Nurses with a master’s degree who feel they are ready to take the next step in their career may contemplate earning either a DNP or a Ph.D. They are both seen as terminal degrees but come from a very different practice.

A DNP (Doctor of Nursing practice) is a clinical practice degree, while a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in nursing) is a degree that is more focused on research.

Nurse practitioners can choose to study for either degree, though a DNP is preferable. A Ph.D. is usually earned by those that have a master’s degree in Nursing Education.


Going from RN to DNP or Ph.D., perhaps at Wilkes University, takes time and energy, and it is essential to know precisely what is entailed in both and what the outcomes of achieving either degree will be.

It can take almost twice as long to gain a Ph.D. as it does a DNP. A DNP can be earned in one year of full-time study, while it is impossible to get a Ph.D. in under three years.

Certifications for DNPs must be renewed every five years either via practice hours, examination, or continuing hours of education. At the same time, no certification needs renewing except advanced practice degrees for Ph.D. prepared nurses.

The average healthcare salary trends indicate that DNPs earn $125,000 – $150,000 per year depending on the place of employment. The median annual wage for Ph.D. nurse educators is around $83,160.

DNPs and Ph.Ds are both very much in demand given the aging population, an ongoing nursing shortage, the retirement of many nurse educators, and the recent pandemic crisis.

Curriculum differences

The curriculum varies considerably between the Ph.D. and DNP in nursing.

Ph.D. programs are more concerned with developing skills in research and writing, with particular emphasis being placed on the utilization of qualitative and quantitative methods.

More time is also spent in the curriculum on developing an understanding of the discipline’s history and current opportunities and challenges.

By contrast, the DNP is more focused on creating advanced clinical skills for use within advanced practice roles, with students spending a great deal of their time performing examinations of how research can translate into their actual professional nursing work.

DNP students will need to perform around 1000 hours of clinical work practice within a professional setting as part of the requirements for graduation. Ph.D. nursing students do not have to complete clinical hours because the large majority of their work will not take place in clinical settings.

Ph.D. students will spend much more of their time on research. Some career outcomes for Ph.D. graduates are focused on the production of original research. Most programs require the completion of a long-form dissertation focused on a unique topic within the discipline.

Another graduation requirement for DNP students is to complete a capstone project to demonstrate their practical experience and knowledge, while Ph.D. students will need to defend their dissertation in front of a committee.

Prospective students need to be aware of all the differences between a DNP and Ph.D. program before enrolment.