PhD or DNP: Which One to Choose?

Stone pathway leading up the vineyard PhD or DNP

PhD or DNP? The only way is UP! (c) 2014 Cathy J. Thompson



Less than 1% of all nurses in the country

have a







Will you be one of them?


By 2015, entry into practice for advanced practice nurses (APNs) was supposed to have transitioned to the doctoral level.  The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree was to be the practice-focused degree for APN preparation.  The position statement from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), released in 2004,  was not universally accepted by all university and college nursing program deans and directors.

Despite the initial controversy, it seems that nursing education has taken this resolution to heart.  As of June 2015, 264 nursing programs have started or transitioned their practice doctorate programs to the DNP; 60 additional DNP programs are being planned.

I’ve been surprised that the Nursing profession has accepted these recommendations so fast!  I mean, in 1965 the American Nurses’ Association position paper endorsed the baccalaureate degree as entry into practice for registered nurses … and fifty years later, we are no closer to that goal!  Personally, I believe this change is good; the benefits to the profession are, and will be, worth the effort.

So if you are in graduate school or thinking about graduate school, you really should be thinking about getting your DNP or PhD.  The DNP is considered a practice-focused doctorate and the PhD is a research-focused, or also called an academic, doctorate.  The DNP was planned to put nursing on an equal footing with other entry-level practice-focused degrees, such as the MD, PharmD, DPT, or DDS.  Both the DNP and PhD are considered terminal degrees.

So to help you make up your mind, I’d like to lay out some of the differences between the DNP and PhD in Nursing.  In one sentence,


That sentence doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, but it does give an idea of the  scope of expectations.   It also doesn’t mean that PhDs can’t use knowledge in practice or that DNPs can’t create knowledge — it’s just that the emphasis of the coursework and the ultimate outcomes are different.  The PhD prepares nurse scientists.  The DNP prepares advanced nurse leader/clinicians. These are complementary roles! 

Differences between PhD and DNP Program Emphases

PhD programs includes intense coursework in advanced research design, statistical methods, data analysis, and research scholarship.  DNP coursework is geared toward changing practice — using, implementing, and sustaining evidence-based practice changes, initiating quality improvement projects, and systems leadership.

The terminal project in a PhD program is a dissertation — a report of original research from inception to implementation to analysis and impact (i.e., creating knowledge).  The terminal project in a DNP program is, most often, an evidence-based or quality improvement scholarly project (i.e., applying knowledge).

AACN’s Key differences between DNP and PhD grid  provides a good comparison of the two degree programs.

Where Do You Think You Fit Best?

If you are planning to stay in a clinical setting to lead change and improve patient outcomes,  then you might want to consider the DNP.  For more information about the DNP go to AACN DNP page.

If you are thinking that you want to commit to a research career and develop nursing science, then the PhD is for you.  For more information about the research-focused doctorate go to AACN PhD Position Statement.

If you think you might also want to teach in a university setting, then either the PhD or DNP, with extra courses in nursing education, will serve you best.

So what do you think? Is a nursing doctorate in your future? Why or Why Not? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

Don’t miss the next post which explains the benefits of doctoral education!


American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2004). Position statement on the practice doctorate in nursing . Available at

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2010). The research-focused doctoral program in nursing: Pathways to excellence. Available at

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2015). DNP Fact Sheet.  Available at

(This information is from the feature column I did for my first newsletter.  You could have had this information early too – just sign up for my free newsletter!  Be the first to know about blogposts, videos, podcasts, and other info important for your practice!  Click here to subscribe!