Doctorate degree in nursing
When nurses enter their field with an undergraduate degree, their focus is patient care, administering medication, maintaining records, and monitoring vitals. Those who earn their master’s degree often go on to specialize in clinical roles as nurse practitioners. A doctorate opens up further opportunities, such as reaching the top of the field in either an advanced clinical setting or an administrative or leadership role.
The doctorate is the terminal degree in nursing. There are 2 types: a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing. DNP programs prepare students to continue their clinical nursing practice, applying research to an area of expertise. These graduates can work directly with patients, or behind the scenes setting institutional policies. For students interested in conducting research to contribute to their field, Ph.D. programs offer opportunities in academic environments to advance the science of nursing.
How to get a doctorate in nursing
Before entering into a doctorate program in nursing, determine the program duration by looking at the degree you have already earned and the type of doctorate degree you are targeting.
|Length of study to earn DNP||Length of study to earn Ph.D.|
|Bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)||3-4 years||1-2 years|
|Master of science in nursing (MSN)||4-6 years||3-5 years|
There are also programs offering combined MSN and DNP or Ph.D. degrees, which require a shorter period of study. Whether you study full- or part-time also impacts the total time spent earning your degree.
As a degree designed for existing nurses, most doctorate programs require candidates to be licensed as registered nurses (RNs). In addition, the following experience and qualifications are typical of most DNP and Ph.D. programs:
- BSN or MSN transcripts
- GRE scores
- GPA of 3.0 or higher
- professional letters of recommendations
- resume detailing work history
Requirements can vary according to the specific program, some stipulate accrued hours working as an RN and others require an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) license to enter into the doctorate program.
Sometimes, students decide to change programs and hope to transfer credits from previous coursework. Specific rules regarding transfers vary considerably and policies relating to graduate-level transfers are often less clear than for undergraduate degrees. For this reason, it is important to check with your target school to avoid credit transfer issues.
There are online DNP and Ph.D. in nursing programs available, which may appeal to working nurses. These programs are offered both full- and part-time, and many include asynchronous coursework, which can be completed at the student’s convenience. Due to the nature of the degree, DNP programs require field experience in the form of clinical internships, clinical rotations, or residencies, making these programs less flexible than online Ph.D. programs.
Some programs recognize that students may have a BSN combined with a master’s degree other than an MSN. Entrance to these programs may require specific prerequisite coursework before being admitted to a doctorate program.
Doctorate programs in nursing include a rigorous course load covering a variety of advanced topics within the field of nursing. Programs designed for students starting with a BSN include more foundational courses, while those for students with an MSN begin with the more complicated concepts. Research and statistical analysis is the focus for Ph.D. programs in contrast to clinical applications in DNP syllabi. The list below represents a sample of some of these courses.
Quantitative research methods
Students in this course learn how to distinguish study components, analyze statistical validity, discover sources of bias, and present rationale for causation in research studies.
Chronic illness and care systems
A course that focuses on how nurses guide those with chronic illness through the healthcare system. Students apply theory and clinical experience to address areas like quality of life, mobility, stigma, and chronic pain.
This course focuses on how to improve health outcomes via changes in organizational systems and policies.
Ethics in healthcare practice, leadership and policy
An overview of the central dilemmas faced in healthcare facilities and nursing roles such as resource allocation, patients’ rights, confidentiality, conflict of interest, and informed consent.
This important aspect of DNP programs puts students in practice experiences designed to help them synthesize theoretical components of the program. These experiences are supervised and often take place in conjunction with particular coursework. For example, an internship assessing a hospital’s information system may be undertaken in partnership with a course on healthcare administration.
Ph.D. programs in nursing are designed specifically with a future in research in mind. For this reason, there are no areas of specialization as part of this degree. For students interested in a DNP, however, students can choose from several areas of concentration centered around advanced practice nursing.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations
APRNs are registered nurses with additional training in a particular area of specialization. Many programs allow DNP students to specialize in 1 of 4 APRN specializations.
- Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) – These professionals specialize in female reproductive health and childbirth.
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) – Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia for surgical operations and procedures.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) – Advanced practice nurses whose role may extend into administrative and leadership arenas in addition to clinical work.
- Nurse Practitioner (NP) – These nurses may act as primary healthcare providers similar to a general practitioner, offering primary or urgent care services.
There are 13 sub-fields of nurse practitioners as well, including areas like acute care, geriatrics, orthopedics, or oncology.
It is critical to assure your program and school are properly accredited. This attests to the academic quality and rigor of your program. It is also important should you choose to transfer credits earned, as transfer credits from unaccredited programs are not usually accepted. The most well-respected associations offering accreditation for nursing programs include the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
Careers with a doctorate in nursing
Because of the significant difference in focus between a Ph.D. in nursing and DNP, each program has contrasting professional outcomes. DNPs can be found in both clinical roles in areas such like nurse practitioners or in leadership roles as managers or executives. Meanwhile, Ph.D. graduates are found conducting research, teaching, or working at higher levels of large healthcare organizations. The careers below represent 2 of many options available for graduates of Ph.D. and DNP programs.
Healthcare executiveMedian salary: $104K
Graduates of DNP programs interested in applying their knowledge to improving the quality of services provided by healthcare institutions may choose to become a healthcare executive. These professionals work in facilities such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, home health agencies. In addition to overseeing the daily management of their facility, they identify areas for improvement and develop benchmarks to improve patient care. They also ensure their facility is compliant with local and federal laws and regulations.See more
Director of nursing researchMedian salary: $202K
Ph.D. graduates may find themselves in a leadership role within an independent or academically-based research facility. The director of these facilities acts as a subject matter expert, coordinating and offering insights on research projects. These professionals also manage teams and provide guidance when interpreting results and establishing training protocols.See more
The Ph.D. in nursing and DNP are the terminal degrees in their field. However, there are options available to graduates who want to deepen their knowledge and skills after earning their doctorate. Postdoctoral fellowships offer training for nurses interested in further developing their careers in research. Under the guidance of senior faculty, postdoctoral positions are can be arranged on an individual basis and specialized to meet individual students’ needs. Some schools also offer pre-established postdoctoral fellowship programs.
Where an associate degree was once considered sufficient to begin a career as a nurse, shifting educational norms are motivating nurses to further their education.
Where an associate degree was once considered sufficient to begin a career as a nurse, shifting educational norms are motivating nurses to further their education. As the BSN becomes the standard for a basic nursing career, an impetus toward post-graduate degrees is likely to grow. While not all nurses are driven to reach the top of their field, those who do are sure to have plenty of options as doctorate in nursing degree programs increase in popularity.
The ANA offers unique organizational credentialing programs in addition to individual credentialing support, job offers, and educational events.
The AANP offers its members education, career support, state and federal advocacy for the profession, and discounts on certifications.
The ABNS supports nurses looking to specialize in their field by delivering certification programs and yearly educational events on various credentialing topics.
This association is an excellent resource for Ph.D. students and graduates, offering professional development, job opportunities, and certification support.