Wondering if a Doctor of Nursing Practice is worth the effort? Explore our short guide to the DNP. Learn more about how DNP programs work and the history of their development. Discover where a DNP can take you in your nursing career. And find schools with highly ranked DNP programs that match your professional needs.
What is a DNP Degree?
DNP stands for Doctor of Nursing Practice. It’s a professional doctorate that’s designed to prepare working nurses for the highest levels of clinical practice and nursing leadership. Graduates often pursue jobs in expert clinical care (e.g. APRN specialties), management of care populations, nursing administration, executive leadership, healthcare policy, and nursing education.
Unlike the PhD in Nursing, the DNP is a practice-focused terminal degree. Your courses will often involve evidence-based research & data analysis, real-world challenges (e.g. budget planning), clinical training in advanced specialties, and issues involving healthcare systems (e.g. quality improvement). In order to graduate, you’ll also be expected to tackle at least 1,000 post-baccalaureate practicum hours and a final DNP project.
How Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs Work
Pathways to the DNP
DNP programs combine the fundamentals of an MSN with high-level training in clinical practice & nursing leadership. But the structure of your DNP will depend on your point of entry! RNs with a BSN will have a different educational experience than current APRNs with an MSN degree.
There are 3 standard pathways for earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice:
RN to DNP
RN to DNP programs are rare, but they do exist. They’re designed for RNs who want to earn a DNP but only have: a) an associate degree or diploma in nursing; or b) a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Better yet, they allow RNs to maximize their nursing experience and take full advantage of any previously earned academic credits.
- Admissions Requirements: In addition to an active RN license and an accredited undergraduate qualification (e.g. ADN, diploma in nursing, or non-nursing bachelor’s), you may be required to show proof of at least one year of continual nursing experience. Many schools will also be looking for certain undergraduate prerequisites (e.g. statistics).
- Coursework: RN to DNP pathways take ~4-6 years to complete. In a typical program, you’ll complete any additional coursework required for a BSN (e.g. community health nursing) before you launch into the curriculum for a BSN to DNP. Like any other DNP, you’ll be able to choose a direct care specialty (e.g. APRN roles) or an indirect care track (e.g. leadership).
The RN to DNP is a big time commitment, so do a little bit of research on the program before you make a decision. You may have the option to exit with a BSN or MSN if your personal & professional situation changes.
BSN to DNP
BSN to DNP programs are aimed at RNs who hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing. If you choose an APRN specialty, you’ll be prepared to sit for national certification exams and apply for state licensure. If you choose an executive or education program, you’ll be trained for high-level positions. For ideas on what’s available, check out the rankings of the Best Online BSN to DNP Programs.
- Admissions Requirements: You’ll usually be expected to have a current RN license, a CCNE- or ACEN-accredited BSN, a sturdy GPA (e.g. 3.0+), and 2-3 letters of recommendation. Work experience requirements will depend on your choice of specialty. For example, candidates for a DNP in Nurse Anesthesia might need 1 year of critical care experience. Fortunately, the GRE is often optional—see our list of Online BSN to DNP Programs: No GRE Requirement if you hate the idea of another exam!
- Coursework: BSN to DNP programs take 3-4 years to complete on a full-time basis and 4-5 years on a part-time basis. The exact number of credit hours depends on the specialty, but you’ll often be looking at 75-90 credits, including at least 1,000 practicum hours. You’ll be schooled in fundamental MSN subjects (e.g. advanced pathophysiology), specialty courses (e.g. APRN skills & practicums), DNP core courses (e.g. leadership development), electives, and DNP immersion experiences. The program will culminate in a DNP capstone project.
Keep in mind that some BSN to DNP programs allow students to exit with a MSN after they complete the first few years of the degree. Although you won’t earn a doctorate, you will still be eligible to take national certification exams.
MSN to DNP (Post-Master’s DNP)
The MSN to DNP is open to nurses who already have a master’s degree—you won’t have to repeat coursework from your previous graduate degree. A number of programs are built for candidates with an MSN, but some universities will accept DNP applicants who have an RN license and a master’s degree in a related field (e.g. MPH, MHA, etc.). Have a look at our rankings of the Best Online MSN to DNP Programs to get a sense of what’s out there.
- Admissions Requirements: These will depend on your choice of program & specialty. MSN to DNP programs in APRN specialties are often limited to nurses with an accredited MSN and APRN certification. But Post-Master’s DNP paths in leadership, public health, and informatics are usually open to RNs with a BSN, an unrestricted RN license, and a non-nursing master’s degree.
- Coursework: Post-Master’s DNP programs come in a wide variety of flavors. You may wish to add to your existing MSN knowledge by tackling DNP-level courses (e.g. evidence-based practice) and the DNP project. Or seek new or additional APRN certification. Or sink your teeth into an executive track that covers topics like complex health systems, finance, and healthcare data. Or even earn a dual degree (e.g. DNP/MBA). Standard MSN to DNP programs take 1.5-2 years to complete on a full-time schedule and 3+ years on part-time basis.
All DNP students—including those in MSN to DNP programs—are expected to complete a minimum of 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours. That’s what the AACN recommends. However, if you’re an MSN graduate, you’ll already have a solid chunk of practicum hours on your academic transcript. So the university will help you determine what’s left to complete (e.g. clinical practice hours, mentorship hours, DNP project experience hours, leadership hours, etc.).
What Can You Do with a DNP?
Healthcare Management: A DNP is a strong qualification for nurses who wish to apply for upper-level management, administrative, or policy positions in healthcare & nursing. You’ll often see it listed on the résumés of nurse executives.
APRN Roles: In some cases, it’s required—aspiring nurse anesthetists must earn a DNP or DNAP in order to qualify for CRNA certification. A number of universities are also phasing out MSN programs in APRN specialties (e.g. NP tracks & nurse midwifery) and replacing them with BSN to DNP programs.
Clinical Leadership: Existing APRNs who earn a DNP often find that it enriches their understanding of system-wide issues, advanced patient care, data analysis, and evidence-based solutions. They gain a “30,000-foot-view” of clinical care.
Nursing Faculty: Aspiring nurse educators may pursue a DNP instead of a PhD because it emphasizes hands-on research, clinical practice, and real-world applications. For more details on this choice, have a look at our guide to the DNP vs. PhD. Universities are usually happy to consider DNP graduates for academic jobs.
History of the DNP
The Origins of the DNP
The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) was born in the early 2000s. There was growing concern in healthcare circles about a number of issues, including medical errors, quality & safety, an aging population, shortages of qualified nursing personnel, and complexity of care.
- In 2003, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a call to arms with its report on Health Professions Education: A Bridge to Quality. It pushed for competencies in patient-centered care, interdisciplinary teams, evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and informatics.
- In October 2004, members of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) voted to endorse a Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate, which challenged nursing schools to transition from an MSN in APRN specialties to a practice-based DNP by 2015.
- The AACN followed this up in 2006 by publishing The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice and a DNP Roadmap Task Force Report. The ultimate goal was to create a terminal doctorate that would prepare APRNs for leadership in clinical practice.
The Introduction of the DNP
Universities gradually began to offer the Doctor of Nursing Practice. The University of Kentucky was the first to jump—it created a DNP for clinical executives in 2001. Other schools soon followed. In 2008, there were 92 DNP programs. In 2018, there were 354. The AACN continues to track these trends in its Research & Data Center.
But dream of the DNP becoming the norm for APRN preparation was hard to achieve. Many early doctoral programs were targeted at existing MSN-holders who simply wanted to be eligible for leadership & nursing faculty positions. The MSN continued to be the standard qualification for aspiring APRNs who sought to earn national certification & state licensure.
The Future of the DNP
This situation may be changing:
- In April 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) made a commitment to move all entry-level nurse practitioner (NP) education programs to the DNP degree by 2025.
- Although the MSN continues to be offered in a number of NP specialties, it’s no longer the norm for nurse anesthetists. Potential CRNAs must earn a doctorate.
- In recent years, there has also been a surge of enrollment in BSN to DNP programs. That means newly qualified APRNs are coming into the job market with a practice-based doctorate on their résumé.
So watch this space—and keep an eye on the AACN’s section on the Doctor of Nursing Practice. Whether the DNP becomes the standard qualification for APRNs will depend on the demands of employers, certification bodies, and state licensure boards.
Where to Find Schools Offering DNP Degree Programs
All DNP Programs
You may want to begin your search for the ultimate DNP program by starting with your state or specialty. Each state or specialty page contains school listings. Here you’ll find links to pathways (e.g. BSN to DNP, Post-Master’s DNP, etc.), tuition info, and a short summary of the degree. We’ve flagged any Doctor of Nursing Practice tracks that are offered online.
Online DNP Programs
Interested in staying virtual? Check out the rankings of the best online DNP programs, best online BSN to DNP programs, and best online MSN to DNP programs in the country. We dig into the reputation of the school, the curriculum, on-campus elements, and the admissions requirements. If you need extra guidance, we’ve included an advice section below each ranking.
Best DNP Programs for Your Needs
Searching for a doctorate that matches your specific needs? Have a look at the following rankings. You can filter your search by quality, price, or speed.