What Can You Do with a Doctorate in Nursing?

A guide that outlines how to become a DNP – in addition to all the reasons you really should.


First – What is a DNP?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is one of two terminal degrees (the other being a PhD) in nursing. While nurses who graduate with a PhD go on to focus primarily on research, nurses with a DNP often continue their practice careers, which can result in a variety of roles in a range of work environments.

If you're interested in graduate nursing programs and want to study to the top of your license, check out our blog: DNP or PhD – Which is Right for You?


Current DNP programs nationwide


Schools that offer post-baccalaureate DNP programs


Schools that offer post-master's DNP programs


Schools that offer entry-level DNP programs

A DNP degree prepares nurses at the highest level of proficiency who can wield their skills in clinical settings and in leadership and administration. Those with a doctorate degree in nursing will develop the skills to lead collaboratively, integrate research into care, improve patient outcomes, and design better healthcare delivery systems. That all being said, let’s clear up some confusion:

Let's Clear Up Some Confusion

Is it a degree or a role?

See Answer

A DNP is a degree, not a role. (Not to be confused with an NP, or Nurse Practitioner, a role that fits under the larger APRN umbrella.

Learn About Roles

If you earn a DNP, are you a doctor?

See Answer

A doctorally prepared nurse practitioner is not interchangeable with a physician. (But both are essential to patient care!)

See Why

Do you have to practice as an APRN?

See Answer

You do not have to practice as an APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse) once you have your DNP.

Practice Your Way

Do you need a doctorate to be an APRN?

See Answer

No, you can have your MSN and sit for APRN certification. The AACN has recommended MSN programs transition to doctorates for APRN training by 2025.

Explore the MSN NP


Why Get a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree?

The United States healthcare system has ever-changing demands and requires the highest level of scientific knowledge and practice expertise to assure quality patient outcomes. However, to really understand the reasons behind the DNP movement in nursing, we have to dig deeper into some of the points of friction. Here are just a few:

Points of Friction

Increasing complexity of patient care

Thanks to advances in medical technology, treatments, medicine, and more, Americans are living longer than ever. However, those increases in life expectancy also result in increases in multimorbidity, and therefore, patient complexity.


  • Multimorbidity, the co-occurrence of two or more chronic conditions or diseases, affects two-thirds of the older population (65 years or older) and is responsible for 65% of total healthcare costs.
  • The more complex the patient, the more healthcare services and social support they will need. Thus, patient complexity places a significant burden on healthcare systems.


In the foreground, there are complex machines and infusions, and in the background a blurred patient who needs complex care from a doctorally prepared nurse practitioner.


Read 7 Ways Health Care Will Look Different in the Future

High healthcare spending with poor outcomes

The United States spends approximately twice as much as the average expenditure among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. Despite this high spending, the U.S. performs worse in many important health metrics: access to health care, life expectancy, maternal mortality rates, and hospitalizations — to name a few.


commonwealth fund chart 1


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Many health systems are led by administrators with a business background, not a clinical one, and these individuals lack the essential experience that nurses have. An increase in nursing leadership in healthcare systems — especially in the form of doctorally prepared nurse practitioners — has the potential to directly impact and improve an organization’s performance, people, and culture. Leadership also extends to lobbying; more nurses practicing at the top of their license means more DNP involvement in health care policy and advocacy, too.


Download the ULtimate Guide to Health Systems Leadership

Impending nursing shortage and short staffing

The shortage of nurses is expected to intensify as Baby Boomers age and the need for health care grows. Concurrently, an estimated 1 million experienced nurses are set to retire by 2030, bringing their expertise with them. Patient care settings and other organizations that depend on nurses will face a significant loss of knowledge.


  • Approximately 30,200 new APRNs (prepared in master’s or doctoral programs) will be needed each year through 2031 to meet the rising demand for care.
  • A COVID-19 two-year impact assessment survey released in March 2022 found that 52% of nurses are considering leaving their current position, primarily due to insufficient staffing, negative impacts on personal health and well-being, and an inability to provide quality care.
  • Research has generally found that lower staffing levels are associated with increased risks of poor patient outcomes. And staffing levels — particularly those related to a nurse’s workload — are also related to occupational health issues and psychological states and experiences (i.e., burnout) that may lead to nurse turnover.


There’s no scenario where the healthcare industry will have too many nurses with a doctoral degree in nursing. Count job security as one of the many benefits of getting a doctorate. But what can you do with a doctorate in nursing?

What Can You Do with a DNP?

After earning your degree, there are plenty of DNP career options across a wide range of work environments to consider. Some nurses who earn their doctorate go into health system administration, executive leadership, or teaching (explore some of these nonbedside nursing jobs), but a majority continue to practice to the top of their license.


Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

APRNs are at the forefront of primary and preventive care. Though there are specialized roles beneath the APRN umbrella, generally all advanced practice registered nurses:

  • treat and diagnose illnesses
  • manage chronic disease
  • advise the public on health issues
  • and engage in continuous education to remain ahead of any technological, methodological, or other developments in the field. 

APRNs must hold at least a Master’s degree (though many hold a Doctor of Nursing Practice), in addition to the initial nursing education and licensing required for all RNs.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Nurse practitioners provide primary, acute, and specialty health care throughout the lifespan of their patients’ lives; they do so through assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of illnesses and injuries. Nurse practitioners often specialize in the treatment of certain populations.


Median pay as of May 2021


Expected growth from 2021 to 2031

Nurse Practitioner Specialities

Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner

Care type: primary care
Population: adults, geriatrics
Workplace: outpatient clinic or specialty offices (dermatology, infectious diseases, etc.)


Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Care type: acute care
Population: acutely ill adults and geriatrics
Workplace: Emergency departments, inpatient hospital floors, cardiology departments, and more


Pediatric Nurse 

Care type: pediatric care
Population: children from birth through young adulthood
Workplace: outpatient family practices, inpatient units, or specialty clinics focused on certain conditions


Acute Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP-AC)

Care type: acute pediatric care
Population: children with chronic or acute illnesses
Workplace: specialty clinics, emergency departments, etc.


Family Nurse 
Practitioner (FNP)

Care type: primary care
Population: people across the lifespan (children and adults)
Workplace: family practices or specialty offices (gynecology, diabetes, etc.)


Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)

Care type: acute care
Population: high-risk and vulnerable newborns and babies
Workplace: neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), emergency departments, outpatient clinics, and labor and delivery rooms


Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

Care type: mental health care
Population: people of all ages
Workplace: outpatient clinics, addiction clinics, inpatient settings, or even from home


Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

Care type: primary care with a specialization in women’s health (obstetrics, gynecology, etc.)
Population: people from adolescence through end of life
Workplace: labor and delivery, outpatient clinics, college health, occupational health, and more

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

The role of a certified registered nurse anesthetist is to administer anesthesia and give care before, during, and after surgical, therapeutic, diagnostic, and obstetrical procedures. CRNAs may also provide pain management and emergency services, as needed.

Before the procedure, CRNAs will:

  • Prepare patients for anesthesia through a physical assessment and preoperative teaching
  • Discuss with patients any medications they’re taking as well as allergies or illnesses they might have to ensure anesthesia can be safely given
  • Give patients either
    • general anesthesia to put them to sleep so they feel no pain during surgery
    • regional or local anesthesia to numb an area of the body

During the procedure, CRNAs will:

  • Monitor the patient’s vital signs
  • Maintain and/or adjust the anesthesia as necessary

After the procedure, CRNAs will:

  • Manage recovery from anesthesia


Median Annual Salary


Job growth projected from 2020-2030

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

Experts in giving care to women (even as primary maternity care providers), certified nurse midwives provide family planning services, gynecological exams, prenatal care, and more. Their duties include (but are not limited to):

  • The delivery of babies
  • The management of emergency situations during labor
  • The repairing of lacerations
  • Surgical assistance during cesarean births
  • Wellness care
  • Educating patients on how to lead healthy lives by discussing nutrition, disease prevention, and other topics
  • Caring for partners’ sexual or reproductive health issues


Annual mean wage


Expected growth between 2021 and 2031

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists defines a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who holds a graduate nursing degree (either a Master’s or a Doctorate) and has advanced clinical expertise in a specialized area of nursing practice. Some of these areas of nursing could be:

  • Population — adult/gerontology, pediatrics, neonatal
  • Type of care — wound care, rehabilitation, palliative care
  • Setting — Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Medical-Surgical Unit
  • Disease — Diabetes, ALS

Clinical Nurse Specialists have a unique combination of skills and expertise to help assess, design, implement, and evaluate healthcare practices to improve overall healthcare delivery and outcomes. For that reason, a CNS’s role may entail direct patient care, consultation, collaboration, education, and the implementation of evidence-based practice to ensure safe and quality patient care.


Median annual wage


Expected growth between 2018 and 2028

A Guide to the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Program

What is the program format and timeline? What are the admissions criteria? What courses are offered in this program? Find out all of this and more in the guide.

Download the Guide
AGCNS Guide Cover-1-1

The DNP Programs at the University of San Diego School of Nursing

The DNP program at the University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing prepares nurses at the highest level of proficiency as they learn to translate science into clinical practice. While some of our students focus their studies on delivering complex care over the lifespan of one population, others turn their attention to scaling up their impact to shape entire systems, organizations, and policies through executive or administrative roles.

Whatever your intended focus, you’ll earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice in a unique environment that blends academic strength with nurturing support. Here, what truly fosters our students’ success is their personal connection to our expert nurse faculty as, together, we push science into practice. The Doctor of Nursing Practice program offers two pathways: the BSN to DNP and the MSN to DNP.

Request More Information About Our DNP Programs

At the University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing, we strive to create and maintain personal connections between faculty and students; after all, those relationships are what fuel our collective success and impact. 

We have more than 40 years of experience cultivating clinicians who go on to transform health care.

Will you be one of them?