Both a PhD and DNP are considered terminal degrees for nurses, and both degrees demonstrate that the nurse is a clinical expert in his or her field. However, there are differences between the two.

The main difference is that a DNP is focused more on clinical practice, while a PhD is research-focused. Choosing which degree path to take is based on the career goals of the nurse. MSN-prepared nurses practicing in an advanced role (i.e., nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, CRNA) who wish to expand their knowledge base and achieve a terminal degree to enhance their practice would benefit from choosing the DNP path.

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Conversely, those who hope to get into education, research, and leadership would benefit from the PhD path. Nurses with a PhD use evidence-based research to develop policies and procedures and implement workflows that align with standards of care. They are especially involved with improving patient care outcomes based on research findings.

As with the differing roles of the DNP and PhD nurses, the educational curriculum differs as well. DNP students must complete a capstone project that involves identifying an issue in healthcare and proposing evidenced-based solutions. While this sounds more aligned with a PhD program, the project should pertain to their specific clinical area. Additionally, the DNP program has an immersive clinical practicum which is required to graduate.

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The PhD curriculum is more research-based. Students must complete an original research project and complete a dissertation which may also include teaching. The curriculum does not include patient care clinical hours.

Regardless of which path is chosen, both degree options allow for expert nurses and practitioners to make an impact in patient care to improve outcomes.

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