Is a DNP or a PhD in Nursing The Best Choice for You?

When you’re thinking of taking your nursing education to the very top level, there’s a big decision to make. Should you pursue a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a PhD in nursing? They involve different types of work and will qualify you to move into different areas. But what are the real differences between them? How can you decide which is best suited to you?

The goal

Although they may seem superficially similar, DNPs and PhDs are actually suited to different types of career paths, essentially qualifying you to do different things. A DNP is focused on clinical practice and designed to enhance what you can do as an advanced nurse practitioner. It will enable you to integrate your research into your day-to-day work to improve patient outcomes and provide you with leadership skills. But take time to research what a typical DNP program overview entails to get a more detailed understanding of what you’ll be enrolling in.

A PhD, on the other hand, is more about preparing you to design and lead research, for instance, by running clinical trials. It can also prepare you to design and develop education for other nursing professionals.

The approach to learning

Despite the research element, a DNP is a much more structured course,  that is essentially an extension of the type of learning with which you will already be familiar. It usually involves extensive practical elements in which you will be working directly with patients.

A PhD requires more self-discipline and self-directed learning, though you will usually have a supervisor who mentors you and helps to keep you on track. You’ll need to write a dissertation and defend the theories you put forward.

The commitment involved

Another major difference between DNP and PhD courses is the length of time they take to complete. A DNP program can take anywhere between one and four years, including 1,000 clinical hours.

A PhD takes three to six years to complete but does not necessarily involve direct work with patients (this will only be necessary if it forms part of your dissertation research). Online learning is available at Wilkes University if it is not possible to attend full-time education.


The great thing about a PhD is that once you’ve earned it, that’s that, and you’ll be qualified for the rest of your life. With a DNP, you’ll need to retake the exam every five years unless you can prove that you’ve had at least 1,000 hours of clinical practice and earned 75 continuing education (CE) units in each five-year period.

When it comes to applying for jobs, however, nurses with PhDs will normally be expected to have recently published research.

Salary expectations

When it comes to making money, a DNP offers a significant advantage over a PhD, largely because it provides access to leadership roles. Nurses who qualify with a DNP could expect to make 50% more than those with PhDs. In both cases, however, the biggest employer is academia, which prefers candidates with PhDs.

In the end, the best choice for you is going to depend on your specific interests, skills and future priorities. Whichever you choose, you’re about to embark on a fascinating journey.

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