Doctoral Programs in Nursing - PhD or DNP?

Both the DNP (Doctorate of Nursing Practice) and the PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) are terminal degrees in nursing. One focuses on practice and the other on research. Once you decide to continue your nursing education it is time to decide which doctoral program is the best match for your career goals. This page is designed to help you understand the difference in the program and how graduates further nursing science, education, and practice.


The PhD degree in Nursing prepares nurse scientists for a lifetime of intellectual inquiry through scholarship and research. Nurse scientists pursue various research interests, utilizing external funding and creating rigorous, well-designed methods to discover new knowledge related to nursing.

The PhD prepares nurse scholars and researchers who contribute to the growth of nursing science through scholarly research that advances the theoretical foundation of nursing practice and health care delivery.
The PhD is for nurses who:
  • Focus their career in research in academia or other research-intensive environments.
  • Seek to conduct research that advances the empirical and theoretical foundations of nursing and healthcare.
  • Write research grants and publish data based articles focused on the design and testing of interventions to advance nursing and healthcare.
Positions held by PhD prepared nurses:
  • Academic faculty positions emphasizing research
  • Primary Investigators on research grants
  • Research scientists for healthcare organizations or government agencies


The Doctor of Nursing Practice program prepares individuals for the highest level of nursing leadership and practice within organizations and systems, with the ultimate goal of improving health care for diverse populations. The DNP program focuses on providing education in key areas such as evidence-based practice, quality improvement and systems leadership.

The need for doctoral education for nurses who practice at the highest level emerged from multiple factors. These include the expansion of scientific knowledge required for safe nursing practice and growing concerns regarding the quality of patient care delivery and outcomes.
The DNP degree is for nurses who:
  • Seek a terminal degree in nursing practice – including masters’-prepared nurses in administration as well as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists and nurse-midwives who seek a terminal degree in nursing.
  • Focus their professional goals on advanced clinical expertise, quality improvement, patient safety and health systems change.
  • Want to expand their career latitude, options and value to employers.
Positions held by DNP prepared nurses:
  • Leadership positions in healthcare organizations, industry, and government agencies
  • Advanced practice nurses in a variety of clinical practice settings
  • Clinical faculty in nursing education programs

PhD or DNP?