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

Nurse looking after her patient who is in a wheelchair

Nursing is a complex field with many potential career paths. Some nursing professionals choose to focus their careers on technical nursing disciplines, such as nurse education and administration, while others are more interested in clinical practice. Although these disciplines feature different job duties and work environments, they have a common denominator: earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice can accelerate careers in all of them. Aspiring nurses may be asking themselves, “What can I do with a DNP?” The answer is simple: potentially qualify for a range of lucrative occupations in advanced nursing practice.

What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), the first clinical doctoral program in nursing was opened in 1979, creating new opportunities for career-driven nurses to continue their education beyond the master’s level. As DNP programs became more widespread, the curriculum structure evolved as well. The programs became more focused on clinical practice, with the intention of bringing nurses’ capabilities more in line with those of other health care providers, such as physicians and physical therapists. Programs typically focus on teaching student nurses how to deliver patient-centered care as a member of an interdisciplinary team. Today, DNP programs teach students how to adhere to health care standards while implementing the most cost-effective evidence-based care strategies.

Overview of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Curriculum

Academic institutions determine the exact focus of their DNP programs, but several standards are usually consistent. For instance, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing states that the typical DNP program should have an overall objective of preparing students for leadership in evidence-based nursing practice. This means all DNP programs should, at the very least, hone student nurses’ ability to evaluate evidence and use their observations to guide clinical decision-making processes.

Because this is a terminal degree, the curriculum also discusses complex administrative topics, such as how to improve clinical standards using insights learned through collected data. For example, DNP students learn to measure outcomes of clinical programs and use those benchmarks to identify ways to improve the quality of care at their organizations. Because of the leadership competencies they developed during their DNP education, graduates are also prepared to implement those improvements. With such a versatile nursing skill set, DNP graduates have competencies that can be equally valuable in all realms of nursing, including clinical practice, education, management, and research.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are nurses who hold postgraduate degrees and have earned additional certifications to qualify for specialized roles in clinical practice. Like registered nurses, nurse practitioners perform a range of basic nursing tasks, such as recording patient data, performing physical examinations, ordering diagnostic tests, and administering medications and treatments. But nurse practitioners also are able to manage the complex tasks that coordinating primary and specialty patient care entails. Unlike registered nurses, nurse practitioners with DNPs should have the expertise required to analyze and interpret patient health data and then use their observations to plan and implement individualized treatment strategies. Additionally, nurse practitioners should be able to educate their patients about the best ways to manage their chronic illnesses, avoid injuries, and maintain healthier lifestyles overall.

Many nurse practitioners pursue this occupation because they wish to specialize in a particular area of clinical practice. Aspiring nurse practitioners can choose to be certified in any of the following fields:

  • Adult-Gerontology. Adult-gerontology nurse practitioners (AGNPs) plan and implement treatment for adult patients whose ages range from early adolescence to late adulthood. AGNPs should be adept at preventing and managing chronic conditions. Through DNP coursework, they can learn the best ways to manage treatment for the elderly, especially those who are frail and require additional precautions during treatment. This knowledge makes these NPs great candidates for work in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other long-term health care organizations.
  • Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) typically provide primary care to all members of families and educate them about how to improve their health habits. Examples of their responsibilities include teaching children how to manage their diets and educating parents on how to administer medications properly to their children. In many states, FNPs are allowed to practice independently, without supervision from a physician. Nurse practitioners can leverage this higher level of autonomy to get health care into communities that lack ample health care resources.
  • Pediatric nurse practitioners (PNPs) work alongside other pediatric health care providers to provide medical services to children and young adolescents. This specialization emphasizes an understanding of child biology and psychology. It also focuses heavily on honing the practitioner’s ability to build partnerships with patients and their families, as collaborating with children and their guardians will help ensure that treatments are effective over time.
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health. Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) assess the mental health needs of children and adults, develop and execute treatment plans, and prescribe the appropriate psychopharmaceutical medications.
  • Women’s Health. In this specialization, nurse practitioners focus on providing care to women, particularly pregnant women or those who suffer from reproductive health issues. Women’s health nurse practitioners (WHNPs) are also trained to intervene in situations where their patients are displaying signs of emotional distress by offering counseling or other forms of professional support.

To become a nurse practitioner, the minimum education requirement is a Master of Science in Nursing, but choosing to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice may allow for an expanded scope of practice that includes more complex clinical or administrative responsibilities. Regardless of whether a student nurse chooses the master’s or doctoral program, he or she will also need to be licensed as a nurse practitioner in the individual’s field of choice. Each specialization has a corresponding accreditation board and licensing process, but the exact requirements may vary from state to state. Although the path to becoming a nurse practitioner demands a significant investment of time and focus, the degree often pays off: the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $103,880 in 2017. DNP graduates who are considering entering this field can be optimistic about their prospects of finding employment, as the number of jobs in this rapidly growing occupation is expected to grow by 36 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Nurse Manager

Clinical professionals may be at the forefront of most health care environments, but nurse managers play a key role in ensuring that medical institutions maintain an acceptable level of quality for the services they deliver. An effective nurse manager must be able to evaluate the performance of his or her institution’s programs and initiatives, as well as the individual performance of employees. Nurse managers must be able to form a plan of action to correct any issues they notice within their teams. For example, if a program is not performing well, then the nurse manager must communicate with his or her colleagues to determine why it isn’t working and then search for a solution, which should be easier for nurse managers who have honed their clinical expertise and decision-making skills through doctoral nursing programs.

Nurse Educator

The nursing field is currently experiencing a massive talent drain as veteran nurses retire. Nurse educators teach nurses in academic and practical settings, depending on their employers. Nurse education may take place in the classroom or in a clinical setting when necessary. To be a nurse educator, one must be at least a registered nurse with an advanced level of education. The higher one’s level of education, the more advanced coursework the educator will be allowed to teach. With a DNP, nurse educators may be more capable of earning higher pay; the occupation’s median annual salary was $71,260 in 2017.  These professionals may want to consider additional preparation that emphasizes pedagogical skills. Nurse educator certifications, such as the Certified Nurse Educator credential offered by the National League for Nursing, provide additional training in this area.

Clinical Nurse Researcher

When students ask themselves, “What can I do with a DNP?” research may not be the first route that comes to mind. However, nurse researchers are the force behind groundbreaking advancements in nursing theory and practice. They conduct tests and studies to identify new ways for nurses to apply their expertise, as well as to better understand how well medical programs are performing. Nurse researchers may work in labs, evaluate medical journals to determine their accuracy, or conduct research through clinical trials. In clinical trials, researchers work with a team to organize, oversee, and participate in the process of administering new treatments to patients. As they do so, they record and evaluate data in order to find evidence that shows whether the treatment is effective. Through this important work, nurse researchers help clinical professionals deliver health services more effectively, thereby improving patient safety and outcomes. According to PayScale, the average pay for a clinical research nurse is $67,773 annually, but this number fluctuates depending on experience and location.

Nurse Executive

As nurses take on an increasing amount of responsibility in medical institutions, nurse executives are playing a critical role in the modern health care environment. These professionals are responsible for communicating the vision of their organizations and ensuring that all nursing units adhere to that vision while consistently improving the quality of patient care. This requires promoting collaboration among the nursing staff by taking actions such as encouraging nurse managers to mentor their employees or training clinical nurses to improve their leadership skills. At a more technical level, nurse executives must know how to use data and other types of evidence to improve nursing practice. At the executive level, they can use the same methods to analyze the performance of their departments and help them operate more efficiently. Nurses who hold a DNP and have five to 10 years of related work experience may qualify for distinguished nurse executive jobs with salaries in excess of $100,000 annually.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice can open the door to many opportunities in the nursing profession. Therefore, the answer to “What can I do with a DNP?” depends entirely on the career goals and interests of the person asking it. By earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice, student nurses learn about the most cutting-edge concepts in the clinical nursing field, giving them a strong foundation of knowledge to excel in an array of potentially lucrative nursing occupations.

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 an online course delivery method.

Recommended Readings:

Why You Should Become a Nurse Practitioner

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner?

5 DNP Careers in the Health Care Industry


America’s Essential Hospitals

American Association of Colleges of Nursing

American Nurse Today

American Nurses Association

American Organization of Nurse Executives


Bureau of Labor Statistics, NPs

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nursing Instructors

National Institute of Nursing Research

National Library of Medicine, Nurse Managers’ Perceptions

National Library of Medicine, The Doctor of Nursing Practice

NP Journal

Nursing Times