DNP vs. PhD: Prioritize Clinical Nursing or Nursing Research Careers with Your Degree

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Doctor of Nursing Practice


When seeking to further their expertise in their field, career-driven nurses can opt between two terminal nursing degrees: the Doctor of Nursing Practice and the PhD in nursing. Interested students may be wondering what the difference is between the two and which one will better align with their professional goals.

Although the two programs overlap to some extent, it is important to understand that the overall purpose of each program is unique. Traditionally, the PhD has been the standard degree for tenure-track faculty positions, and as such, it emphasizes scientific foundations, research methodology, and scholarly investigation. The Doctor of Nursing Practice is another option for nurses who are seeking terminal degrees. It focuses on preparing nurses to provide evidence-based patient care. Students who prioritize clinical nursing will benefit from earning a DNP, while those who want to prioritize nursing research might find the PhD to be a better fit.

DNP vs. PhD: Career Outcomes

Graduates of PhD programs are trained primarily as researchers. Students in PhD courses tackle complex questions about health care and formulate solutions to improve treatment outcomes. The degree sets most students on an academic path, with the expectation that many will become faculty members and researchers at institutions of higher education.

A DNP prepares students for leadership positions and administrative roles within the health care industry. As experts at the highest level of clinical nursing, they may seek roles as executives in health care organizations, directors of clinical programs, and developers of care delivery for specific populations. Because the DNP is a terminal degree, graduates can also teach at the university level, but their pedagogical focus is still usually on clinical practice.

While DNP and PhD graduates generally have different professional objectives, their roles are complementary, and there is ample opportunity for collaboration. A report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs titled “Doctoral Nursing: Roles, Partnering, and Opportunities for DNP and PhD Collaboration” delineates the many benefits of establishing working relationships between nursing professionals with research-focused doctorates and those with practice-focused doctorates. PhDs can assist DNPs with study design and methodology, data collection and evaluation, statistical analysis, and regulatory compliance. Their scholarly work can point to previously unknown results that could impact the implementation of treatment.

On the other hand, DNPs are particularly skilled at translating scholarly research into actual practice. This core strength allows them to assist PhDs by evaluating the sustainability, performance measures, and financial impact of health initiatives; assessing provider practices; granting access to data and other indicators; and implementing evidence-based improvements in a clinical setting. DNPs are considered the “boots on the ground” in this partnership, and their expertise is crucial in guiding the theoretical underpinnings of academic research.

DNP vs. PhD: Requirements

When deciding whether to prioritize clinical nursing or nursing research careers, students can benefit from having a thorough understanding of the requirements for each degree. The DNP and the PhD are similar, but their distinct objectives shape their curricula in different ways.

The average time to complete a PhD program is four to six years, and each student must write a dissertation that presents the results of an independent and original research project. Because of the emphasis on scholarly investigation, most PhD programs offer classes on methodology and data collection, the history and philosophy of nursing, scientific content and foundation, and other theoretical issues that are important to the field.

DNP programs tend to be shorter, with an average completion time of three to four years. Since it is a practice-oriented degree, there is a strong emphasis on immersive experiences in clinical settings. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommends a minimum of 1,000 hours of practice for supervised postbaccalaureate programs. DNP students complete a final project as well, but it’s important to note that it need not be a dissertation. Instead, the final project can take forms that are more appropriate for those who want expertise in clinical nursing. For example, it can be an evaluation of a new health care initiative, guidelines for a new quality improvement program, a collaborative group study, or an analysis of treatment implementation. The project should arise from clinical nursing and demonstrate that the doctoral candidate can adequately translate research into implementation.

DNP vs. PhD: Practical Skills

The DNP and PhD represent the highest level of expertise in nursing, and the programs generally promote different skills.

Some of the practical skills that PhD programs emphasize include:

  • Designing and conducting independent research projects, including obtaining funding, managing research teams, and publishing the results
  • Testing hypotheses, instituting methodologies, and generating and analyzing results
  • Teaching and mentoring within academia

The DNP prepares candidates to graduate with competencies in the following areas:

  • Scientific foundations for patient care
  • Organizational and systems leadership
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Using medical technologies to improve patient care
  • Health care policy and advocacy
  • Interprofessional collaboration within the health care industry
  • Disease prevention and population health
  • Advanced specialized nursing practice

DNP vs. PhD: Are They Necessary? 

Career-driven nurses should consider enrolling in graduate programs to achieve their professional goals, whether they seek to prioritize clinical nursing or nursing research. The health care industry is under growing pressure to adapt to technological advances, aging populations, and shortages of nursing personnel. While these changes are creating a number of challenges, they are also giving rise to new opportunities for nurses. As the demand for services intensifies, the overall employment of specialized nurses is projected to grow 31 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Furthermore, nurses with graduate degrees are often more likely to report job satisfaction and see an increase in wages.

Learn More 

Regis College prepares nurse practitioners to take the next step in their careers with the online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program. RNs with a bachelor’s degree who enroll in the program experience the same rigorous academic classes as traditional students but with the flexibility of online courses.

Recommended Readings:

NP to DNP: In Less Than 10 Years, All Nurse Practitioners May Need to Hold a DNP

Can You Get a Doctorate in Nursing?

What Can I Do with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)



American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, PhD Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice”

Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs