Understanding the Basics: Doctor of Nursing Practice vs. Ph.D

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Doctor of nursing translating research data

Traditionally, a Ph.D. was the doctoral degree obtained in the nursing industry. However, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) has emerged as a viable option for nursing professionals, partially as a response to significant shifts in both society and the world of nursing. While they are both advanced terminal degrees that share commonalities, comparing a DNP vs. Ph.D. reveals a few differences.

Similarities Between a DNP and Ph.D.

When doing a side-by-side study of a DNP vs. Ph.D., a few similar traits emerge. For instance, both the DNP and Ph.D. are terminal degrees, meaning they are the most advanced degrees in the fields of nursing. Students who complete either curriculum are expected to contribute to the future of health care; synthesizing concepts from the rapidly changing sphere of health into strategies that serve to improve patient outcomes.

Because the two degrees point to the same goal, those who obtain either degree may work as nurse practitioners, once they earn the proper credentials. Additionally, the two degrees are a natural fit for collaboration. Some have observed that DNPs and Ph.D.s working in concert could streamline the process of turning nursing research into genuine nursing practice.

DNP vs. Ph.D. Differences

The most significant difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. degree is their fundamental purpose. A Ph.D. specifically prepares nursing professionals to focus on the research and research methodologies in the health care industry. A DNP, on the other hand, is a clinical degree charged with translating research data into health care policy and practice. While overlap exists between these two focuses, there is enough differentiation to distinguish them as separate pursuits.

Because each degree carries a different purpose, the respective career paths associated with each also vary. Those successfully completing a Ph.D. may pursue positions related to nursing research, nursing education, or health policy. Those with a DNP degree usually find employment in positions relating to nursing leadership, health care administration and policy, management, or academia.

Differences in Degree Requirements

There are significant differences in the degree requirements of a DNP vs. Ph.D. Perhaps the largest differentiator is the amount of clinical work required to obtain either degree. While the clinical hours required for a Ph.D. are minimal, those pursuing a DNP may need to complete as many as 1,000 hours of clinical work before graduation. This makes sense, considering the  primary focus of a DNP is on clinical practice.

The final academic project is also another element that separates the two degrees. A Ph.D. requires a dissertation related to the field of nursing, along with a dissertation defense. A DNP requires what is referred to as a capstone project; a scholarly project devoted to the transformation of a researched theory into real-life practice.

Some programs allow prospective students with a bachelor’s degree to pursue a DNP or Ph.D. However, most require a master’s degree as a prerequisite. In the case of a DNP, this is typically defined by an MSN (Master’s of Science in Nursing) to DNP curriculum.

Comparing Job Duties

The typical job duties of someone with a Ph.D. generally reflect the degree’s research-based nature. Common roles may include instructing students in a classroom setting, shaping class curriculum, coordinating a facility’s research program, and overseeing the daily operations of a health care facility.

The job duties of a DNP may mirror some of the duties of a Ph.D. holder, but there are several differentiating factors that make the role unique. Common roles within a DNP’s job description may include managing a team of nurses or staff, determining leadership roles in the area of patient care, developing specific procedures or health care policies, and educating the public on various health care issues.

Potential Salaries and Job Outlook

The pay for jobs associated with a DNP is comparable to those linked to a Ph.D. DNP pay may in fact be slightly higher. The median wage for positions associated with the degrees range from approximately $107,000 to $136,000, depending on the survey. This median wage is projected to rise in response to increased demand for qualified candidates in the health care industry.

The job outlook for a DNP is very strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 31 percent growth in the field from 2016 to 2026. This rate is much faster than the average growth rate of other occupations. The BLS cites a greater emphasis on preventive care and an increased demand from an aging population as the impetus behind this growth.


While both degrees share some common traits, comparing a DNP vs. Ph.D. reveals a few differences. Prospective students who are pursuing an MSN to DNP curriculum can expect to prepare for hands-on clinical practice in the rapidly changing world of health care. Ultimately, this preparation may lead to the creation of practices, methods, and policies that translate into improved patient outcomes.

Learn More

Graduates with an MSN to DNP education have a wide range of possible career paths to take, including research, clinical practice, administration, and academic instruction. These graduates are well positioned to take advantage of the changes in health care and nursing while advancing their careers. Regis College offers a rigorous online MSN to DNP degree program that prepares students for post-graduate careers and offers a flexible online learning format.


Recommended Reading

How a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree Can Lead to Better Patient Outcomes

Career Opportunities for Graduates with a DNP Degree

Meeting the Need for Qualified Nurses with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)


National Center for Biotechnology Information

Bureau of Labor Statistics