Doctoral Degree in Nursing

A doctorate in nursing is an advanced, postgraduate degree usually pursued by those who already have a master’s (MSN) or a bachelor’s (BSN) degree in nursing, but who are looking to either increase their pay or their opportunities for advancement or to become qualified to teach nursing. A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD), PhD in nursing education, and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS, DSN, or DNSc) are found in postgraduate colleges and universities. The following provides a guide for the doctoral degree in nursing, the types of courses involved, and the job outlook for people who obtain this degree.

Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree in Nursing?

Many who wish to pursue a doctoral degree in nursing seek a terminal degree in nursing practice. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing is recently advocating for all APRNs to be educated at the doctorate level by 2015.1 They argue that the complexity of today’s healthcare market demands a higher level of knowledge and expertise to ensure the best patient care, and that requiring a DNP as opposed to a MSN for advanced practice nurses will ensure that the field keep up with other fields in healthcare (e.g., medicine (MD), dentistry (DDS), pharmacy (PharmD), psychology (PsyD), etc.).1 The DNP is practice-based rather than research-based, for nurses who wish to develop their leadership, quality control, and evidence-based skills. A doctor of nursing practice is focused on the clinical aspects of the disease process and prepares nurses to become an independent primary care provider. People wishing to become certain types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)–nurse practitioners (NPs), certified registered nurses (CRNs), certified nurse midwives (CNMs), or clinical nurse specialists (CNSs)–might pursue their DNP degree, which typically takes about one to three years of study to complete for those who have an MSN. Programs that accept nurses with a BSN may take three to five years. Others who pursue a doctorate degree in nursing may have a desire to teach at the college level or conduct their own research in the healthcare field. For those who want to help prepare and train the next generation of nurses, obtaining a doctorate-level degree will qualify them for most nurse educator positions. A PhD or DNS is research-based, preparing graduates to analyze statistics and data. Studies focus on business in nursing, leadership and communication skills, and strategic planning. PhDs in nursing typically take three to six years to complete.

While nursing degrees at the doctorate level can be time-consuming to pursue, many nurses find the possible outcome worth their efforts. Some may find it more cost-effective to enroll in a BSN-to-PhD program, allowing students to bypass a separate master’s degree, and instead pursue a terminal degree from the start. Since standards seem to be shifting to favor a doctoral degree for APRNs, many nurses are also shifting their focus to doctoral studies. With over 200 DNP programs currently enrolling nursing students, this degree is gaining momentum, with an increased enrollment of over 78% from 2011 to 2012.1

Doctoral Degree in Nursing Requirements and Prerequisites

While the requirements to enter a doctoral program in nursing vary by school, most programs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a state RN license for admittance. Some schools require an APRN certification, such as NP, CNM, CNS, or CNRA to be admitted. Depending on the program, scores from Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) may also considered for entry, along with letters of recommendation, a resume or curriculum vitae, college transcripts, clinical experience, minimum grade point averages, and a statement of purpose for most colleges. If not required, prior clinical work experience in nursing will likely increase the possibility of acceptance. Since entry into a doctorate program in nursing can be competitive, students pursuing a doctoral degree in nursing should also have clear career goals and defined interests.

Doctoral Degree in Nursing Coursework

The coursework required for a nursing doctorate will vary significantly depending on the program and area of study. Some examples of courses in a doctorate of nursing program may include:

Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)

  • Statistics in Health Sciences
  • Leadership and Organizational Systems Management for Quality Care
  • Epidemiology
  • Genetics and Genomics for Healthcare
  • Informatics
  • Translating Evidence into Nursing Practice
  • Evidence-Based Practice
  • Advanced Healthcare Economics and Finance
  • Quality Improvement and Patient Safety
  • Health Policy
  • DNP Scholarly Project

PhD in Nursing

  • Advanced Doctoral Seminar
  • Theories of Science
  • Health Disparities – Theory, Research, and Methods
  • Philosophical and Theoretical Perspectives of Nursing
  • Conceptual Foundations of Clinical Research
  • Ethical and Legal Issues in Research
  • Research Design and Statistics
  • Quantitative Research Design
  • Measurement in Clinical Research
  • PhD Dissertation Research

Students in doctoral programs are also expected to maintain a minimum grade point average, and in some cases, candidates must conduct research projects and/or submit and defend a written dissertation to obtain a doctoral degree.

Career Opportunities for Graduates of an Doctoral Degree Program in Nursing

The nursing profession is one of the most popular job fields in the US, and those with advanced nursing degrees are in especially high demand. Typically, those with higher degrees such as a doctorate will earn higher salaries than those with lower degrees. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, APRNs including nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives earned a median wage of $96,460 in 2012.2 The outlook for APRNs is also promising, with advanced practice registered nurse jobs expected to increase by 31% through 2022, significantly faster than other occupations, and over 10% faster than RN jobs2,3 This increased demand is due to healthcare legislation, an increased emphasis on preventative healthcare, the aging (and subsequent need for care) of the baby-boomer generation. APRNs who are willing to work in medically underserved areas (like inner-city and rural areas) will have an advantage in the job market.

Additional Resources

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) – The AANP exists for nurse practitioners to find information about continuing education, professional services, advocacy, and expertise.
  • Doctors of Nursing Practice (DNP) – The DNP is an organization that seeks to improve healthcare by promoting and enhancing doctoral-trained nursing practice.
  • Nursing World – The American Nurses Association is a professional organization for all registered nurses. Membership provides opportunities in networking, advancement, and education.
  • Professional Nurse Educators Group – The PNEG is free to join, and is a professional network of faculty from nursing schools, continuing nursing education professionals, entrepreneurs and nursing staff development professionals. It supports the lifelong learning of nurses.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I get a doctorate of nursing degree online?
Yes. Doctoral degrees in nursing are offered at many postgraduate colleges and universities, and some PhD nursing programs can be completed online. Before applying, check with the individual school to see if they offer an online nursing PhD program and to make sure it is accredited.

Should I get a DNP or a PhD in nursing?
The answer depends on your particular interests and career goals. If you are interested in nursing as a practice, a DNP might be the best choice. Future nursing leaders and healthcare administrators, as well as clinical nurse faculty, may pursue a DNP. If you are more interested in the research aspect of nursing, consider pursuing a PhD. PhDs are prepared to conduct their own independent research after their schooling. Future nurse scientists or nurse faculty might be better off pursuing a PhD.

1. American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN): http://www.aacn.nche.edu/
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm