How to Balance School and Work: Earning Your DNP as a Full-Time Nurse

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A nurse pauses to smile at the camera in a hospital corridor.Demand for advanced practice nurses is sky-high. Nurse practitioners will see a 46% increase in jobs from 2021-2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nurse educators will benefit from 21% job growth. And health care managers, including nurse leaders, will see a 28% increase.

Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree prepares nurses for these in-demand advanced practice roles.

Many students in DNP programs are working nurses. Balancing school and work in a DNP program poses unique challenges. Doctoral programs set high academic standards, and undertaking a DNP project challenges even experienced nurses.

Nurses considering a DNP can benefit from understanding the common issues working DNP students face and learning strategies to overcome those challenges.

Challenges for DNP Students Balancing School and Work

DNP students strengthen their leadership, clinical decision-making, and educator skills. However, many report difficulty balancing their personal responsibilities, including work, with coursework.

In a 2022 survey of DNP graduates, the AACN identified several common challenges. These included a lack of time for the DNP project, program costs, and difficulty adapting to demanding academic expectations. Issues such as time management and prioritization affected many students.

By learning how to balance school and work, DNP students can thrive in their program while also working as full-time nurses.

4 Tips for Balancing School and Work in a DNP Program

How can nursing students balance their work schedule with a rigorous doctoral-level program? Planning ahead and choosing the right program can put nursing students on a successful path. Here are four tips on how to balance school and work in a DNP program.

1. Choose a Flexible Program

Nursing programs are not interchangeable. Some require a significantly higher time investment. Today, many nursing students choose online programs because of their flexibility. And many online nursing programs design their curriculum for working students.

The delivery method can make a major difference for working nurses. By taking classes online in an asynchronous format, nurses can arrange their coursework around often irregular nursing shifts. Full-time nurses in particular often find it easier to enroll online.

2. Design a Feasible DNP Project

DNP programs typically require a final capstone project known as a DNP project. Completing an extensive, time-intensive DNP project can challenge full-time nurses. The key for many of these students is to design a feasible project from the start. To this end, nurses should not ignore the potential benefits of working closely with nursing faculty in their program to design the project.

For example, DNP students can consider a project that leverages experience from their current workplace. By considering the DNP project early in the program, students can set themselves up for success.

3. Take Advantage of Student Resources

The best DNP programs support nursing students with academic advising, career counseling, and other resources. By taking advantage of these resources, working students can balance their coursework with professional responsibilities.

For example, faculty advisors can help DNP students plan out their classes and clinical placements. Financial aid counselors can also connect doctoral students with scholarships and grants to ease monetary pressures.

4. Plan Ahead

Balancing school and work challenges nurses at every stage of their education. As nurses quickly learn, planning ahead and using time management skills are critical.

DNP students can research their course load for each term in advance to align their work schedule with the time commitment required for classes. Then, nurses can create a weekly schedule that blocks off time for classes, projects, and study.

The Benefits of a DNP

Nurses, employers, and academic leaders all agree that a DNP best prepares nurses for the highest roles in the field, according to a 2022 survey by the AACN. Even nurses with an MSN benefit from pursuing a doctorate.

Nurses with a DNP can move into leadership and autonomous roles. Nurse practitioners, nurse educators, and nursing executives all benefit from holding the highest degree in nursing practice. Many of these areas report shortages. For example, specialized DNP training can help address the nurse educator shortage. As suggested by these shortages, demand for nurse practitioners continues to grow.

While an MSN degree prepares nurses for some advanced practice roles, those with a doctorate often boast a more expansive skill set. DNP programs build critical thinking and leadership skills, while honing clinical expertise and building knowledge of nursing policy. Nurse educator DNP programs also provide exceptional preparation for teaching future nurses. DNP nurses can improve both patient care and health outcomes.

Nearly 20 years ago, the AACN called for the DNP to replace the MSN as the required education for advanced practice roles. Since then, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties have also called for more nurses to earn a DNP. These organizations all agree that a DNP pays off for nurses and their patients.

Earn Your DNP at Regis College

A DNP can help nurses increase their earning potential, move into specialized roles, and practice with greater autonomy. By planning ahead, nursing students can overcome the challenges that come with balancing school and work.

At Regis College, the online MSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program uses an accessible online format designed for working nurses. In as little as two years, you can train as a nurse practitioner, nurse educator, or nurse leader. Contact Regis to learn more about earning your DNP degree while working full time.

Recommended Readings

Is a DNP Worth It?

Nurse Time Management: Tips and Techniques for Nurses and Nursing Students

What Are Some Doctor of Nursing Practice Specialties?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, AACN Fact Sheet – DNP

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “The State of Doctor of Nursing Practice Education in 2022”

American Nurse, “All About the DNP Project”

ATI Nursing Education, “How to Balance a Job While in Nursing School”

Indeed, “Guide To Working While in Nursing School”

Nursing Times, “How to Manage Your Time Effectively”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational projections and worker characteristics”