Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs Guide - 2024


by Staff

Updated: September 8th, 2023

If you’re trying to decide whether earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is the right direction for your nursing career, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we will explore what the DNP degree is, the different types, and how to decide which path is right for you.

Choosing a career as a nurse practitioner requires commitment, flexibility, and a desire for lifelong learning. Traditionally, earning the title of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) came with the mandate of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree

Over the past couple of decades, though, the master’s degree prerequisite has faded and is being replaced by something new: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) officially voted in favor of declaring the DNP the more appropriate educational pathway for APRNs over a master’s degree. 

But is it the right choice for you? You might choose the DNP pathway if you desire to be educated to the highest level in your field and you want to bring the latest research into practice to improve population health. If this sounds like you, read further for the fundamentals of the Doctor of Nursing Practice program.

What is a DNP Degree Program?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree program is the highest level of education available for nursing in the practice-based profession. Unlike the MSN path, which only meets the minimum APRN requirements of one to two years of additional study beyond a bachelor’s degree, the doctorate grants a nursing student the title of expert in their field. 

The Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program is geared toward training advanced practice nurses to use the research of others in order to implement better patient outcomes in clinical practice. Regardless of which school you choose, most DNP Degree programs generally follow the same set of core fundamentals.

What are the Core Fundamentals for All DNP Programs?

Doctor of Nursing Practice degree programs can take significantly longer to achieve than master’s degrees, but their goal is to create leaders. DNP programs create leaders in nursing by teaching concepts that go beyond the basics in patient care, including:

  • Leadership
  • Systems Management
  • Evidence-Based Decision Models
  • Quality of Care Improvement
  • Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Health Policy Development

While all DNP programs focus on clinical care rather than research, in order to earn your title, you must successfully complete a relevant research project or dissertation. DNP Programs transform a standard advanced practice nurse into an exceptional leader by evaluating the birds-eye view of the entire care system model and putting those methodologies into practice. 

Leadership is an essential part of all DNP programs. There are different types of doctorate degrees to pursue in nursing and each one is based on whether you want to remain in the research sphere or in the direct-patient care space.

What are the Different Types of Nursing Doctorate Degrees?

There are two main types of doctorate degrees for advanced practice nurses: research-based and clinic-based. 

The Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, commonly known as the Ph.D., has a heavy focus on research. This program is geared toward nurses who want to pioneer new technologies or pursue a life-long nursing educator career. 

The clinic-based doctoral degree in nursing is the DNP, Doctor of Nursing Practice. This is the route taken by nurse practitioners who desire to become experts in their specialized areas of practice. These programs are dedicated to teaching students how to apply research findings to clinical practice.

What are the Main Differences Between a DNP and a Nursing Ph.D.?

The main difference between a DNP and a Nursing Ph.D. is the focus on patient care versus A Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is designed for nurse practitioners who wish to practice in a clinical setting. They gain hands-on advanced training on patient-care techniques in their population-focus group. The Ph.D. is for nursing professionals who are interested in furthering medical research and innovating new methods of diagnosing and treating illness. 

The settings you’ll be working in will vary greatly if you decide to get a Ph.D. rather than a DNP. While a DNP typically works in clinics or hospitals, a nurse practitioner with a Ph.D. is more likely to work for universities and be focused on getting their work published in professional journals.

The time investment required to earn a DNP versus a Ph.D. in nursing also varies. A Ph.D. generally takes longer, between three to five years. The length of time to earn a DNP degree varies greatly depending on the population focus.

What are the Pathways to Earn Your DNP Degree?

There are multiple paths to earning your Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree. Let’s explore how much time is required for each of them:

  • BSN to DNP: If you already have your Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, you can spend an additional three to six years to earn your DNP.
  • MSN to DNP: If you already have a Master’s in Nursing, earning your DNP can be accomplished in less than two years with a post-master’s DNP program.
  • Post-DNP: If you have already earned your Doctor of Nursing Practice, there are certification programs offered by nursing schools to change or add additional focus areas.

The pathway to earning your DNP degree looks different for everyone. While it may seem ideal to get all of your advanced education out of the way before you begin your career as a nurse practitioner, this is generally not the path of most DNP degree holders.

More commonly, nurses or nurse practitioners decide to go back to school to obtain their DNP degree. You don’t even have to quit your job to do it. Many nursing professionals work while earning their terminal degree on the side; most schools offer online programs and flexible schedules to accommodate working students. 

Like master’s programs for nurse practitioners, DNP programs are also specialty-specific. While the exact program will vary from school to school, let’s take a look at some common training specialties associated with DNP degrees as it relates to the nurse practitioner career path.

  • Family: The FNP program focuses on broad primary care treatment of patients across their entire lifespan to improve outcomes for families and communities.
  • Women’s Health: The WHNP programfocuses on women’s reproductive and female-related care throughout the entire lifespan, including pre-menopausal, post-menopausal, pregnancy, post-partum, family-planning, domestic abuse training, and parenting.
  • Pediatric: The PNP program focuses on treating children’s medical conditions for patients under the age of 21. This role is high-demand and includes education on family counseling. This can be offered as a primary care program or acute care mixed program.
  • Adult-Gerontology: The AGNP program focuses on the adult’s common conditions including young, middle-aged, and older adults. The scope of this specialty encompasses a wide variety of acute conditions including both prevention and treatment.
  • Neonatal: The NNP program focuses on treatments for newborn-specific conditions from birth up to the first two years of life.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health: The PMHNP program focuses on mental health conditions that are becoming more prevalent in the post-pandemic atmosphere. This focus area is predicted to have a high-demand outlook. This includes all age groups, mental illnesses, and substance abuse-related conditions.

What are the Prerequisites for Admission into a DNP Program?

Since the specific requirements will vary depending on the school you attend, you should always check your institution’s prerequisites. We checked a few schools and found these general guidelines applied to most programs.

  • Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from an accredited school 
  • *Master’s Degree in Nursing from an accredited school 
  • RN License (unencumbered)
  • *APRN National Certification in their focus area
  • *APRN State License
  • Letters of Professional Recommendation
  • Resume
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Interview
  • GRE Scores if GPA is not above the school’s threshold level
  • Clinical experience (varies greatly depending on the school and program)

*Some schools offer a BSN to DNP program where a master’s degree, APRN Certification, and APRN license are not required.

What are the Advantages to Earning a DNP vs MSN Degree?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is advantageous over a standard Master’s Degree (MSN) in Nursing. A master’s degree is the standard requirement for most state’s to obtain your APRN license. The national average income for nurse practitioners is $124,680 (Bureau of Labor Statistics - 2022) annually. You can certainly blow that figure out of the water by getting a DNP, which can increase your salary upwards of $200,000 per year.

A candidate who has earned a DNP degree has gone the extra mile to truly become an expert in their field and specialty. In addition to the increased earning potential, the additional training can open doors for new opportunities. As an expert in your field, you have more negotiating power and have an edge over your competition who only met the minimum requirements to become a nurse practitioner.  

A nurse practitioner who has earned a DNP becomes qualified to take on new roles that were previously off the table. Here are some roles that nurse practitioners with DNP degrees can pursue with confidence:

  • Lecturer for Universities
  • Managerial positions at clinics, labs, or hospitals
  • Government Policy Advocate
  • Healthcare Organizations

Is it Financially Worth it to get a DNP?

When you sign up for a career in nursing, you know that you’re in for a lifetime of learning since the way that we understand and treat illnesses is constantly evolving. If you’ve reached a point in your career where you’re considering getting additional education to earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, you may be wondering if the financial burden is worth it. Let’s explore the costs and benefits of earning your DNP as a nurse practitioner.

The typical financial cost to obtain a DNP is between $30,000 to $70,000 depending on the institution, specialty, and candidate’s previous education. You certainly will be more qualified for higher-paying positions with your DNP degree. Each nurse practitioner must evaluate whether it is financially intelligent to take the step forward in attaining the highest degree in their field. 

It may take several years to recoup the investment, but in the long term, generally, it is worth it to become an expert in your practice. Add to the long-term financial benefit that you will likely advance health care solutions and improve population health and the answer of worthiness may become more clear to you.

What are the Accrediting Organizations of DNP Programs?

Doctor of Nursing Practice degree programs are now available in all 50 states. There are two major organizations that determine whether a program is eligible for accreditation:

  • CCNE: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education 
  • ACEN: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing

These organizations are officially recognized by the Department of Education to uphold the quality of nursing education programs in the interest of public health. They evaluate the curriculum content and determine whether it is adequate and acceptable training for future practitioners. It is good practice to verify that your program is accredited before signing up to ensure that you’re receiving a quality approved education. 

While your state may not require that the institution or program you attend be accredited by these two organizations, there are many reasons to consider only programs that are accredited. Specific employers sometimes require CCNE or ACEN accreditation in their hiring practices. Institutions that commonly require accreditation include the US Armed Forces, scholarship funding organizations, and educational institutions in the case of transferring credits. Choosing an accredited program from the start ensures that you won’t run into any hiccups once you’ve received your doctorate.


As a nurse practitioner, deciding whether to pursue the highest degree in nursing can be a big decision. From choosing the type of doctorate degree to planning out your path, there is a lot to consider. Regardless of which path you choose, earning your DNP will exponentially affect the rest of your career and open the doors of opportunity. We hope that the resources provided above can provide clarity for what is required to officially become a qualified expert as a nurse practitioner.

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