You already know that nurses and doctors are different from one another. Nurses can get degrees to become doctors, but doctors aren’t known to do the opposite. However, there aren’t many cases where RNs choose to change their field entirely. Nurses work just as hard as doctors to do their jobs and they stick to their paths, especially the ones who want a long-term career.

Nurses who wish to advance to better positions in their careers have multiple options, but the highest qualification they can have as a practicing nurse is a doctorate degree. There are two types of doctorate degrees available to nurses: a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) and a PhD. The level of qualification these two degrees offer is the same, but they are very different from one another.

Because doctorate degrees require a high level of commitment, it is essential to confirm you are choosing the best one for you. If you are an ambitious nurse who is looking to advance your studies and you already have a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, here is some advice for choosing the right doctorate program.

How are they different?


Before moving on to the comparison, one very basic difference between the two degrees is that a DNP is specific to nursing in the sense that only registered and experienced nurses can pursue this degree. A PhD, in contrast, can be pursued by anyone as long as they have the right academic qualifications in their respective fields. A PhD can specialize in any field of study, but to keep the discussion relevant to the topic of nursing, we will focus on a PhD in nursing specifically.

Focus of the degree

A DNP is focused on practicing nursing, whereas a PhD is focused on research work in nursing. This means that if you choose a DNP, there will be a significant amount of practical training that you have to undergo; if a PhD is your choice, most of your time would be spent reading and writing academic papers.

The time span of the degree

A DNP is shorter in terms of the time it takes to complete the degree compared to a PhD. It takes around two years to complete a DNP, while a PhD could take between four and seven years. This is because research is slow and tedious work that requires a lot of dedication.

The requirements for graduation are another reason for the difference in duration. In any PhD degree, writing a dissertation paper is essential, and it is a process that can take several years. In a DNP, you are assigned a capstone project that has to be completed within a set time period and involves practical application of nursing knowledge in administering care. It does not need to be a researched or innovative solution; it just has to be the correct one to prove you have what it takes to deliver advanced care to patients.

DNP is a newer concept


Before 2004, the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree did not exist. It was introduced in the United States in an effort to promote the credibility nurses hold in caregiving settings. Unfortunately, some people still believe that nurses are not to be trusted in the absence of doctors. In a way, this is good because now nurses have a very good chance of pursuing a relevant degree that can do wonders for their clinical careers. PhDs, on the other hand, have been around for much longer.


The eligibility criteria for the two degree programs are very similar, but there are some important differences to be aware of. If you want to pursue a DNP, you must be a registered nurse or even an APRN with a Master’s degree and a minimum of 240 completed practicum hours, which are the hours spent on practicing what you have been taught. To be a PhD student, being a registered nurse is a must, but you also have to have a minimum of one year of work experience in nursing. Nurses with only a Bachelor’s degree can also pursue a PhD without getting a Master’s.

Career paths


This is the point of difference that is important to assess when choosing between the two degrees. If you are more research-oriented and you prefer to work in the investigative and academic side of nursing, you should get a PhD. Nurses who choose to get this degree normally take the route of policy making in healthcare. Some of the areas they work in include governmental jobs, schools, colleges, healthcare organizations and research centers.

If teaching has been a goal for you or you are very passionate about contributing to education, you can teach future nurses or current ones by getting a PhD; DNPs do not find a lot of work in teaching. Some community colleges are open to hiring DNPs for teaching future nurses, but if you want a job as a tenured professor in a prestigious institute, you will need a PhD.

If you are a nurse who is very passionate about the clinical work that you do and want to advance to a higher level, a DNP is perfect for you. You will have to apply the research-backed concepts you learn to your training activities during the degree, thereby making it a very hands-on approach. Because this is the highest qualification a practicing nurse can get, a DNP can get you a solid career in specialized care units, advocacy groups, educational institutes, administrative roles and even your own clinical practice.

Nurses who choose PhDs are more passionate about learning new ways to help their fellow nurses and healthcare professionals in finding better practices and improving the quality of care given to patients. In short, getting a PhD will enable you to contribute to the knowledge that goes into improving existing medicinal healthcare systems, while a DNP will grant you the access to apply said knowledge to improve systems.

Whether you choose online nursing degrees or you want to attend classes in person, keep your interests, inclinations and future goals in mind before settling on an option. An online program like those offered by Walsh University is a great way to advance your studies while continuing to work in the field. It should be noted that DNP graduates have more job opportunities compared to those with a PhD because their work is more practical and needed in a variety of settings.



The salaries you can potentially earn from these two career paths are quite different. If money is an important motivator for you in choosing your specialization, keep in mind that a DNP is paid more than a PhD. DNPs, on average, may earn anywhere from $155,000 to $205,000 depending on the area in which they specialize. PhDs, on the other hand, can expect an approximate salary of around $99,000 per year. It is still a very respectable income, but it is less than what DNPs make.


Ultimately, if you have what it takes to get a doctorate degree on top of working as a registered nurse, you are already on the right path to success. Although the decision about which degree to earn can be a difficult one to make, you are likely to enjoy a fulfilling career either way. Thankfully, the only thing that the two degrees have in common is the level of qualification achieved; everything else is different, so making up your mind shouldn’t be too difficult.

You just need to understand how much time you want to dedicate to getting an advanced degree, how much money you want to earn in the future, what career path you want to pursue after graduation and how much work you have to put in to qualify for the programs. Once you know the answers to these fundamental questions, you will know which of the two doctorate degrees is a better fit for you and for your future.

If you are still at a point where you value your hands-on skills and want to learn more to work with patients directly, get a DNP. However, if your interests have now shifted to working behind the scenes to research and understand how the current healthcare system can be improved, you should aim for a PhD. No matter what you choose, you can expect a very promising future career.