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What is a DNP Degree and What Can You Do With DNP


Whether you’re just getting started in your nursing career or education or simply haven’t heard much about advanced nursing degrees, it’s reasonable to ask: What is a DNP degree? No one could fault you for having questions, since the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) hasn’t been around for very long. In fact, the first DNP program started in 1999. Since then, the popularity of DNP degrees has grown enormously, and they’re now seen as essential preparation for many specialized advanced nursing roles and healthcare leadership positions.


Continue reading to learn more about what DNP degrees are all about — including why Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree holders choose to pursue them to prepare for careers in healthcare leadership through a Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (BSN to DNP) program.

What Is a DNP Degree?

A DNP is one of three doctorate degrees in nursing available in the U.S. While the PhD and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) degrees focus on research and academics, the DNP degree focuses on practical clinical care and nurse leadership. As such, it’s one of the most highly coveted degree programs among nurses, and it’s become the standard pathway to leadership roles across the country.


The DNP degree has four primary areas of focus: implementing viable clinical innovations to change the way healthcare is practiced, making research-based decisions, evaluating and analyzing evidence, and translating research into practice in ways that improve patient outcomes.

DNP Graduates Address an Urgent Need in Nursing Education

In the past, the only doctoral-level nursing degree available was a PhD. However, PhD programs focus heavily on academic research, whereas direct care nurses faced an entirely different set of challenges, including staffing shortages, high nurse-patient ratios, mandatory overtime, and safety issues. Many felt that PhD holders were out of touch with the daily realities of direct care nursing and therefore ill-equipped to be leaders in the profession.


In addition to the leadership gap in nursing, the scope of nursing work itself was also changing. Previously, those who wanted to become advanced practice nurses (APNs) would earn a master’s degree from a program that provided specialized clinical training in a specific area. Additionally, master’s programs nationwide were overfilled with qualified applicants, and there was a major shortage of faculty to teach them. It also started to seem as if master’s programs were inadequate preparation to meet some of the nursing challenges of today.


In recent years, the combination of a physician shortage and the increased demand to develop streamlined strategies that produce more efficient care delivery has produced an increased need for nurse leaders. These individuals should carry extensive clinical experience, skills to manage other nurses and clinical staff, and the ability to oversee strategies to improve patient care.


All of these issues made it clear that nursing would have to change to meet the needs of a transforming healthcare system. DNP programs were created as a solution. They would provide students with specialized, clinically focused advanced training; teach them to incorporate the latest research into their nursing practice; and instruct them in leadership and systemic organizational skills to effectively manage teams and oversee and improve healthcare operations.


Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio, created a precursor to the DNP program in 1979. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that the University of Tennessee Health Science Center started the first DNP program. Other universities soon followed. As of 2023, there are 407 active DNP programs, and another 106 are in the planning stages. These programs are available in all 50 states.

4 Benefits of a DNP Degree

The projected physician shortage has created a substantial need for effective nurse leaders. While this is a serious issue in healthcare, it also provides those interested in advanced nursing degrees with unique opportunities. Some of the key benefits of the DNP include the following:

1. The Opportunity to Become a Health Leader

No matter what career path BSN to DNP graduates choose to follow, it will likely lead to a leadership role, with the opportunity to make an impact on the future of healthcare by helping shape a rapidly evolving system. There are numerous ways to lead, depending on an individual’s particular strengths, values, and interests. Each of these attributes is vital to the future of nursing and healthcare as a whole.

2. The Chance to Shape Health Policy

DNP graduates usually acquire a breadth of knowledge and skills that prepares them to participate in healthcare policymaking. Their clinical experience, combined with their research expertise and leadership training, gives them a unique perspective and valuable insights into the best ways to improve patient care and organizational efficiency. If you want to make a difference by influencing healthcare policy, a DNP degree is excellent preparation.

3. A Unique Way to Impact Patients’ Lives

For DNP graduates who want to impact patients’ lives directly by providing more specialized or a greater level of care, a nurse practitioner (NP) career reflects a rewarding way to do so. As our healthcare system evolves to rely more heavily on NPs, they should continue to see expanding patient care opportunities and greater autonomy. Unlike busy physicians with overwhelming caseloads, NPs spend more time with each patient; this means they can emphasize preventive and holistic care to improve clinical outcomes.

4. The Ability to Educate Future Leaders

DNP graduates who want to improve healthcare by molding tomorrow’s nurses and healthcare leaders should find plenty of opportunities to do so. By helping alleviate the shortage of nurse educators, DNP graduates can make a difference not only in the lives of their students but also in nursing overall as they prepare students to fill much-needed nursing roles. The next generation of nursing educators is likely to factor into whether our healthcare system can adapt to meet our changing population and world.

Why Become a DNP-Prepared Nurse?

Now that you’ve received some answers to the question “What is a DNP degree?”, you probably are wondering why a nurse with a BSN should choose to enter a BSN to DNP program. The answer depends on the individual, of course, but here are some of the most common reasons to enroll in a BSN to DNP program:


  • Leadership: BSN to DNP programs represent a great opportunity for individuals who are looking to take on leadership roles in the workplace. For those who enjoy energizing and motivating others, who have a knack for spotting inefficiencies and making things run more smoothly, or who want to have a larger impact on healthcare, a DNP degree may create new paths to leadership positions.
  • Career Movement: Many see a BSN to DNP program as a stepping stone to the highest levels of nursing. Whether you seek greater professional autonomy, want a higher salary, or are driven to push your career growth, BSN to DNP programs may help you pursue advanced nursing positions that would be difficult or nearly impossible to access without a DNP degree.
  • Choice of Professional Concentration: Many BSN to DNP students pursue areas of study that require advanced degrees. Specialized fields such as adult-gerontology acute care and psychiatric mental health demand a greater depth of knowledge — and more credit hours — than a master’s program.

What Are the DNP Career Opportunities?

Those nurses who are interested in taking their careers to the next level with a DNP degree are fortunate to be experiencing a highly favorable employment climate. While nursing jobs of all kinds are on the rise, advanced nursing jobs are growing at even greater rates. Of course, the job outlook varies according to which specific career path a BSN to DNP graduate chooses to follow, but many of the most popular DNP careers currently have strong outlooks.

Nurse Practitioner

A significant number of DNP graduates go on to become NPs. NPs perform many of the same functions as doctors, including diagnosing and treating diseases and prescribing medications. They may work for doctors’ offices, clinics, or hospitals, and they provide a wide range of care within the scope of practice in their states.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that an NP career is one of the fastest growing in the country, with employment for nurse practitioners expected to rise 46%, or 112,700 jobs, between 2021 and 2031. As the population ages, the demand on the healthcare industry will continue to grow, and more NPs will be required to fill the gaps.

Nurse Educator

Many DNP graduates choose to pursue careers in academia to educate the next generation of nurses. The widespread shortage of nursing faculty has been a major crisis in the field, so DNP graduates who pursue teaching are filling a critical need. They can likely expect strong job prospects when they graduate, as the BLS projects that college- and postgraduate-level nursing instructor positions will increase by 22%, or 18,700 jobs, from 2021 to 2031.

Patient Advocate

Patient advocacy is a relatively new field that experts predict will grow at high rates over the coming years. Patient advocates are responsible for guiding patients through the often complex and confusing healthcare system, helping them find the care they need in the most affordable way possible. Pointing to the increasing impact of this burgeoning profession is the fact that in New York and California, entire government offices are dedicated to patient advocacy. In addition to state government, patient advocates may work in hospitals, nonprofits, community agencies, or independent practices. While the BLS doesn’t calculate specific data for patient advocacy jobs, experts predict that patient advocates will play an increasingly large role in our healthcare system.

Private Practice Nurse Practitioner

Many DNP graduates choose to work as NPs in private practices in their areas of specialization, which may include gerontology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and family medicine. Private practices give NPs more autonomy and freedom since they’re not required to work under the supervision of physicians.


As of March 2023, 27 states (along with the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands) have granted full practice authority to NPs, and that number will likely continue to grow in coming years. Full practice authority gives NPs the ability to work as primary care providers or specialists under their states’ nursing boards. This authority has been shown to improve access to healthcare, streamline the delivery of care, decrease costs, and give patients more choice and autonomy.

What Is a DNP Program Curriculum Like?

Maryville University’s online BSN to DNP program offers candidates who already hold a BSN the opportunity to take their education further without the need to attend on-campus lectures. The coursework is 100% online, and the program can be completed in as little as 40 months. Students can choose from five focus areas: acute and primary care gerontology, family practice, psychiatry, and pediatrics.


The curriculum varies from one specialization to the next and includes foundational courses focused on evidence-based practice, pharmacotherapeutics, preventive care, clinical inquiry, ethics, and more. The online BSN to DNP is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Higher Learning Commission, signifying its excellence.

Discover What a DNP Degree Can Do for Your Nursing Career

Quality healthcare can make a visceral impact on an individual’s life. Therefore, the field of healthcare demands leaders who can guide others through the industry’s ever-evolving changes, so the ability to deliver optimal care that improves patient outcomes is consistently met.


DNP holders are uniquely positioned to be the leaders who are so critically needed, both today and tomorrow. If you’ve already earned your BSN, explore what a DNP program like Maryville’s accelerated BSN to DNP can do to prepare you to take on leadership roles and make a greater impact on the lives of patients. And since there’s a large demand for nursing leaders in our healthcare system now, there’s never been a more opportune moment to advance your education.


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