Select Page

Post University Blog

When you’re considering an advanced career in nursing, two possible paths to explore are a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD). While both careers involve an in-depth knowledge of the nursing field, they differ in significant ways. Knowing more about DNP vs PhD can help you determine which career path you might want to follow.

What Is a DNP Degree?

A DNP degree is a doctoral degree that is typically the advanced educational option for nurse practitioners. Those who earn a DNP focus on working in a clinical practice rather than working in a research or academic capacity. Nurses with this advanced degree often pursue a leadership role in clinical settings to ensure high-quality care. A DNP degree is a terminal degree—the highest degree that nurse practitioners can earn. For example, a nurse practitioner with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can pursue a DNP degree, but there is no advanced degree higher than the DNP. Once nurses have a DNP, they can look for leadership roles within hospitals and other clinical settings.

What Is a PhD in Nursing Degree?

A PhD in Nursing degree is a doctoral degree that prepares nurses for work in academic or research settings. This type of degree program is the highest or most advanced available for nurses who want to focus on research and education rather than leadership roles in a clinical practice. Nurses who earn this degree might work as a faculty member at an academic institution and spend their days in the classroom, or their careers might involve working in a research lab. A PhD in Nursing degree provides these nurses with the tools and knowledge for educating others or conducting research.

Nursing degrees custom built for you - click to learn more

Main Differences Between a DNP and PhD

Although a DNP and PhD degree are both advanced nursing degrees, the school curriculum and day-to-day responsibilities on the job differ considerably. These degree programs also have other notable differences that you should explore before determining which one is right for you. Compare these DNP vs PhD differences to help you decide on a nursing career path:

Time to Complete

One of the biggest differences between a DNP and PhD degree program is the amount of time it takes to complete overall. The average length of a DNP degree program is 2-4 years. DNP programs are often designed for nurses who are already working in the field and need a part-time degree program. These programs might require a certain number of clinical practice hours to graduate.

A PhD degree program typically takes longer to complete compared to a DNP program. Students might spend 4-6 years earning a PhD in Nursing. However, PhD in Nursing programs do not typically require a certain number of clinical practice hours for graduation.

Specialization Options

DNP and PhD in Nursing degree programs both offer options for those who want to specialize in a particular area or skillset for their career. DNP degree programs might offer specialization options, such as educational leadership, executive leadership, professional leadership, or informatics leadership. In this case, students can choose a specialization that fits their career goals and objectives. Having a specialization can provide you with the skills specific to the career you’re interested in.

A PhD in Nursing degree program might offer specializations that prepare students for a certain type of role or position. Examples of PhD specializations include nursing education, interdisciplinary health, leadership, healthcare administration, and population or community health. These types of specializations can provide experience with developing the skills to succeed in an academic or research setting. Keep in mind that specialization options in DNP and PhD degree programs can differ from school to school.

What Will You Learn?

The curriculum you can expect to have as a DNP or PhD in Nursing student also differ. A DNP degree program often includes classes that focus on leadership abilities and the skills needed for clinical practice. You might take courses that teach you how to evaluate the needs of healthcare organizations, improve healthcare delivery, and summarize data for decision-making and leadership purposes. You might also learn about the roles of finance, human resources, and economic resources in healthcare organizations.

A PhD degree program typically includes classes that focus on theory, analysis, statistics, and other aspects of research and education in nursing. You might take classes in grant writing, research design, and research methods in order to learn the skills needed to become a researcher or educator in the nursing field.

Where You Work/What You Do

The kind of work and the environments in which they work as DNPs or PhDs are considerably different. Nurses with a DNP might work in hospitals, home healthcare agencies, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings that provide care. However, some DNPs work for insurance companies, medical supply companies, or pharmaceutical companies.

DNPs might have daily responsibilities that include ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, prescribing medication, and conducting physical exams. DNPs might also be responsible for developing policies and procedures, using informatics to improve healthcare quality and educate patients and the public on healthcare issues.

On the other hand, nurses with a PhD might work in colleges and universities, hospitals, research facilities, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, or medical laboratories. Those who focus on research might be responsible for designing research studies, writing grant proposals, and analyzing scientific data. Other tasks might include presenting their findings or writing research reports. Those who focus on education might be responsible for preparing nursing course curriculum, teaching nursing students, and publishing scholarly work. Other tasks might include reviewing textbooks, grading student assignments, and mentoring students.

Salary and Job Outlook

The salary and job outlook for DNPs and PhDs in Nursing can vary depending on the work setting and experience on the job, among other factors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurse practitioners with a master’s degree earn a median pay of $117,670 per year and have a job outlook of 45 percent through 2029. This job outlook is projected to grow much faster than average. The median pay for DNPs is typically higher compared to NPs with a master’s degree, although this can also vary.

For nursing instructors and teachers in postsecondary education, BLS shows a median salary of $75,470 per year. However, higher salaries for these educators can reach $133,420 or more. BLS also shows a job outlook of 7 percent for registered nurses in general, including nurses with PhDs. This job outlook through 2029 is faster than average.

How to Choose Between DNP and PhD in Nursing

Knowing which of these career paths in nursing is right for you can be difficult. In order to choose, you should think about your career goals and interests. Those more interested in teaching or exploring theories and making analyses might choose a PhD in Nursing for a career path. If you’re more interested in interacting with other nurses, healthcare professionals, and patients on a regular basis, a DNP might be a better fit for your career aspirations. A DNP might also be the right choice if you’re interested in finding ways to ensure high-quality healthcare in doctor’s offices, urgent care centers, hospitals, and other clinical settings. If you already have a master’s degree in nursing, consider looking into DNP program requirements, so you can apply to the program that fits your education and career goals.

If you’re interested in DNP online programs, please contact American Sentinel College of Nursing and Health Science at Post University. We offer a Doctor of Nursing Practice online degree program that is ACEN accredited and fully online for your convenience.


Thank you for reading! The views and information provided in this post do not reflect Post University programs and/or outcomes directly. If you are interested in learning more about our programs, you can find a list of our accredited online nursing programs on our website or reach out directly! 

Please note jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs, career outcomes, and/or salaries expected from any Post program. To learn more about Post’s program and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions representative.