Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Guide

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Achieving a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) enables graduates to become qualified for the most clinically advanced positions in nursing. Depending on an applicant’s current level of education and practice, a DNP degree can take anywhere between one and four years to complete. By understanding the DNP degree, students can determine the best program and specialty area for them, as well as what is required. It is essential the aspiring DNPs appreciate the admission process, schooling, and responsibilities of a DNP.

What Is a DNP?

A DNP is a clinical doctorate that can be earned after completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing. The DNP is a terminal nursing degree, or the most advanced clinical education a nurse can receive. DNP programs are designed for Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs). Graduates of a DNP program are qualified to work in both clinical and administrative roles, typically in leadership positions. Clinically, DNPs function as advanced providers for patients, while DNPs in leadership oversee multidisciplinary healthcare teams and programs in order to produce the best possible patient outcomes.

How to Choose a DNP Program

Choosing the best DNP program for a student's career goals is essential, as it is the foundation of one's career. Applicants should only consider programs that are accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), two reliable authorities in nursing education. Tuition is also an important factor for applicants who are comparing DNP programs. Financing options should be reviewed to ensure the program is financially feasible.

Many DNP students are full-time nurses and enroll in programs that accommodate their working schedules. For instance, some DNP programs offer flexible part-time options, while others require full-time attendance. Classes may also be offered in person or online, which may not be suited to every student’s learning style. DNP specializations should also be considered, particularly if an applicant has a specific career goals in mind.

DNP candidates can also review the program’s board certification exam pass rates and post-graduation employment rates, if available.

Online DNP Programs

Online DNP programs are available to actively working nursing professionals who wish to advance in their career path and require flexible scheduling. Earning a DNP from a qualified online program is as effective, and renders graduates as competitive, as those who receive their DNP from in-person programs. Some online programs require students to complete coursework on their own timeline, while others require attendance at online forums at scheduled times. This is a feasible option for many working nurses, but may not fit every student’s learning style. All DNP programs, including those that are online, require students to complete on-site clinical hours. Details of arranging this are specific to each program.

DNP Specialties

Students may choose between APRN and non-APRN DNP specializations, which will vary depending on the chosen program. Here is a brief overview of common APRN options.

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care or Primary Care Nurse Practitioner: Provides care for adults, with a specialized understanding of elderly patient needs
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner: Provides care for newborns and infants; also attends premature and at-risk births
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist: Administers and oversees anesthesia in a broad range of healthcare settings
  • Family Nurse PractitionerManages health and wellness across all age groups, often in primary care settings
  • Psychiatric or Mental Health Nurse Practitioner: Assesses, diagnoses, and treats mental health disorders
  • Nurse-midwifery: Specializes in women’s health, obstetric care, pre/postpartum care

Non-APRN DNP specializations include the following areas:

  • Nursing Administrator: Oversees quality initiatives and healthcare delivery systems within the clinical environment
  • Nurse Educator: Trains active nurses and students in evidence-based practice and designs nursing education
  • Nursing Informatics: Utilizes technology and information systems to support multidisciplinary care

How Long Is Nursing School?

The timeline to complete a DNP program depends on whether a full-time or part-time program is chosen and current qualifications. Full-time students with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can expect to spend three or four years obtaining a DNP. Those who hold a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) must typically complete an additional one to two years of full-time study to become a DNP.

Admission Requirements and DNP Prerequisites

DNP prerequisites vary depending on school, but most programs have similar standards for applicants. DNP candidates need a BSN and a sufficient GPA. A current registered nurse license in is also required, and nursing experience is considered.

Applicants typically submit reference letters, which can include recommendations based on academic, professional, and personal qualities. Schools often dictate who qualifies as a valid reference, such as past professors, supervisors, and colleagues. A personal statement is often required, and in some cases an interview as well. Applicants should review the DNP prerequisites specific to the programs in which they are interested.

What Can You Do with a DNP?

DNP jobs are diverse, allowing graduates to choose a specialty based on interests and experience. Work as a DNP may involve either direct patient care or administration. As DNPs are considered clinical experts, many choose to continue to work directly with patients, managing care as advanced practitioners.Others use their clinical experience to inform a career in administration, where they can effect change on a systems level and participate in quality improvement. Work settings include private practice, hospitals, clinics, public health sites, research organizations, extended care residences, government facilities, or DNP independent practice.

DNP Salary

A DNP's salary is typically higher than that of nurses with less advanced degrees. Working in a large practice or hospital likely yields a higher pay compared to graduates who choose to open their own independent practice.

According to PayScale, hourly employees with a DNP earn a median of $51 per hour. For salaried employees with a DNP, the median pay is $101,000 annually. Salary is very state and location dependent; urban salaries tend to be higher than suburban or rural income, for example.

Frequently Asked Questions About DNP Degrees

Is a DNP a Doctor?

The DNP is a clinical doctoral degree, but DNPs do not typically refer to themselves as doctors. Some states have legislation prohibiting any medical professional who is not a medical doctor from referring to themselves as "doctor," regardless of their education level. This is meant to add transparency for patients, who may not understand the difference between a doctoral-prepared nurse and a medical doctor.

What Is the Difference Between a DNP and a Ph.D.?

The difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. is the nature of study and the focus of the programs. A DNP is a clinical doctorate focused on working directly with patients, while a Ph.D. is a research doctorate focused on conducting inquiry that can inform clinical practice.

How Long Are BSN to DNP Programs?

The length of a BSN to DNP program varies, and mainly depends on whether a student attends part time or full time. The typical program length is between three and four years for full-time students. Part-time students can take as long as six to seven years to earn a DNP.

Can a DNP Prescribe Medication or Write Prescriptions?

Yes, a DNP can prescribe both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical treatments. This authority is not specific to DNPs but is true of all nurse practitioners. In accordance with state laws, most nurse practitioners do not require physician supervision to prescribe.

What Is the Highest Nursing Degree?

The highest clinical nursing degree is the DNP, while the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in nursing research.