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DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: Salary, Skill and Career Differences


The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in nursing are among the most advanced degrees a nurse can earn. Both are valuable options for nurses who wish to move to the top of their field. While the DNP and the PhD are both terminal nursing degrees, the two are significantly different in several ways.


When comparing the DNP vs. the PhD in nursing, nurses should consider what makes each degree distinct, including what skills each focuses on and what career choices each is best suited for.

DNP vs. PhD in Nursing — Comparing the Two Degrees

Although the Doctor of Nursing Practice and the Doctor of Philosophy in nursing are two of the highest-level nursing degrees, some core differences set them apart.

What Makes a DNP Distinct?

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two degrees is that a DNP program is a clinical practice program, while a PhD program is not. A DNP is the highest-level clinical nursing degree a nurse can earn, and DNP programs generally offer several specializations, such as:


  • Adult-gerontology (acute or primary) care
  • Family primary care
  • Pediatric care
  • Psychiatric mental health care


Nurses with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a DNP can become certified as nurse practitioners (NPs) in their selected specialties. As nurse practitioners, DNP graduates apply evidence-based research to improve the quality of patient care and serve as lead clinicians in their practice specialties.


DNP graduates can also pursue healthcare management positions. These professionals serve as lead patient safety advocates and are involved with high-level decision-making and policy setting. Additionally, those in nurse leadership roles provide guidance and oversight to the registered nurses (RNs) and NPs on their teams.


The timeline for earning a DNP varies depending on the student’s current degree and program type. A nurse with a master’s can complete a DNP program in as little as 20 months (or 36 months with an NP specialization), while it can take as little as 40 months for a nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to complete a program such as Maryville’s online accelerated BSN to DNP.

What Makes a PhD in Nursing Distinct?

While a DNP program is focused on clinical patient care, a PhD in nursing program is nonclinical. Students in PhD in nursing programs focus on science and research. PhD students are preparing to become experts in their profession, and PhD graduates often work as nurse educators in an academic setting or as nurse researchers, according to the American Association of Colleges in Nursing.


Different PhD in nursing programs emphasize different areas of study. For instance, some emphasize health education while others emphasize policy research. PhD students should expect coursework that covers the philosophy and history of nursing as well as healthcare techniques. A PhD program also typically features research projects and clinical trials. PhD students must complete a dissertation that summarizes the findings of their research.


PhD coursework is considerably more demanding than DNP coursework, which is reflected in the length of the program. PhD students with a bachelor’s degree may take upward of 10 years to complete a PhD, while those with a master’s degree may take seven years.

DNP vs. PhD in Nursing — Comparing Skills and Careers

DNP graduates gain a superior set of clinical skills and practice-based experience in patient care. The scope of those skills are primarily dictated by their specialty. For instance, a family primary care specialist has a broad skill set in managing overall patient care, as they work with all demographics of patients. By comparison, a pediatric care specialist focuses on preventive care such as vaccinations and screening for illnesses that affect young children.


Whatever their specialties, these are among common responsibilities of DNP graduates:


  • Observing patients and performing physical exams
  • Updating patient medical histories and recording current symptoms
  • Ordering and administering patient tests
  • Operating medical equipment used for exams
  • Diagnosing health issues and developing treatment plans
  • Educating patients and their families so they can better manage their health
  • Prescribing medication (in full practice authority states)


By comparison, the skills acquired through a PhD in nursing program are primarily academic. Although PhD graduates do not operate in a clinical capacity, they do possess a more comprehensive knowledge base when compared to DNP graduates. In the role of nurse educators, they perform the following job duties:


  • Planning and developing curricula for nursing programs
  • Delivering lectures to nursing students
  • Mentoring nursing students
  • Supervising students as they engage in clinical or lab work
  • Grading student work (lab assignments, clinicals, and homework)
  • Serving as a knowledge resource for students


Some PhD graduates pursue careers as nurse researchers working in lab settings. In this role, they perform the following duties:


  • Developing research questions in collaboration with other researchers and scientists
  • Collecting and analyzing data pertaining to their research studies
  • Writing detailed reports that summarize their findings
  • Training and supervising nurse scientists and other laboratory staff
  • Writing research and grant proposals to secure funding

Salary and Career Outlook

Individuals with a DNP degree had a median annual salary of approximately $108,000 in October 2022, according to the salary statistics site PayScale. By comparison, those with a PhD in nursing had a median annual salary of approximately $97,000.


Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners had a median annual salary of $123,780 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These roles will grow 40% between 2021 and 2031, the BLS projects, which is much faster than the projected average for all occupations of 5%.


Nursing instructors and teachers (postsecondary) had a median annual salary of $77,440, according to the BLS. The role of postsecondary teachers will increase by 12% between 2021 and 2031.

Pursue a Career with an Advanced Nursing Degree

When comparing a DNP vs. a PhD in nursing, it’s important to point out that graduates of both degree programs go on to do crucial work. Nurse practitioners treat patients directly and help save lives; nurse leaders make important safety and efficiency decisions; and nurse educators and researchers impart knowledge to the next generation of nurses and push the field forward.


Nurses with a passion for helping patients thrive should consider a DNP program such as the online accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University. With five concentrations to choose from, the DNP program at Maryville prepares BSN students to become nurse leaders and nurse practitioners in the specialty of their choosing. Maryville students have the added convenience of being able to access coursework 100% online and complete clinicals locally.


Take the first step toward a career as a nurse practitioner by learning more about Maryville University’s online nursing degree programs.


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