DNP vs. Ph.D.: What You Need to Know

DNP vs. Ph.D.: What You Need to Know

If you’ve been thinking about earning a doctorate degree to solidify your clinical expertise and further your career, your first logical step is to do a little research. Do you want to pursue your education online or at a brick-and-mortar college? What curricular focus is important to you? And of course, would a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) fit your goals better?

What is the difference between the DNP and the Ph.D. degrees?

Clinical vs. Research

The biggest difference between the DNP and the Ph.D. is the focus. DNP degrees focus on clinical practice, while Ph.D.s focus on academic research. The DNP delves into practice-focused topics such as evidence-based practice, quality improvement, systems leadership, healthcare policy and how to apply evidence to actual nursing practice. The Ph.D., on the other hand, dives deep into research methodologies and trains students to analyze data and scientific theory (through a faculty-guided research dissertation).

If you’re comparing and deciding between the two degrees, ask yourself these questions:

  • 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?

How does the required final project differ?

Dissertation vs. Doctoral Project

The focus of the DNP and the Ph.D. is different, and so is the culminating project.

In a DNP program, you can expect to complete a practice-based project/paper/presentation. That project utilizes research to apply to practice to evaluate, improve quality and determine an outcome in a specific clinical setting.

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. Students must defend that dissertation before they are allowed to graduate.

Is there a difference in the clinical hours requirement?

Clinical practice hours are another big difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. program.

DNP programs require up to 1,000 hours of post-baccalaureate clinical practice. Details are available from the institutions themselves, as they are responsible for determining the hours that students had prior to entering the DNP program (e.g. from their MSN or other program) and how many are necessary to complete the program.

The two accrediting bodies for DNP programs in the United States are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (which is what accredits American Sentinel’s DNP program).

What are the Advanced Practice career options?

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing explains that there are a number of common career paths for graduates of doctoral programs:

  • Nurse Educators prepare new nurses and advance the development of practicing clinicians (the DNP Educational Leadership is good preparation for this path).
  • Nurse Administrators facilitate and deliver quality patient care while coordinating actions in the workplace and managing teams of nurses (the DNP Executive Leadership is good preparation for this path).
  • Public Health Nurses participate in activities related to population health, health promotion, disease prevention and control, and community education.
  • Nurse Informaticists seek to improve information management and communications in nursing to maximize efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance the quality of patient care (the DNP Informatics Leadership is good preparation for this path).
  • Public Policy Nurses work to shape public policy at the federal, state, and local levels, advising legislators on healthcare policy and consulting on nursing-related issues.
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurses including Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, and Certified Nurse-Midwives.

Explore all four of American Sentinel’s Doctor of Nursing Practice specializations, which prepare educators and many types of nurse leaders and executives for a variety of pathways.

Learn More About American Sentinel University

These are a few of the most important distinctions between the DNP and the Ph.D. program, but even Doctor of Nursing Practice programs vary from college to college. The American Sentinel 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 evaluate DNP programs correctly and discover the one that fits you best.

“When I think about nursing and the role I play, I realize that I am in the specialty area of nursing that I know I was meant for. I’ve had my own very serious health issues. Not every nurse feels comfortable talking with patients about end-of-life decisions. I feel like I am made for this position.”

Tammy Stokes,
MSN Nursing Management and Organizational Leadership (2018),
Director of Palliative Care Services at Maury Regional Medical Center

For those wanting to advance to leadership positions in education, hospital management, informatics or other related areas, consider American Sentinel’s online DNP program, with specializations in Executive Leadership, Educational Leadership, Informatics Leadership and Professional Leadership.

Check out our blog about DNP specialties to help you make this decision.

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