You’ve read the FAQs, decided on a format, and drawn up a shortlist of DNP programs in your area – but how can you be sure the degree is not a piece of junk? Start with our cheat sheet. It provides a short checklist for evaluating programs. Pair it with our guide to DNP accreditation for the complete package!
Hallmarks of a Strong DNP Program
Like the Ivy League or the Big 10, nursing schools carry their own reputations. Some DNP programs are known for being research-heavy or focused on statistics. Others insist that students spend a lot of time in training simulations or affiliate clinical sites. But unless the program has won lots of education awards, its university website is not going to tell you much. Crappy programs, in particular, may have the glossiest advertising. To get an unvarnished view, search the Internet for feedback on the school, check for accreditation, email professional contacts and program alumni, compare its benefits & resources to other DNPs on your shortlist, and put together a list of detailed questions for your graduate advisor.
You will be extra busy during your DNP, and your program should work with your schedule and preferred learning style. Remember that you have options. Accredited DNP programs are now available in brick & mortar, hybrid, or online formats. If you’re on the fence about distance learning, take a sample class and ask former students if they enjoyed the experience. Compare all 3 options in our chart of Online vs. Hybrid vs. Traditional DNP Programs.
A strong DNP curriculum is a mixture of learning and clinical practice. Does the program cover the AACN’s Essentials of Doctoral Education? Does it focus on specific skills in your area of interest (e.g. financial planning, technology, leadership, etc.)? Does it give you experience in skills labs, operating rooms, and clinical situations? Does it encourage you to apply lessons and activities to your professional environment? The DNP is a hard slog, and you’ll want classes that inspire you to get to work!
Useful Practice Hours
Students in post-baccalaureate DNP programs must complete 1,000 hours of clinical practice. How does your school integrate this requirement? Some programs will use your DNP capstone project as the sole source of clinical hours; others will credit hours to students who attend policy summits, lead work teams, etc. Choose a program that suits your goals and time-frame.
The AACN states that DNP faculty should be actively participating in nursing practice. Your professors could be full-time professionals working in adjunct roles (e.g. nurse managers/executives), student advisors, or experts in a particular field (e.g. policy, research methods, etc.). For the money you’re paying, you deserve good teachers. Don’t be afraid to examine their LinkedIn profiles. You might also wish to talk to the school about mentorship opportunities and/or chat to alumni about what the class was really like.
Achievable DNP Capstone Projects
A large part of your DNP will be devoted to applying your class discoveries to a practice-based capstone project. Schools have 2 ways of approaching DNP capstone projects – a traditional model (like the PhD) that requires students to take a series of academic courses before they are allowed to tackle their DNP project or an integrated model that allows you to begin work on the project from day one. Both options can work. The trick is finding the one that works for you. Ask your school for a list of DNP capstone projects from the last few years. This will give you a sense of how other students have achieved their goals.
High Certification Exam Pass Rates & Employment Numbers
Unless you have an MSN and are already licensed and certified, you’re probably going to be working towards a national certification (e.g. CNM, CRNA, etc.) during your doctoral program. If you can’t find it listed on the DNP program website, ask the school for statistics on first-time pass rates on national certifying exams and employment statistics on graduates. Good programs will be proud to tell you about their students’ achievements.
Low Attrition Rates
Attrition refers to the number of students who drop out of a program before they complete it. In a best-case scenario, a program should have an attrition rate of 0%. But even top programs deal with attrition rates of 5% and over. Anything over 10% is a warning flag and you should do some research on why the rate is so high. The program’s teachers may be poor, classes may be lousy, or the school may be enrolling students who are woefully unprepared.