What Can You Do with a DNP? Career Outcomes and Skills

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What DNP program are you interested in?

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 an online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is an excellent way to accelerate career growth and satisfaction in all of them.

Aspiring nurses may ask, “What can you do with a DNP?” The answer is simple: potentially qualify for a range of lucrative occupations in advanced nursing practice.

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, in 2020 nearly 15% of nurse practitioners held DNP degrees. But becoming a nurse practitioner is only one example of the many careers that can be pursued by DNP degree holders. Nurses who are contemplating pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to DNP program can benefit from learning how a DNP can expand their career options.

What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)?

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 preparing student nurses for leadership positions as well as 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 prepare 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 covers 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 develop 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.

What Can You Do with a DNP?

Pursuing a DNP can position individuals for several career paths. As the examples discussed below demonstrate, the range of what you can do with a DNP is extensive.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners 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.

Furthermore, nurse practitioners are able to manage the complex tasks that coordinating primary and specialty patient care entails. Unlike registered nurses, nurse practitioners with DNPs have the expertise to analyze and interpret patient health data and then use their observations to plan and implement individualized treatment strategies and prescribe medications. Additionally, nurse practitioners can educate their patients about the best ways to manage their chronic illnesses, avoid injuries, and maintain overall healthier lifestyles.

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 specialized fields.

  • Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners (AGPCNPs) plan and implement treatment for adult patients whose ages range from early adolescence to late adulthood. AGPCNPs 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.
  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AGACNPs) focus on providing care to adult patients who are dealing with complex and acute conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. They perform monitoring and develop treatment plans with the goals of both improving a patient’s health and preventing complications in the future. Because of the types of health care on which they focus, AGACNPs can be found working in hospital inpatient and outpatient settings, but they also can work in settings such as trauma units, acute care units, or intensive care units.
  • Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) typically provide primary care to all members of families and educate them about how to improve their health. Examples of their responsibilities include conducting physical exams, creating treatment plans, and performing diagnostic tests. In many states, FNPs are allowed to practice independently, without supervision from a physician. Nurse practitioners can leverage this higher level of autonomy to bring health care to communities that lack ample health care resources.
  • Pediatric practitioners (PNPs) work alongside other pediatric health care providers to provide medical services to children and young patients under age 21. This specialization emphasizes an understanding of child biology and psychology. It also focuses heavily on honing the ability to build partnerships with patients and their families, as collaborating with children and their guardians will help ensure treatments are well received and effective over time.
  • 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 nurse practitioners (WHNPs) focus on providing care to women, particularly pregnant women or those with reproductive health issues. They are also trained to intervene when their patients are displaying signs of emotional distress by offering counseling or other forms of professional support.

As the examples above illustrate, exactly what you can do with a DNP when you work as a nurse practitioner can vary significantly based on your area of interest and state practice authority; however, the general steps to becoming a nurse practitioner are the same for all specialties.

To become a nurse practitioner, the minimum education requirement is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), but choosing to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) may allow for an expanded scope of practice that includes more complex clinical or administrative responsibilities. To pursue either a master’s or doctoral program, students will also need to be licensed as a nurse practitioner in their field of choice. Each specialization has a corresponding accreditation board and licensing process, and 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $111,680 as of May 2020. DNP graduates who are considering entering this field can be optimistic about their prospects of finding employment, as the BLS projects the number of nurse practitioner jobs will grow by a robust 52% between 2019 and 2029.

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. Effective nurse managers must be able to evaluate the performance of their 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, the nurse manager must communicate with his or her colleagues to determine why it isn’t working and then search for a solution. This usually comes easier to nurse managers who have honed their clinical expertise and decision-making skills through a doctoral nursing program.

According to the compensation website PayScale, clinical nurse managers earned a median annual salary of approximately $84,400 as of August 2021.

Nurse Educator

Becoming a nurse educator is a great example of what you can do with a DNP. 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, individuals must be at least a registered nurse with an advanced level of education. The higher the 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 about $77,400 as of August 2021, according to PayScale.

Nurse educators may want to consider additional preparation that emphasizes pedagogical skills. Certifications, such as the Certified Nurse Educator credential offered by the National League for Nursing, provide additional training in this area.

Clinical Nurse Researcher

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, 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 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 median annual pay for a clinical research nurse was about $72,100 as of August 2021.

Nurse Executive

As nurses take on increasing responsibilities in medical institutions, nurse executives are playing a critical role in the evolving modern health care environment. These professionals are responsible for communicating the vision of their organizations and ensuring all nursing units embrace 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. As executives, they can use the same methods to analyze the performance of their departments and help them operate more efficiently. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers a nurse executive certification (NE-BC).

According to PayScale, board-certified nurse executives earned a median annual salary of approximately $134,000 as of August 2021.

Nurse looking after her patient who is in a wheelchair

Why Earn Your DNP?

The benefits of earning a DNP are numerous. As the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) explains.

  • Earning a DNP prepares individuals to better meet the demands of a health care system that is becoming increasingly complex.
  • Equipped with the highest level of scientific education, DNPs have the advanced expertise to promote positive health outcomes.
  • Courses in DNP programs enable nurses to expand their skills in areas such as leadership, quality improvement, and evidence-based practice.
  • DNPs can implement the science that is developed through other types of nursing doctoral programs that are more focused on research.

A 2020 article in the journal Nursing Administration Quarterly outlined additional benefits of becoming a DNP.

  • DNPs’ expertise prepares them for leadership roles through which they can innovate, change, and enhance the delivery of health care.
  • DNPs can promote changes in health care delivery that result in cost savings and improvements in safety.
  • DNPs have the skills to strengthen collaboration, coordination, and open communication among health care professionals.

Skills Required for DNPs

The possibilities for what you can do as a DNP are broad, largely because the skills the degree provides are quite extensive. The precise skills of an individual with a DNP will vary based on the specialization, but the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s core competencies for advanced-level nursing education provide a good overview of general DNP skills. They include:

  • Skills in applying nursing knowledge: This includes, for example, having the ability to put the latest nursing science into practice in providing care, integrate advanced knowledge of specialty areas into clinical reasoning, and evaluate nursing care.
  • Skills in providing holistic, patient-centered care: This includes having the ability to use advanced communication skills, develop evidence-based interventions, and contribute to policies that promote accountability and transparency in health care.
  • Skills in managing population health: Examples of a DNP’s population health management skills include having the ability to identify population-focused priorities for health care, identify opportunities to improve population health through collaboration, and analyze the costs and benefits of interventions in population health.
  • Skills in nursing scholarship: This includes, for example, being able to translate and disseminate nursing knowledge to improve health care, engage in scholarship to advance health care, and evaluate the outcomes of new health care practices.
  • Skills in health care quality and safety: Examples of these skills include knowing how to create benchmarks to monitor health care system performance, analyze errors and situations that could affect safety, and evaluate emergency-preparedness plans.
  • Skills in interprofessional work. This could include, for example, having the ability to consult with other members of a health care team in the DNP’s practice area, facilitate beneficial health care team dynamics to achieve positive outcomes, and integrate diversity into a health care team’s practices.
  • Skills in systems-based practice. Examples of these skills include having the ability to conduct strategic planning for a health care organization, design practices that enhance quality and cost-effectiveness, and manage change to maintain a health system’s effectiveness.

Earning a DNP: The Path to Nursing Leadership

Earning a DNP is a challenging and rewarding endeavor that can place nurses on the path to making a difference through nursing leadership. If what you can do with a DNP sounds appealing, then consider exploring the Regis College 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 course delivery. Start your journey to a fulfilling role in nursing leadership today.


Recommended Readings

5 DNP Careers in the Health Care Industry

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner?

Why You Should Become a Nurse Practitioner



American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, The Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Frequently Asked Questions

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as an Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner?

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, The State of the Nurse Practitioner Profession 2020

American Nurses Association, Nurse Managers

American Nurses Credentialing Center, Nurse Executive Certification (NE-BC)

American Psychiatric Nurses Association, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

PayScale, Average Clinical Nurse Manager Salary

PayScale, Average Clinical Research Nurse Salary

PayScale, Average Nurse Educator Salary

PayScale, Salary for Certification: Nurse Executive – Board Certified (NE-BC)

Nursing Administration Quarterly, “Complexity Science Fosters Professional Advanced Nurse Practitioner Role Emergence”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary