Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice Right for Me?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a doctoral degree often pursued by advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who want to move into higher levels of employment. It’s the next step beyond the MSN, and many specializations that once required a master’s will soon require a DNP. DNP programs were created as a way to address the national shortage of qualified medical professionals who can provide exceptional patient care.

Why Should I Get a DNP?

In 2006, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing implemented a program to assist nursing schools with transitioning Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs into DNP degree tracks to increase the number of doctoral nurses practicing in the field. DNP programs often require the graduate student to declare a specialization. Specialty options include pediatrics, gerontology, psychiatric, primary care, and midwifery. With the DNP, a nurse practitioner has more potential for filling leadership and administrative positions. Since fewer than one percent of all nurses have a doctoral degree, a DNP is an essential asset when applying for high-level positions.

Another common comparison within the field is DNP vs NP. The difference between the two is DNP refers to the degree earned while NP refers to the job title. Nurse practitioners will often include DNP as part of their titles. A DNP is not required to work as a nurse practitioner, but DNP confirms that the healthcare provider has the expert knowledge and background to diagnose and treat patients. A nurse practitioner with a DNP can secure jobs such as medical executive, clinical researcher, nursing faculty, and healthcare advocate.

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Should I Get My MSN or DNP?

Registered nurses often choose MSN programs when looking to secure advancement opportunities. With an MSN, a nurse can secure positions as a nurse practitioner and advanced practice registered nurse. For the most part, MSN graduates can order diagnostic testing, treat general health concerns, and prescribe medications. MSN degree program options will differ at each higher institution. The college may have online RN to MSN pathways or accelerated MSN tracks. Some programs will even award both an MSN and a DNP at graduation—an easy solution to the MSN vs DNP debate.

All DNP programs focus on direct care, improved patient outcomes, and clinical systems management. Unlike MSN programs, DNP degrees provide training for roles outside of direct care. DNP graduates can choose to pursue careers in advocacy, administration, or education. Typically, colleges offer DNP students two pathway options: clinical practice or leadership. Along with coursework, most DNP degrees require a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours.

DNP degrees take longer to earn than MSN degrees, but students may be able to reduce the timeframe by enrolling in BSN to DNP programs. Depending on the student’s previous educational background, full-time DNP programs can take anywhere from two to four years to complete.

How to Compare a DNP vs PhD in Nursing?

DNP vs PhD in Nursing programs will follow a very different curriculum but are still both considered terminal degrees—meaning the highest level degree possible for nurses. DNP degrees will be focused more on clinical practice while the classes in PhD in Nursing programs are research-based. Nurses looking to secure a position in the field of research or education usually pursue a PhD in Nursing. Most often, DNP graduates remain in the direct care field and secure positions at medical facilities. Capstone projects for PhD candidates will include research findings while capstone projects for DNP graduates will be more evidence-based.

Notably, DNP vs MD programs are not a proper comparison. A DNP degree is the highest level of education a nurse can receive. A MD refers to a medical doctor and includes a different type of graduate training. A MD will typically spend four years as an undergraduate, four years in medical school, and complete a residency between four and six years. In most cases, DNP degrees can be earned in half the time.

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