What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree prepares the nurse to be a leader in healthcare and to integrate evidence-based practice into nursing care. A DNP differs from a PhD in that it is a doctorate that is focused on clinical practice whereas a PhD is focused on research. A DNP program will focus more on clinical practice and less on theory and research when compared to a PhD program. Your coursework will prepare you to care for patients at the advanced level, and you will also take courses in systems leadership, quality improvement, and other areas that will prepare you to be a leader.

DNP programs are relatively new. In 2004 schools affiliated with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) decided that a doctorate should be required for people who wish to become an APRN. While some NP programs have made this change, certifying bodies do not require a DNP degree for people to become Certified Nurse Practitioners (CNPs). At this time master’s educated NPs are still able to become certified and licensed to practice.

Why Should I Earn a Doctor in Nursing Practice?

Getting your DNP will not only enable you to provide advanced clinical care to patients in a variety of settings, but will also prepare you to be a leader and innovator in healthcare. While master’s prepared Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) are still able to get certified and licensed, the DNP degree has been recommended as the terminal degree for APRNs. It is likely that this will become more certain in the future. By getting your DNP you will already be prepared for this transition. If you are seeking a terminal degree in nursing but want to focus on clinical care rather than research, the DNP is for you.

Entrance Requirements for DNP Programs

Entrance requirements may vary a little by university. In general, you can expect entrance requirements similar to what Duke University requires:

  • Associates degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in nursing: You will need an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) and your RN or a bachelor’s degree in any field to apply to DNP programs.
  • GRE: You must take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and submit scores to your potential schools.
  • Complete pre-requisites: You may need to take certain pre-requisites such as biology, statistics, and chemistry depending on what you majored in during your bachelors.
  • GPA: Some programs will require that you have a GPA above a 3.0 from your post-secondary education.
  • Letters of reference: Most DNP programs will require 1 or more letters of reference.
  • Submit applications: Each school you apply to will have its own application that you need to complete. You will have to answer basic questions about yourself, write 1 or more essays and/or a personal statement, and submit materials such as past transcripts. You will likely also need to pay a processing fee.
  • Interview: Some DNP programs will interview applicants prior to making admission decisions.

What Pathways Exist for Earning My Doctor in Nursing Practice?

There are multiple ways to become a DNP prepared nurse depending on your educational and professional background. Even if you are not a nurse or do not have your BSN you can earn your DNP.

  • RN to DNP: As an ADN prepared RN you can apply for DNP programs that will provide you with the education and training to earn both your BSN and DNP.
  • BSN to DNP: If you have your BSN you can earn your DNP in about 4 years.
  • Bachelors to DNP: A Direct Entry DNP program enables you to earn your DNP even if you have a bachelors in something other than nursing. During a Direct Entry program, you will be trained first as a nurse and then will enter the DNP program. You will likely have to have taken courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry and more prior to applying. A Direct Entry DNP program will take you about 4 to 5 years to complete.
  • MSN to DNP: A DNP program will take about 2 to 3 years if you already have your master’s in nursing.

Online DNP Programs

In an effort to make higher education more accessible for the busy adult online programs have become popular in many professions. Nursing education has jumped on board and offers online programs to people interested in earning their DNP. These programs are offered by universities accredited by the ACEN or CCNE. Online programs enable you to complete your assignments and class discussions in an online format. Online classes offer more flexibility for the busy student. Your school can also help you organize clinical experiences in a location convenient for you and with preceptors who work within your chosen population and specialty.

What DNP Specializations Are Available?

Nurse Practitioner (NP): As an NP you will provide direct clinical care including assessing, diagnosing, treating, and following up with patients. You will focus in one of the following populations:

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): As a CNS you will provide specialized nursing care to patients that may include diagnosing and prescribing medication depending on where you work. See our CNS guide for more details.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): You will be able to independently care for and provide anesthesia and pain medication to patients in all 50 states.

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM): You will provide comprehensive care to women throughout their lifespan with the ability to prescribe medication in all 50 states.

What Will I Study in My DNP Program?

DNP program curriculums can vary by university and what type of APRN you decide to become. There are certain required courses that will be the same across all DNP programs, and others will be specific to your specialty or university. You can expect to take some of the following courses that are offered at Vanderbilt University regardless of your school or specialty:

  • Nursing Theory
  • Quality Improvement and Patient Safety
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Statistics
  • Ethics in Nursing
  • Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Evidence-Based Practice
  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Nursing Concepts