DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing: What’s the Difference and Which is Best for You?

DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing: What’s the Difference and Which is Best for You?

This post was updated in June 2020 with the most recent information on DNP and Ph.D. in Nursing programs.

If you’ve been thinking about earning a doctorate, you might wonder: what are the different options for nurses interested in pursuing a leadership path, and which is better for your specific goals?

The two most common terminal nursing degrees are the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). The biggest difference between the two degrees is that the DNP is by nature a practice-focused degree program, while the Ph.D. is a research-focused program.

Let’s compare and contrast these two degrees so you can make an informed decision as you lay out your educational future.

Comparing DNP vs. Ph.D in Nursing

The DNP is a degree that focuses on clinical practice. It advances nurses’ understanding of nursing practice and generally has curriculum that emphasizes both clinical and leadership skills. Graduates of DNP programs will be poised to:

  • Translate nursing research into evidence-based standards of care
  • Lead interdisciplinary care teams
  • Improve care systems
  • Evaluate outcomes among specific patient populations

For nurse practitioners, the DNP comes recommended by the American Association of College of Nursing (AACN). AACN suggested that the DNP should become the terminal degree for nurse practitioners by 2015, a change from the previously recommended Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), which was the minimum educational requirement for advanced practice nurses.

In the time since, the number of students enrolled in DNP programs has increased significantly (from 20,093 to 32,678 between 2017 and 2018). DNP programs are also available in 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

The Ph.D. focuses on academic research and prepares nurses to develop new, evidence-based knowledge for the nursing profession. There is also a Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) and it is similar to a Ph.D. in terms of its scope and focus. Graduates of Ph.D. in nursing programs are prepared to:

  • Lead research teams
  • Design and implement studies that address disease trajectories and care systems
  • Lead teams of nurses that deal with evaluating statistics, data analysis, and scientific theory
  • Work in research or education

Choosing Between the DNP and Ph.D.

For most nurses, the differences between the Ph.D. and the DNP make it fairly clear which degree is a better fit. But here are a few questions to help you make the best decision for your career focus and goals:

  • Do you want to focus on academic research in your career and learn about research methodologies and how to analyze data and scientific theory?
  • Do you want to improve your knowledge about evidence-based practice, quality improvement, systems leadership, healthcare policy and how to apply evidence to actual nursing practice?
  • Do you see yourself enjoying a career in research (quantitative or qualitative)?
  • Do you see yourself enjoying a career in advanced level nursing practice and/or service leadership?

Key Elements of the Ph.D.

There are several aspects of a Ph.D. program that you should be aware of:

Dissertation project

In a Ph.D. program, students complete a comprehensive exam after course work, then write and present a dissertation proposal. Once approved, they complete a dissertation that contributes to the field of nursing in some significant way by creating new or original knowledge to be added to existing literature in the field. A dissertation defense is required before students are allowed to graduate.

Rooted in theory and science

The Ph.D. in Nursing is intended to help clinicians and nurse practitioners gain the skills needed to develop and implement research initiatives. Generally, the program delves into the philosophy of nursing as a discipline and explores current research in nursing and healthcare. Students in Ph.D. programs can expect to delve into research and research methodology, healthcare policy, healthcare and nursing theory and similar topics.

As explains, “Ph.D. programs prepare RNs to contribute to healthcare improvements via the development of new knowledge and scholarly products that provide a foundation for the advancement of nursing science.”

Key Elements of the DNP

Similarly, there are certain aspects of the DNP you should become familiar with when making this decision:

DNP Puts Emphasis on IT

Most DNP programs, including those at American Sentinel, include additional coursework in information technology. Our healthcare system is rapidly developing technologies that have the potential to improve patient care and outcomes, including electronic medical records, telehealth technologies, decision support tools, and data mining systems. DNP graduates can help change outdated policies and eliminate the barriers that stand in the way of technology. They can collect and analyze data on staffing practices, patient satisfaction, and disease management programs, in order to plan improvement initiatives. As the use of technology increases, DNP graduates will contribute the leadership needed to drive widespread organizational change.

Clinical Practice and Applied Learning Focus

Because of their focus on nursing practice, most DNP programs are designed around a final scholarly project that is quite different from a lengthy, research-driven Ph.D. dissertation. At American Sentinel, DNP students are asked to complete a Capstone Project, an exercise in applied learning that allows them to design and implement a project that closely integrates their current work experience with their coursework, under the guidance of an academic advisor.

An Emphasis on Organizational, Educational, Informatics and Professional Leadership

American Sentinel has designed its four DNP specialty tracks to meet the needs of an evolving healthcare system. Specifically, we hope to help fill a gap in nursing leadership. That’s why we developed four DNP programs

  • DNP Educational Leadership – This is a good program for nurse educators who are dedicated to advancing the development of practicing clinicians.
  • DNP Executive Leadership – This program is ideal for nurse administrators who facilitate and deliver quality patient care and manage nursing departments and teams.
  • DNP Informatics LeadershipNurse informaticistsseeking to improve information management and communications programs in hospitals and other healthcare organizations look to the DNP Informatics Leadership to build the skills to maximize efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance the quality of patient care.
  • DNP Professional LeadershipThis program appeals to nurses who are looking for a versatile degree that will allow them to take managerial or entrepreneurial roles in healthcare systems or smaller clinical settings.

American Sentinel does not offer a Ph.D. in nursing at this time.

Learn More About American Sentinel University

American Sentinel’s admission team is here to help you make the best decision for your goals and career. Contact an Admissions Engagement Manager at  or by phone at 866.922.5690 to learn how to compare Ph.D. and DNP programs and discover the program for you.

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