Why Should I Get a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree?

Post-master's DNP nursing student
Post-master's DNP nursing student

There are various opportunities for nurses to further their education and expand their career possibilities, but many nurses ask the question, why get a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree?

The post-master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice (MSN to DNP) degree is the most advanced nursing degree available. Compared to a PhD, which is centered on creating original research, the DNP focuses on translational research.

According to the DNP Education page on the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) website, “Leading authorities like AACN, the National Academies of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are calling for a rapid increase in the number of nurses holding doctoral degrees to meet the nation’s demand for faculty, researchers, advanced clinicians and leaders.”

And it’s not just leading organizations who are calling for nurses with doctoral degrees. Nursing and physician shortages are affecting patients who are ill, in pain and anxious. The DNP gives nurses an opportunity to grow their knowledge, enhance their strategic thinking and leadership skills and increase the effectiveness of their practices.

In this post, we will discuss what a DNP is and isn’t, as well as the history of the DNP. Next, we’ll take a look at the DNP degree program curriculum. Then, we’ll look into the DNP salary and job outlook, possible roles for DNP graduates, and DNP clinical and non-clinical duties. We’ll share stories and statistics regarding DNP graduates and recommend some questions to ask when determining whether or not a post-master’s MSN to DNP program is right for you.

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What Is a DNP?

DNP stands for Doctor of Nursing Practice. DNP programs build upon the training nurses receive in Bachelor of Science in Nursing or Master of Science in Nursing degree programs. The DNP emphasizes improving, advocating and innovating in health care by educating students in topics like quality improvement, systems thinking and how to leverage information and technologies to transform health care.

The DNP prepares nurses for “actual translation of evidence into practice” according to an article in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. The article goes on to say that, in 2004, the American Academy of Nursing stated that the most appropriate degree for advanced-practice registered nurses (APRNs) — Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, Nurse Anesthetists and Nurse-Midwives — is the DNP.

“DNP programs focus heavily on practice that is innovative and evidence-based, reflecting the application of credible research findings,” the article continues. “As a practice discipline, nursing scholarship informs science, enhances clinical practice, influences policy and impacts best practices for educating nurses as clinicians, scholars and leaders.”

A post-master’s DNP is heavily focused on research and entails the highest level of nurse

education like a PhD. But it is different from the PhD in that a post-master’s DNP program will not guide students in creating their own novel research. Rather, the DNP will teach students how to translate the vast amounts of research and scientific knowledge they gain from academic study and clinical settings into practice.


History of the DNP

The first practice-focused doctoral degree program was a Doctor of Nursing (ND), which started in 1979. Interest in practice-focused doctoral degrees for nurses continued to increase in the years to come and in March 2002, the AACN charged a task force to “examine the current status of clinical or practice doctoral programs, compare various models and make recommendations regarding future development.”

The exact charge to the 11-member Task Force on the Clinical Doctorate was:

  • clarify the purpose of the professional clinical doctorate, specifically core content and core competencies;
  • describe trends over time in clinical doctoral education;
  • assess the need for clinically focused doctoral programs;
  • identify preferred goals, titles, outcomes and resources;
  • discuss the elements of a unified approach versus a diverse approach;
  • determine the potential implications for advanced practice nursing (APN) programs;
  • make recommendations regarding related issues and resources; and
  • describe potential for various tracks or role options.”

The task force reviewed literature, engaged in collaborative relationships with industry experts and facilitated open discussions about issues surrounding practice-focused doctoral education. Based on these actions and more, the task force recommended that “the practice-focused doctoral program be a distinct model of doctoral education that provides an additional option for attaining a terminal degree in the discipline.”

Based on the findings of the task force, AACN released its “AACN Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing” in October 2004.

The report disclosed that the task force suggested seven essential areas of content which, at the time of this post, have evolved into eight “DNP Essentials.” According to AACN’s “The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice”, those eight essentials are:

  • Scientific underpinnings for practice
  • Organizations and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-informed practice
  • Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of care
  • Health care policy for advocacy in health care
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  • Advanced nursing practice

In the years since that 2004 report, post-master’s MSN to DNP programs have grown.


Are You a BSN-Prepared Nurse Trying to Decide Between an MSN or a DNP? Be Sure to Also Read:

MSN vs. DNP: What Are the Differences?


DNP Curriculum

A high-quality DNP program will prepare graduates to develop new approaches to advanced nursing practice and health care delivery based on scientific knowledge and theories of nursing and other disciplines. Students will learn how to demonstrate clinical, organizations and systems-level leadership by designing innovative models of caring and evaluation methods that direct evidence-informed practice for improving health care outcomes.

DNP graduates will discover how to use knowledge that has been drawn from epidemiological, statistical and technological data in order to implement quality improvement initiatives for practice with individuals, families, groups and populations. They’ll learn to lead interprofessional teams in the analysis of complex practice and organizational issues and how to lead in health policy advocacy at the local, state and federal levels.

The courses that DNP students take will teach them how to demonstrate advanced levels of clinical judgment, systems thinking and accountability in designing, delivering and evaluating evidence-informed care to improve patient outcomes. As they prepare to generate policy, research and practice over the course of their careers, students will learn to apply ethical analysis to these endeavors. And they will be empowered to use conceptual and analytical skills in evaluating the links among practice, organization, population, fiscal and policy issues.

Doctor of Nursing Practice coursework educates students under the umbrella of two primary themes — first, critical thinking and research and second, quality improvement in health care. Advanced coursework within these themes equips students who are ready to think and lead with excellence, leveraging information and technologies to transform health care.


Critical Thinking and Research

Students will develop an analytical framework to facilitate evidence-informed practice and knowledge integration. They will learn to strategize in order to overcome barriers of the integration of new knowledge in the practice setting from expert-level faculty members with years of experience in the medical field. Students will build comprehensive knowledge in the philosophy of science, nature of scientific thinking and qualitative and quantitative research methods. Based on that knowledge, they will learn how to apply multivariate techniques used in health care and epidemiological research through relevant hardware and software technologies.


Quality Improvement in Health Care

Courses will deepen students’ understanding of the global scope of health care policy and systems and equip nurses to apply their knowledge and make an impact in the lives of patients and families and the health care system at large. Students will learn to analyze and demonstrate evidence-informed leadership skills. These core competencies in nursing will equip them to improve quality in patient care and strengthen nursing as a profession.

Class discussions will guide students in exploring theories of professional and personal leadership, skill building, quality improvement, ethical values, moral agency and change. Assignments will empower them to become DNPs ready to analyze situations to improve health outcomes for patients, communities and systems. DNP coursework prepares students to oversee and direct the delivery of clinical services within an interprofessional system of health care.

DNP nurse chatting with patient wearing mask


DNP Salary and Job Outlook

The wage numbers for DNP degree holders will vary across specific positions, clinical settings and regions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for nurse practitioners is $109,820 annually.

The BLS reports that the “overall employment of nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners is projected to grow 45% through 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.” Nurse practitioner jobs are expected to increase by 52% in the same time period.

According to the U.S. News & World Report, Nurse Practitioner is No. 4 in the list of Best Healthcare Jobs, No. 5 in the Best STEM Jobs and No. 5 in the Best 100 Jobs overall.

DNP graduates can practice as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who work as primary care providers. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) lists the following health care settings as clinical environments for Nurse Practitioners:

  • clinics
  • hospitals
  • Veterans Affairs and Indian Health Care facilities
  • emergency rooms
  • urgent care sites
  • private physician or NP practices
  • nursing homes
  • schools or colleges
  • retail clinics
  • public health departments
  • nurse managed clinics
  • homeless clinics
  • home health

The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice “define the curricular elements that must be present in Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs . . . including the four nationally-recognized Advanced Practice Registered Nursing roles: nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives.” In addition to these roles, DNP graduates may also pursue careers in administration, academia, policymaking, or research.


What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Nursing?


Clinical (if APRN Courses Are Taken)

When it comes to clinical settings, the role of the DNP graduate will align with the AANP description of the NP scope of practice, which includes but is not limited to “assessment; ordering, performing, supervising and interpreting diagnostic and laboratory tests; making diagnoses; initiating and managing treatment including prescribing medication and non-pharmacologic treatments; coordinating care; counseling; and educating patients and their families and communities.”

The description goes on to share that “as licensed, independent practitioners, NPs practice autonomously and in coordination with health care professionals and other individuals. NPs provide a wide range of health care services including the diagnosis and management of acute, chronic and complex health problems, health promotion, disease prevention, health education and counseling to individuals, families, groups and communities. They may also serve as health care researchers, interdisciplinary consultants and patient advocates.”

In addition to these direct-to-patient services, a Medical Research Archives article outlines several examples of DNP graduate impact on health care systems.

According to the article, DNP graduates have had important roles in:

  • Quality improvement
  • Disaster planning
  • Reducing hospital admissions
  • Increased access to health care
  • Implementing tobacco free, mental health diagnosis and management, bullying and violence prevention, weight loss and healthy eating programs in school systems
  • Improved care transitions and reduction in medications errors in acute care settings
  • Effective chronic disease management and mental health management in prison systems

DNP graduates make a difference in a wide range of settings with their medical expertise and their ability to translate that knowledge to the daily lives of patients, communities and systems.



While many doctor of nursing practice graduates choose to put their education into practice in a clinical setting, many others pursue careers in other sectors. DNP graduates may be interested in — and are equipped for — roles in:

  • Shaping public health policy within an organization like the Health Resources & Services Administration
  • Nursing administration in the insurance industry or healthcare organizations
  • Nurse education — teaching online or in-person, developing health curriculum, or leading lab work, for example
  • Technology — consulting for law firms, healthcare tech startups, or insurance companies
  • Medical informatics — combining data, information science and medical knowledge to improve health services
  • Medical writing — blogging, creating websites, writing curriculum or promotional copy


DNP Program Statistics and Stories

According to the AACN, “357 DNP programs are currently enrolling students at schools of nursing nationwide and an additional 106 new DNP programs are in the planning stages (60 post-baccalaureate and 46 post-master’s programs).” In 2018, 32,678 students were enrolled in DNP programs. By 2019, that number had risen to 36,069. Similarly, in 2018, 7,039 DNP students graduated from their programs. In 2019, that number rose to 7,944.

The statistics clearly demonstrate a rise in the recognition of how important and useful the DNP program is. The benefits of a DNP reveal themselves in personal stories as well.

In a Nurse.com post, Donna Richardson, DNP, RN, NEA-BC wrote, “While earning my DNP degree, I gained valuable leadership skills and strong clinical expertise which helped me translate evidence-based knowledge in the clinical setting. I have mentored my peers, staff and other nurses in pursuit of their DNPs and I have witnessed their professional growth as they completed the degree. Besides opening many doors for them, it has improved outcomes for our patients under their care because they’ve developed confidence and leadership and application skills for driving practice changes at the bedside.”

Donna Novak, DNP, CRNP shared in the same article that “Education is never a waste of time and is priceless in terms of what it contributes to your life. Through my program, I learned so much about being a nursing leader and achieving the degree definitely opened doors for me.”

One New York Nurse wrote that “professional autonomy, making a difference in her patients’ lives and the respect she receives from physicians, patients and other members of the healthcare team helps make practicing as an NP rewarding,” according to StaffCare.com.

“There’s tremendous value in my work,” she said. “I know I am helping people effect change in their lives.”


Is a DNP Right for You?


Questions to Consider

U.S. News & World Report recommends “5 Questions to Ask When Choosing an Online Graduate Nursing Program.” The questions are:

  • Which type of degree is best for your particular career?​​
  • How much time and money can you spend on a degree?
  • Is the program accredited?
  • Is there an on-campus component?
  • Who are the faculty and what kind of support will you receive?

If your answers to those questions lead you to a doctor of nursing practice program, we encourage you to ask yourself:

  • Are you interested in pursuing more leadership roles in your career?
  • Would you like to expand your job possibilities?
  • Do you enjoy applying knowledge and research to practical or clinical settings?
  • When you imagine your life and career a few years from now, what do you see?

Marymount DNP nursing students


How to Get a DNP

The Marymount University Online Post-Master's MSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program offers nurses the opportunity to broaden their career horizons. If you want to build better outcomes through healthcare improvement, join a university that has been awarded a Best Nursing Schools: DNP rating, according to U.S. News & World Report.


Requirements to Enter a DNP Degree Program

Nurses who are interested in the MSN to DNP Program at Marymount must be MSN degree holders with a minimum 3.0 GPA. They also need to have an RN licensure.


How Long Does It Take to Earn a DNP?

At Marymount, the MSN to DNP program requires:

  • 31-35 credits
  • Six semesters
  • 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours (500 can be carried over from previous MSN degree)


Influence the Future of Healthcare


Is a DNP Worth It?

Yes. Nurse leaders are paving the way for changes in the nation’s health care system and Marymount University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program empowers nurses with applicable skills and knowledge to make a tangible difference.

Our 100% online program led by expert-level nurse faculty welcomes students into an educational community that’s centered in the nation’s capital. Our program provides key insight into policy and advocacy. Marymount University is a DC-based Catholic university focused on:

  • inclusion
  • service
  • equity
  • empowering nurses to make a difference locally, nationally and internationally

Advance your level of knowledge to better care for patients with an online MSN to DNP from Marymount University.


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