A DNP (doctor of nursing practice) and Ph.D. in Nursing are vastly different than an MD (doctor of medicine). The former are highly-trained nurses, and the latter is a physician, with all the scope of practice allowances that come with that title.

A "DNP" is an advanced-practice registered nurse who may specialize in the following roles:

The DNP nurse has achieved one of the highest degrees awarded in the field of nursing (next to the Ph.D. in Nursing, which is just as prestigious but has more of an academic focus compared to the clinical focus of the DNP). It demonstrates that the nurse exemplifies clinical expertise and knowledge in the field and that the nurse is skilled in identifying healthcare-related issues and can propose evidence-based solutions in the ever-changing world of healthcare.

The Role of the MD

An MD is a medical doctor, also known as a physician. While it may be evident that a DNP (or Ph.D. in Nursing) is a nurse and an MD is a doctor, the explanation of the differences goes a little deeper than the title. It's important to realize that nurses and doctors are trained differently:

  • Nurse Approach – The nurse's approach to healthcare is holistic. Nurses view the patient as a whole – which means they assess the physical, mental, and even spiritual well-being of patients. They also look at, and involve, a patient's support system in relation to disease processes. Patient education and teaching are paramount in that it helps to both heal and prevent disease.
  • Physician Approach – The physician's approach to healthcare is disease-based. They are presented with a healthcare disorder and find ways to fix it. They order imaging tests and blood work to diagnose and order a treatment plan. However, in recent years, preventive medicine is becoming a huge part of a physician's job.


DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing

Both a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. 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.

Conversely, those who hope to get into education, research, and leadership would benefit from the Ph.D. path. Nurses with a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. nurses, the educational curriculum differs as well. DNP students must complete a capstone project that involves identifying an issue in healthcare and proposing evidence-based solutions. While this sounds more aligned with a Ph.D. program, the project should pertain to their specific clinical area. Additionally, the DNP program has an immersive clinical practicum which is required to graduate.

RELATED: Dual DNP/Ph.D. Nursing Programs

The Ph.D. 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 on patient care to improve outcomes.

What Is the Salary Difference Between a DNP and Ph.D. in Nursing?

As the highest degrees in nursing practice, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.) degrees can catapult advanced practice nurses to the top of the pay range. Some prospective students, however, may wonder how the salaries of these different degree types stack up. The short answer is that the differences in salary between nurses who hold a DNP and those with a Ph.D. are minimal, with an average difference of approximately $4,000 per year. However, things such as location, organization, and job title will ultimately determine a salary for a nurse with either degree type.

DNP Salary

A DNP operates at the highest level of clinical practice, and the salary average for a nurse with this degree lands at approximately $100,000 per year. This is variable amongst jobs, as a clinician salary is higher than an educator salary. In other words, individuals who work at universities teaching nursing students average less income than those practicing with patients. For example, a DNP practicing as an Advanced Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner averages closer to $110,000 per year. Most DNP-prepared RNs tend to opt for clinical practice careers. Some job titles a DNP may search for include: Advanced Practitioner, Quality Improvement Manager, Healthcare Informaticist, Clinical Educator, Policy Maker, and more.

Ph.D. Salary

A Ph.D. prepared nurse spends time researching, conducting analysis and performing scientific studies. They also commonly enter academia as professors and educators. According to Payscale, a Ph.D. educated nurse's average salary is $96,000 per year. This makes the salary very competitive in comparison to that of a DNP. Similar to a DNP-prepared nurse, there is variability in salary depending on setting and institution. A nurse researcher can expect to earn a yearly salary of approximately $95,000 per year. Some job titles a Ph.D. may search for include: Nurse Researcher, Nurse Scientist, Policy Maker, Academic Professor, Author.

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