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DNP or PhD: Which is Right for You?

Published on: October 19, 2022

Nursing professionals who earn advanced degrees position themselves for incredible career opportunities, increased earning potential, and the ability to expand their scope of practice in their areas of interest.

There is more than one terminal nursing degree to choose from, so how do you know which of these two nursing graduate programs is best for you?

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Keep reading to get a better understanding of these nursing education options and how to know which one will help you achieve your nursing career goals.

The difference between DNP and PhD programs

Program of Study Terminal research degree in nursing science to conduct research to advance the science of nursing Terminal practice degree in nursing to improve health outcomes and translate research into practice
Curriculum Focus Commitment to research career Commitment to practice career
Practice Hours None 1,000 hours of clinically focused learning
Practice Project No Yes
Research Dissertation Yes No
Program Outcomes Contribute to health and healthcare improvements through the development of new knowledge and dissemination of results Contribute to health and healthcare improvements through advanced practice and leadership


Nursing Doctorate Degrees — DNP or PhD?

Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

One of the most common paths for nurses who want to earn advanced degrees is to enroll in a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. DNP programs are designed to help you expand your clinical role and provide you with in-depth knowledge of healthcare leadership and policy.

Earning a DNP will open the doors to increased earning potential and high-paying senior leadership opportunities. Most often, DNP graduates take on heavier responsibilities as advanced practice nurse practitioners, educators, or nurse administrators.

If you choose the advanced practice route, you’ll have the opportunity to focus on specific areas of emphasis depending on your passions and career goals. You can focus on family care, gerontology, or psychiatric mental health, just to name a few. The important thing to know is you’ll be able to learn how to deliver the very best care to the patient population and in the work setting that you’re most passionate about.

If you’ve already earned a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, you can enroll in an MSN to DNP program that’ll help you utilize the education and clinical expertise you already have and take that next step to earning a DNP.

If you're wondering how to get a DNP if you have a BSN, a BSN to DNP program will put you on the fast track to becoming an advanced practice nursing professional.

A Doctor of Nursing Practice uses a stethoscope to provide patient care.

Should I Earn a PhD in Nursing?

If you have a strong desire to be an independent thinker with a demonstrated ability to articulate, investigate, and report on original research that makes a substantial contribution to healthcare knowledge, advances policy, and teaches the next generation of nurses, earning a PhD in Nursing will put you on those career paths. 

While enrolled, students receive a substantial foundation in scientific inquiry with a focus on a clinically relevant area for scholarship and research. You'll conduct research, collect and analyze data, publish, and lead both scientific and technological advances to further develop the nursing profession. Opportunities are also available to train the next generation of exceptional nurses by preparing course curriculums, delivering lectures, evaluating program outcomes, and publishing scholarly work. 

At the University of San Diego, BSN to PhD and MSN to PhD programs are offered.

Exploring USD's Nursing Programs

Whether you’re considering earning a DNP or PhD (or still haven’t decided), The University of San Diego’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science should be on your list.

We prepare the next generation of nurse scientists, leaders, advanced clinicians, and informaticists to meet humanity’s most urgent needs — with compassion and intellectual rigor. Through an intentional blend of rigorous academics, state-of-the-art technology, and a culture of compassion, you’ll receive an education that strikes a balance between technical skills and that know-it-when-you-see-it nursing excellence.

If you’re leaning towards earning a DNP, we invite you to check out our DNP program that’s designed for change-makers like you who want to master their practice.

Or, if you’re thinking about pursuing the PhD route, visit our PhD program page to learn more about how our program is designed to empower change-makers through science.

A Guide to Achieving the Doctor of Nursing Practice at USD

Our DNP program prepares nurses at the highest level of proficiency as they learn to translate science into clinical practice. Download the guide to learn about clinical placements, get answers to FAQs, and read about options to help finance your graduate nursing degree.

USD SON - MSN Brochure Revamp COVER

A Guide to Achieving the Master of Science in Nursing at USD

For future Executive Nurse Leaders, Nursing Informaticists, or Adult-Gerontology CNSs.

Get the Guide

Explore Our Programs

Learn about your program of interest by visiting the programs page on our website. Review information on admissions, financial aid, and much more. 

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