A DNP degree (or a Doctor of Nursing Practice) is a doctoral degree commonly sought by nurse practitioners (NPs) and other advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). It is the highest degree level that a nurse can obtain; these programs are highly specialized and provide the education and training that APRNs need to seek advanced roles in the nursing field.

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What sets a DNP apart from other types of degrees is its clinical focus. While Ph.D. degrees exist for nurses who want to focus their practice on research and Ed.D. options are available for those interested in nurse education, DNP degrees are generally suited toward nurses who wish to work with patients in a clinical setting.


With a DNP degree, nurses can enter many of the highest levels of nursing practice. Some career pathways for DNP graduates include:

  • Nurse ExecutiveLeads healthcare organizations, manages nursing staff, develops policies, and implements best practices to improve patient care quality and operational efficiency.
  • Clinical Nurse LeaderOversees the integration of care for a specific set of patients, managing the healthcare team and ensuring that care plans are effectively implemented and coordinated.
  • Nurse EducatorIn academic settings, DNP graduates can teach and mentor nursing students, develop curricula, and conduct clinical research to advance nursing education.
  • Health Policy Nurse/AnalystWorks with government agencies, non-profits, or healthcare organizations to develop, analyze, and implement policies that affect health systems and patient care.
  • Nursing InformaticsCombines nursing with information technology to implement and optimize electronic health records (EHR) and other health informatics tools, enhancing healthcare delivery and patient care.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)Specializes in childbirth and provides various women’s health medical services, including prenatal and postnatal care. Learn more about certified nurse midwives.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)Administers anesthesia for patients undergoing surgery or other medical procedures, ensuring patient safety throughout. Learn more about nurse anesthetists.

How to Earn

To earn your DNP, you'll first need to complete an undergraduate nursing degree (ADN or BSN), receive your nursing licensure, gain first-hand experience as a nurse, and finally enroll in a doctorate degree program.

While you will be required to follow a somewhat regimented educational and professional trajectory, there is a little leeway for how you make it to the DNP enrollment stage through bridge programs.

If you already have your BSN, you can skip the MSN and go straight to the DNP by enrolling in a BSN to DNP program. This type of bridge program lasts three to four years versus a minimum of four years with the BSN-MSN-DNP trajectory. Here is a chart that summarizes the various checkpoints and pathways (in addition to their requirements) to consider as you plan this exciting educational journey.

DegreeEducational Requirements OutcomeTimeframe
ADN/ASN/Nursing DiplomaHigh School DiplomaPass the NCLEX, licensure1-2 Years
RN to BSNADN/ASN/Nursing DiplomaBSN1-2 Years
BSNHigh School DiplomaBSN4 Years
DNPBSN or MSNDNP2 – 5 years

Types of DNPs

One of the most attractive aspects of a DNP degree program is the ability to specialize. DNP programs often come with a variety of specializations that students can choose to narrow their focus on a specific area of nursing practice. These specializations also offer the ability to receive further certification as advanced practice nurses. Aside from the opportunities mentioned earlier, here are a few examples of available DNP nurse practitioner specializations:

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)Family Nurse Practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in providing primary care to patients of all ages, from infants to elderly individuals. They assess, diagnose, and treat a wide range of acute and chronic illnesses, and they emphasize health promotion, disease prevention, and patient education. FNPs often work in various settings such as clinics, primary care offices, urgent care centers, and community health centers.

Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP)AGNPs specialize in providing primary and acute care to adults across the lifespan, with a particular focus on the care of older adults. They assess, diagnose, and manage common health problems seen in adult and geriatric populations, including chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. AGNPs work in settings such as primary care practices, long-term care facilities, hospitals, and specialty clinics.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)Pediatric Nurse Practitioners are advanced practice nurses who specialize in providing primary and acute care to infants, children, and adolescents. They assess, diagnose, and manage common pediatric health conditions, including developmental disorders, infectious diseases, and childhood injuries. PNPs work in various settings, including pediatric clinics, hospitals, schools, and community health centers.

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)Neonatal Nurse Practitioners specialize in providing specialized care to newborn infants, particularly those who are premature, critically ill, or have complex medical conditions. They work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and provide comprehensive care, including assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and management of newborns’ health needs. NNPs collaborate with neonatologists, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other healthcare professionals to optimize outcomes for neonates

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)PMHNPs are advanced practice nurses who specialize in providing mental health care to individuals across the lifespan. They assess, diagnose, and treat psychiatric disorders, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, and substance use disorders. PMHNPs prescribe medication, provide therapy, and develop treatment plans to help patients manage their mental health conditions. They work in various settings, including psychiatric hospitals, community mental health centers, outpatient clinics, and private practices.

Salary with a DNP

As a doctorate-level nurse practitioner, you will certainly enjoy the perks (financially speaking). Nurse practitioners earn an average of 128,490 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which means that with your level of education and experience, you can safely anticipate much higher than this.

Another benefit that DNP-educated nurses can take advantage of is specialization. While the degree alone will help you establish a better salary, DNP specialties often carry even more weight in the healthcare field. Some of the highest-paid DNP specialties include nurse anesthetists ($214,200 per year on average) and nurse midwives ($131,570 on average per year).

Lastly, the area where you end up practicing will have a lot to do with how much you make. For example, areas like California and Nevada offer the highest salaries to nurse practitioners at an average of $161,540 and $148,670 per year, respectively, whereas places like Michigan, Kentucky, and Missouri pay much lower.

Curriculum with a DNP

As a DNP program is the highest level of education that a nurse can achieve, it goes without saying that a DNP will have an incredibly advanced curriculum. The main components will involve a combination of leadership and policy, evidence-based practice, informatics, quality improvements, clinical practicum hours, a capstone project, and a number of elective courses. Below is a sample DNP curriculum to give you a good idea of what to expect, though keep in mind that the number of years you'll be required to commit, as well as the curriculum itself, will vary considerably depending on the DNP program you enroll in.

Year 1

Fall Semester

  • Advanced Health Assessment (3 credits)
  • Theoretical Foundations of Nursing Practice (3 credits)
  • Biostatistics for Evidence-Based Practice (3 credits)

Spring Semester

  • Advanced Pathophysiology (3 credits)
  • Health Policy and Advocacy (3 credits)
  • Evidence-Based Practice I: Methods and Translation (3 credits)

Summer Semester

  • Advanced Pharmacology (3 credits)
  • Leadership and Organizational Systems (3 credits)

Year 2

Fall Semester

  • Clinical Decision-Making and Differential Diagnosis (3 credits)
  • Quality Improvement and Patient Safety (3 credits)
  • Evidence-Based Practice II: Project Development (3 credits)

Spring Semester

  • Informatics and Data Management (3 credits)
  • Population Health and Epidemiology (3 credits)
  • DNP Practicum I (2 credits)

Summer Semester

  • DNP Capstone Project I (2 credits)
  • Elective Course or Specialization Course (3 credits)

Year 3

Fall Semester

  • DNP Practicum II (3 credits)
  • Healthcare Economics and Finance (3 credits)
  • Elective Course or Specialization Course (3 credits)

Spring Semester

  • DNP Capstone Project II (3 credits)
  • Advanced Clinical Practicum III (3 credits)
  • Interprofessional Collaboration and Communication (2 credits)

Summer Semester

  • DNP Capstone Project III (3 credits)
  • Advanced Clinical Practicum IV (3 credits)

DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing

As we learned earlier, a DNP and a Ph.D. are both doctoral degree levels available in nursing. However, there are some distinct differences between the two. Most notably, a DNP is heavily focused on the clinical aspects of nursing. They're more geared toward nurses who want to practice nursing on the frontlines and work directly with patients.

A Ph.D. in nursing, on the other hand, focuses on the theoretical side of nursing. Nursing Ph.D. programs train students to become well-versed in nursing research, working primarily in labs or academia. There will certainly be plenty of opportunities to work directly with patients with this degree through clinicals, but it will be limited compared to a DNP degree program.

DNP vs. NP

You may often hear the terms “DNP” and “NP” used interchangeably, but this is not always correct. To break it down, most DNPs are NPs, but not all NPs have a DNP degree. As a nurse practitioner, you are usually not required to have a DNP degree to practice (you usually need a graduate degree such as an MSN), though it’s an option for NPs who want to reach the highest levels of practice.

DNP-educated nurses can pursue careers in areas other than NP specialties. Many graduates with a DNP degree choose to become nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, nurse informaticists, and more. Many DNP programs will allow students to specialize in these areas. The thing to remember is that a DNP RN is a doctorate-educated nurse trained to hold advanced nursing roles spanning many care areas. An NP is an advanced-practice nurse who holds an MSN or higher and is trained to provide care for one of the specific NP patient populations.

Getting Started with a DNP Degree

If you've made it through the previous sections and you're ready to get started with a DNP degree program, the first step is to make sure you've met the typical admissions requirements for enrolling in a DNP program. To start applying, you'll need:

  • Educational Background: Applicants should have either a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) from an accredited program.
  • GPA Requirements: Most programs require a minimum cumulative GPA, often around 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Some competitive programs might expect a higher GPA.
  • Licensure: A current and unencumbered Registered Nurse (RN) license is typically required.
  • Clinical Experience: This will depend on the program, but most require a minimum of one to several years of clinical nursing experience.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Typically, 2-3 letters of recommendation are required. These should be from academic professors, professional supervisors, or others who can attest to the applicant's qualifications and readiness for advanced practice and doctoral study.
  • Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose: Applicants are often required to submit a personal statement or statement of purpose outlining their career goals, reasons for pursuing a DNP, and how the program aligns with their professional aspirations.
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV): A current resume or CV detailing educational background, professional experience, certifications, publications, and other relevant accomplishments.
  • GRE Scores: The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not always required, but some programs might request GRE scores, especially if the applicant's GPA is below the program's standard.