FAQ: How long is a DNP program?

Answer: Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs vary in length based on the particular path students take to earn their doctorate, as well as the specialization they pursue. The amount of time it takes to earn a DNP will depend largely on the level of nursing education students already possess when entering their DNP program. For example, BSN to DNP programs generally require three to four years of full-time study, while full-time MSN to DNP programs typically take one to two years to complete.

DNP programs are available in several different pathways, including BSN to DNP programs, MSN to DNP programs, and RN to DNP programs, each of which requires a different length of time to complete. Additionally, students may choose to pursue these paths on either a full-time or part-time basis, which will significant impact how long it takes to earn their degree. Here is a more detailed breakdown of the time commitments associated with each DNP program path:

Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (BSN to DNP) Programs

This degree path is for registered nurses (RNs) who possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), and want to purse a DNP without first completing a separate Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. Consisting of anywhere from 65 to 95 credits, and a minimum of 1,000 clinical practice hours, BSN to DNP programs may award students both an MSN and a DNP, or just a DNP upon graduation. A full-time BSN to DNP program typically takes three to four years to complete. Students pursuing the program on a part-time basis may be able to earn their doctorate in four years, but often have up to six or seven years to complete their studies.

The length of a BSN to DNP program will also vary based on the particular nursing specialization being pursued, as some specialties may require more training than others. BSN to DNP programs are available in both direct care APRN concentrations (such as Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner, Neonatal Nurse Practitioner, Certified Nurse Midwife, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, or Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner) and indirect care concentrations, which focus on organizational leadership, administration, nursing informatics, or health care policy. As part of their program, BSN to DNP students will be required to complete MSN core courses, DNP specific coursework, and specialization courses designed to prepare them for advance practice in their specialty.

Master of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (MSN to DNP) Programs

Generally speaking, these programs are designed for RNs who already have a Master of Science in Nursing, and wish to earn a DNP. However, there are several different types of MSN to DNP programs available, and some may take longer to complete than others. In most cases, a post-master’s DNP program will take one to two years of full-time study to complete. Many students choose to pursue this path on a part-time basis, which typically requires two to three years. Most MSN to DNP programs entail 33 to 43 credits, and at least 500 clinical practice hours (assuming students completed at least 500 hours as part of their MSN program, and can apply those to the required 1,000 post-BSN hours it takes to qualify for a DNP).

Traditional MSN to DNP programs (those that do not include an APRN specialty) generally fall into one of two categories based on their focus: direct clinical practice or nursing administration and leadership. While these two types of programs may lead to different professional outcomes, they often follow very similar curricula, and, in actuality, may only differ by a few courses. Both contain coursework designed to prepare students in the eight core competencies outlined by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice, such as interprofessional collaboration, clinical prevention and population health, health care policy, and analytical methods for evidence-based practice. These MSN to DNP programs typically take the least amount of time to complete, as they do not contain additional APRN specialization coursework. Students should note that MSN to DNP programs with a clinical focus often require an APRN certification for admission.

For MSN graduates who wish to earn their DNP along with certification in an APRN specialty, such as Family Nurse Practitioner, there are two main program paths available, depending on the focus of their master’s program. These programs combine the DNP curriculum with MSN-level courses, and are typically longer than traditional MSN to DNP programs.

MSN to DNP New Specialty programs are intended for students seeking both a DNP and their first certification in an APRN specialty. This path is typically open to any master’s-trained nurse, including nurse administrators, nurse educators, and clinical nurse leaders. Along with DNP coursework and APRN specialization courses, students must complete core MSN-level courses, such as Advanced Health Assessment or Advanced Pharmacology, if they did not complete them during their MSN program. These programs typically take around two to three years of full-time study to complete, or three to four years on a part-time basis.

MSN to DNP Second Specialty programs, on the other hand, are for nurses who have already earned APRN certification in a specialty area, and would like to pursue a second certification along with their DNP. Students in these programs are typically not required to take MSN core courses they completed as part of their previous graduate program, which means completing a DNP with a second APRN specialty often takes less time than an MSN to DNP New Specialty program, but still more time than a traditional MSN to DNP program. Keep in mind that both of these program paths may go by different names at different schools. As such, it is particularly important to pay close attention to the admissions requirements before applying to an MSN to DNP program.

Registered Nurse to Doctor of Nursing Practice (RN to DNP) Programs

These degree programs are relatively rare compared to BSN to DNP and MSN to DNP programs, and are for RNs with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) who want to jump straight into a DNP program. Some RN to DNP programs also require students to possess a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN. As for the length of completion, this DNP path will generally take the longest, as many RN to DNP students must complete a bridge year before starting the MSN curriculum. This bridge year is typically found in programs that do not require a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, and is meant to give students time to take the courses they need to prepare for graduate-level instruction. Overall, it may take students over four years of full-time study to complete an RN to DNP program. Some schools offer part-time options, which can take as many as six years to finish.

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