’s certificate. While the MSN has long been the entry-level educational requirement for APRN certification, there has been a push in recent years by organizations such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) to raise this requirement to a DNP. As of January 2018, this transition has not yet taken place, and master’s-trained nurses still qualify for the certification exam. However, many nurses are now pursuing their DNP, as it is expected that the degree will eventually be the preferred credential for APRNs and other high-level nursing professionals.

DNP programs are available in all of the following direct care concentrations, each focused on a particular advanced nursing role or patient population:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PACNP)
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP)
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

Indirect Care DNP Program Specializations

For students interested in taking on more macro-level work, as opposed to direct clinical practice, there are several indirect care concentrations available in DNP programs. These typically lead to roles in administration or education, overseeing large systems of care or training the next generation of nurses. Examples of these specializations include:

  • General/Leadership
  • Nursing Executive/Administrator
  • Nurse Educator
  • Public Health Nursing
  • Nursing Informatics

Indirect care DNP programs are designed for both RNs and practicing APRNs who want to move into administrative, leadership, or executive nursing positions.

Types of DNP Degree Programs

There are several different pathways students can take to earn their DNP. This is largely dependent on their current education level and certifications. The most common degree path is an MSN to DNP program, for licensed RNs or APRNs who already possess a Master of Science in Nursing. Some of these programs may explicitly require APRN certification for admission, while others are open to any MSN-trained nurse. Although not as widespread as MSN to DNP programs, there are also BSN to DNP programs, for RNs holding a Bachelor of Science in Nursing who want to pursue their doctorate without first completing a separate MSN program. Finally, some schools offer RN to DNP programs, designed for nurses with an associate degree in nursing (ADN). These are fairly rare, and some even require RNs to have earned a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN.

DNP Program Curriculum

The curriculum in a DNP program will vary based on the particular degree path and specialization students pursue; however, the doctoral-level coursework in these programs is generally quite similar. Students can expect to take advanced MSN-level specialization courses unique to their degree focus, as well as DNP core courses based around eight core competencies outlined by the AACN in The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice. No matter their specific program focus, all DNP students must be trained in the following areas:

  1. Scientific underpinnings for practice
  2. Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  3. Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  4. Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of health care
  5. Health care policy for advocacy in health care
  6. Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  7. Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  8. Advanced nursing practice

Students pursuing their DNP in an APRN specialty must also complete a set number of clinical practice hours in order to graduate and qualify for national certification. Some indirect care specializations, such as nurse educator, may also include this requirement. Additionally, all DNP programs culminate in a final practice-oriented project, where students are given the chance to demonstrate what they have learned by addressing a current issue affecting nursing practice. Typically referred to as a DNP Project, this original work is often developed over several semesters, and may take the form of a pilot study, practice change initiative, quality improvement project, program evaluation, or consulting project, to name just a few possible options.

For more information about DNP degree programs, their requirements, and the different pathways available to students, see our Complete Guide to DNP Programs.

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing

While the DNP is primarily focused on the direct delivery and management of patient care, the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing is more concerned with the theoretical foundations of nursing practice and health care systems. As such, PhD programs typically do not contain much clinical work or lead to any advanced practice certification. Instead, they prepare graduates to contribute to the field of nursing through the advancement and development of knowledge. PhD-prepared nurses conduct advanced research and studies to create new nursing theories or methods, which APRNs and other practice nurses then implement in medical settings. This new knowledge might aim to improve patient outcomes, health promotion in a particular population, or the efficiency of a specific health care system.

Many PhD in Nursing programs do not include a specialization; however, some schools do offer specific areas of focus. Here are some examples of PhD concentrations that may be available:

  • Clinical Nursing Research
  • Public Health Policy
  • Education
  • Nursing Science
  • Healthcare Innovation

Types of Nursing PhD Programs

Much like the DNP, there are multiple paths students can take to earn a PhD in Nursing, depending on their current education. Many schools offer MSN to PhD programs, which require a Master of Science in Nursing for admission. Students who possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and want to jump straight into their doctorate program without first earning an MSN, can opt for a BSN to PhD program. Some schools also have BS or MS to PhD programs, which accept licensed RNs with any Bachelor of Science or Master of Science degree, whether it is in nursing or a different field. Additionally, for nurses who already hold a Doctor of Nursing Practice, but wish to earn a second doctorate, there are Post-DNP to PhD programs available.

Nursing PhD Program Curriculum

The curriculum in a nursing PhD program is significantly different than that of a DNP program. Students typically begin their studies by taking courses in advanced research methods, nursing theory, and the sciences. This coursework is meant to give them a foundation in scientific inquiry, which they will eventually use to conduct their own specialized research. Examples of topics commonly covered in this portion of the curriculum include:

  • Statistics and Data Analysis
  • Theoretical and Scientific Foundations for Nursing
  • Philosophical Perspectives in Health
  • Quantitative/Qualitative Research Design and Methods
  • Research Ethics
  • Advanced Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Health Care Systems Leadership
  • Pedagogical Practices in Nursing Education

Once they have mastered these concepts, PhD students usually begin taking electives courses in their particular area of interest. These might examine a specific patient population or branch of nursing they are interested in studying, such as geriatrics or mental health, or look at a broader topic that affects nursing in general, such as health care administration or public health policy. Next, students develop a research project around this area of interest, often with the help of an advisor, and begin formulating what will become their dissertation.

The final stage of any PhD in Nursing program is the completion of a dissertation, in which students build their own unique hypothesis or theory related to a certain aspect of the field. They then conduct extensive research on the topic, and write a lengthy summary of their findings that will hopefully add to the body of knowledge in nursing. At the end of this process, students typically must defend their dissertation to a committee of program faculty, detailing their research and explaining how they reached their conclusions. Successful defense of the dissertation is often a requirement for graduation and earning one’s PhD.