For decades, the highest level of U.S. nursing education was the research-focused Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. With the rise of the clinical-focused Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, nurses now have a second terminal degree program that advances healthcare skills and education.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who are pursuing a terminal degree in nursing have two distinct choices. A Ph.D. in nursing allows APRNs to function in research and academic settings, expanding theoretical, empirical, and philosophical foundations. A DNP allows APRNs to focus on direct patient care, utilizing evidence-based skills and practices to improve health outcomes.
In general, the biggest difference between the two programs is how the science of healthcare is applied to patient outcomes.
Both the DNP and Ph.D. in Nursing started as a way to address changing patient needs. Many experts see the two programs working collaboratively: the Nursing Ph.D. researches science and presents evidence and the DNP uses the research and evidence to improve bedside care.
Nursing Ph.D. programs started in the 1960s as a way to focus nurse education on theory development, health policy, statistics, and research design. The coursework is highly individualized to develop proficiencies in a selected area of research. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) said the fast-moving changes in science and advances in technology make the Ph.D. program a vital component for nurse participation in interdisciplinary collaboration.
The DNP degree program began in the early 2000s when various healthcare research groups, including the Institute of Medicine (IoM) and the AACN, called for a clinical doctoral degree program for nurses to focus on direct patient care. The DNP degree was developed as a means to give APRNs a voice in the business, management, and leadership sides of nursing.
The Ph.D. in Nursing is grounded in the science and philosophy of nursing, with a focus on developing and utilizing scientific approaches in real-world situations. The goal is to advance an APRN’s academic and scientific profile. The degree program builds on advanced master’s education to prepare students for careers rooted in inquiry, research, and academic study.
Nursing Ph.D. programs generally include three to four years of coursework, with that focus on the philosophy of nursing science and theory, methods of scientific inquiry, and quantitative methods related to healthcare. Ph.D. students must complete and defend a dissertation with original research to graduate.
After graduation, Nursing Ph.D.s work in a variety of positions, including the following:
A Nursing Ph.D. also prepares graduates to work in administrative positions in healthcare information technology, research groups, and domestic and international health advocacy foundations.
As a newly emerging advanced degree in nursing, the role of the DNP degree program in the overall scheme of healthcare is still being defined. At the same time, healthcare experts see the DNP as an academic degree, not a role. The main purpose of the DNP program is to prepare graduates for evidence-based practices (EBPs) to be used in patient care, healthcare policy, and leadership. Coursework includes a focus on ethical leadership, biostatistics, and social justice.
DNP graduates must complete clinical practice hours and a residency. The AACN also recommends DNP students have familiarity with the following topics as they relate to clinical care:
DNP graduates work as influencers with an eye on positive patient-focused results. These careers include:
As an increasing number of nurses and primary care physicians retire, healthcare regulations change, and chronic medical conditions rise, there is a growing need for both Ph.D.- and DNP-trained professionals. Both doctoral degrees give APRNs the skills to work in a variety of settings, including education, research, and leadership.
At the heart of the degree programs are academic institutions that enable success, such as Duquesne University’s advanced education programs. The university offers both fields of study online: the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program and the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing degree.
Duquesne University has been a leader in advanced nursing education for decades, starting the first completely online Nursing Ph.D. program in the United States. The university’s online DNP program connects APRNs with the nation’s leading nurse educators. The university has been ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Online Graduate Nursing Programs” and recognized as a leader in advanced nurse education.