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. Benefits of earning a doctoral degree in nursing include more competitive pay, increased opportunities for advancement, and qualifications to teach nursing at the university level. The 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 offered by many colleges and universities. The following page is a guide to the doctoral degree in nursing, with overviews of common admissions requirements, the types of courses involved, and the job outlook for people who obtain this degree.

    Why Pursue a Doctoral Degree in Nursing?

    A doctoral degree in nursing is the terminal degree in nursing practice, meaning that this is the highest level of education possible in the field. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has advocated for all advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to be educated at the doctoral level.1 The AACN argues 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 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), and so on.).1

    The DNP is typically practice-based rather than research-based. DNP programs are designed for nurses who wish to develop their leadership, quality control, and evidence-based practice 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 – nurse practitioners (NPs), certified registered nurses (CRNs), certified nurse midwives (CNMs), or clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) – might pursue the DNP degree, which typically takes at least three years of study to complete. Programs that accept nurses with a BSN, as opposed to an MSN, may take three to five years. Others who pursue a doctorate 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 doctoral degree is a logical step. 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 doctoral level can be time-consuming to pursue, many nurses find the personal and professional outcomes worth their efforts. Some may find it more cost-effective to enroll in a BSN to PhD program, which can allow students to bypass earning a separate master’s degree and pursue a terminal degree from the start. Since standards seem to be shifting to favor the doctoral degree for APRNs, many nurses are also shifting their focus to doctoral studies.

    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 current, valid RN license to be considered for admission. Some schools require APRN certification, such as NP, CNM, CNS, or CNRA, for admissions consideration. Depending on the program, scores from Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) may also be considered, along with letters of recommendation, a resume or curriculum vitae, college transcripts, clinical experience, minimum grade point averages, and a statement of purpose. Even if not required, prior clinical work experience in nursing will likely increase the possibility of acceptance. Since entry into a doctoral program in nursing can be competitive, students pursuing a doctorate 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 expected to maintain a minimum grade point average, and in many programs, candidates must conduct research projects and/or submit and defend a written dissertation to obtain the doctoral degree.

    Career Opportunities for Graduates of a Doctoral Degree Program in Nursing

    The nursing profession is one of the fastest-growing job fields in the US, and those with advanced nursing degrees are in especially high demand. Typically, those with higher-level degrees earn higher salaries than those with only undergraduate degrees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, APRNs including nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives earned a median wage of $107,460 in 2016.2 The outlook for APRNs is also promising, with advanced practice registered nurse jobs expected to increase by 31% through 2024.2 This is significantly faster than the projected growth for registered nurses, which is estimated at 16% during the same time period.3

    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 – PNEG is a professional network of faculty from nursing schools, continuing nursing education professionals, entrepreneurs and nursing staff development professionals that is free to join. 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 colleges and universities, and some PhD nursing programs can be completed fully or partially online. Before applying, check with the individual school to see if they offer an online nursing PhD program.

    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 aspects 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): https://www.aacnnursing.org/
    2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm
    3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm