Ph.D. vs. DNP: Which Graduate Nursing Degree Is Best?

Are you deciding between a DNP or Ph.D. to advance your nursing career? Discover their scopes of practice, salary expectations, and more. Articles Education

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Nurses wanting to explore career advancements will face many choices when researching degrees and programs they can pursue. Among the options are a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing.

These degrees offer career advancement opportunities into various roles, such as leadership, advanced patient care, research, and beyond. But choosing the correct education path is a challenging process that requires extensive research before making a final decision.

DNP Explained

A DNP is an educational degree that helps prepare nurses for positions in advanced clinical practice and leadership roles beyond the bedside within hospitals and other healthcare organizations.

Coursework in a DNP program focuses on advanced clinical practice skills, health policy, administration, leadership, and more. DNP-prepared nurses work at the highest level of nursing practice, and a DNP is an alternative to other research-focused doctoral programs. 

Related: Best DNP Programs in 2023

DNP Scope of Practice 

A DNP can open the door to many exciting career opportunities, from bedside patient care to government jobs. DNP programs may offer different focuses depending on your career interests and aspirations. Below you will find some of the various career paths you may take. 

  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM): CNMs care for women during pregnancy, birth, and afterward. These specialized advanced nurses gain valuable knowledge in decision-making and nursing practice while enrolled in a DNP program focusing on midwifery.
  • Advanced Practice Nurse: Advanced practice nurses center patient care. With a DNP, you can learn skills that allow you to focus on a specific specialty, such as neonatal, pediatrics, psychiatric, or family care. Some states allow advanced practice nurses to run independent clinics. 
  • Clinical Researcher: Clinical researchers work with other medical researchers to develop and conduct research to advance the medical field. Whether studying a disease process or the effectiveness of a drug, clinical researchers help to improve patient outcomes. 
  • Healthcare Lobbyist: A healthcare lobbyist can work for a healthcare organization, insurance company, or government agency. They stay current on healthcare news and trends and represent organizations and their interests to legislators. 

DNP Salary Expectations 

Salary expectations for a DNP will vary based on the field of work one enters, personal work history, and more. Below is a breakdown of some of the most common work fields and subsequent salary expectations:

It's best to explore different career options and the salary expectations for those fields before choosing a DNP pathway.

How Long Are DNP Programs?

DNP programs will vary based on factors, including full-time vs. part-time status and whether you are completing your degree as part of a bridge program. Some schools offer bridge programs that allow students in specific fields of study, such as BSN students, to bridge to their DNP. In these cases, students can apply some coursework to the DNP, reducing the time it takes to complete the program. Although length will vary, most programs take two to five years to complete. 

The length of a DNP program will also vary based on the chosen discipline or study path. For instance, the pediatric NP pathway at Maryville University consists of 15 additional credit hours, while the psychiatric mental health NP pathway consists of 21 additional credit hours. 

The track you choose will dictate much of the DNP courses. Still, regardless of the route, each DNP program includes a sequence of coursework that covers the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) 8 DNP Essentials. These eight competencies include courses in the following subjects:

  • Scientific underpinnings of practice
  • Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking 
  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  • Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of healthcare
  • Healthcare policy for advocacy in healthcare
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation's health
  • Advanced nursing practice 

The extent to which students study each core competency will depend on the DNP track. While students will learn each subject, the depth of knowledge and time spent on the competency will vary. 

Pros of a DNP

Below are some of the benefits of choosing this educational pathway:

  • Increase in pay
  • Marketability 
  • More career opportunities, especially in leadership roles 
  • Increased independence, including the possibility of independent practice

Still, nursing students should not take the choice to pursue a DNP degree lightly, as it is a long-term commitment. 

Cons of a DNP

While there are many pros to obtaining a DNP, there can also be cons. These may include the following:

  • The cost of a DNP program and possibly incurring debt
  • Giving up free time to complete your studies
  • Not gaining any new hands-on nursing skills
  • Increased stress while completing the program and possibly after completion 

It's essential to weigh the pros and cons before choosing a DNP program to ensure you make the best choice for your situation.

Ph.D. in Nursing Explained 

A Ph.D. in nursing is a doctoral degree that prepares nurses to work in research or academic fields, focusing on research or education rather than leadership-type roles in a clinical setting.

Ph.D. Scope of Practice 

A Ph.D. in nursing will open up many career opportunities. Graduates can expect to find jobs in nursing education, research, administration, and more, with the ability to specialize in their particular field. Some careers that a nurse pursuing a Ph.D. may focus on can include: 

  • Nurse researcher: In this role, nurses may help investigate and present the most up-to-date practices to healthcare facilities. This research will, in turn, help ensure organizations treat patients with the most cutting-edge treatments for their conditions. 
  • Nurse educator: Nurse educators can work in academic or hospital settings, helping to educate the next generations of nurses on best practices, the latest advancements, and more. 

It is essential to ensure that the school you are pursuing has the correct path for you to achieve your specific career goals. 

Related: 11 Best Ways to Pay for Nursing School

Ph.D. Salary Expectations 

Much like jobs for DNP students, the salary expectations for a Ph.D. vary greatly depending on the career path one chooses. For example, a nursing instructor at a university in the United States may earn a median salary of $85,900

Alternative career paths for nurse researchers may yield higher or lower, but this will vary greatly depending on factors such as education and prior work experience.

How Long Are Ph.D. Programs?

Ph.D. programs tend to be longer than DNP programs, typically taking four to six years to complete. Unlike DNP programs, Ph.D. programs do not require clinical hours for completion. 

Coursework within the program will vary depending on your specialization, and specialization options will differ from school to school. Unlike DNPs, Ph.D. students must present and defend a dissertation at the completion of their program, and they may also have required mentored teaching hours. 

Pros of a Ph.D.

The pros of a Ph.D. in nursing will differ from person to person, but some of the positive outcomes may include:

  • Increase in salary
  • Earn a prestigious degree and be regarded as an expert in your field
  • Relief from 12 hour-shift commitments and/or weekend/holiday commitments (unlike many other nursing jobs) 

Cons of a Ph.D.

The cons of a Ph.D. nursing program may sound very similar to those of a DNP. These may include:

  • Cost of the program and subsequent debt incurred 
  • Time commitment 
  • Presenting and defending a dissertation 

How to Choose Between a Ph.D. and DNP

Choosing between a Ph.D. and DNP is a decision that will require a great deal of research to understand the differences between the two and how they align with your ultimate career and life goals. In addition to looking at Ph.D. vs. DNP, it is important to research the different tracks one can take in either a Ph.D. or DNP program and choose the program that sounds most appealing to you. If you want to pursue a career as a pediatric NP, ensure that your school of choice offers a degree track in that specialty. 

It's important not to make the decision lightly or swiftly. Ensure that you collect all necessary information and compare multiple programs before making a final choice, and once you make your decision, feel confident that you have made the right choice for your future career aspirations.


Q: Is a DNP or Ph.D. better for getting hired?

A: Career opportunities will depend on the field of work one enters. But in general, there are more options for nurses with a DNP, as they can enter a variety of patient care roles in addition to leadership roles and beyond. 

Q: Is a DNP better than a Ph.D.?

A: The comparison depends on your career aspirations. A Ph.D. is the best path if you are strictly interested in research or academia, not direct patient care. A DNP is the best choice if you are interested in patient care, leadership, or lobbying.

Editorial Team / Admin
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