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DNP Discussions

PhD and DNP: What's the Difference?

Published September 24, 2010 1:44 PM by Mai Kung

Here at the DNP Answers blog we take your questions about the DNP and answer them as best we can. This post is written by blogger Mai Kung, NP, a recent DNP graduate.

Q: A Why would a master's-prepared NP seeks a DNP degree over a PhD? The PhD is the end degree in nursing and addresses the same concerns, healthcare policy, population health, evidence-based practice, etc. (Anon.)

A: I agree with you that both DNP and PhD programs ultimately address the same healthcare issues you mentioned. The main difference between the PhD and DNP is that the PhD is grounded in research to discover new knowledge, and the DNP emphasizes clinical practice and the application of research (evidence-based practice). Comparing the curriculum requirements for the post-master's PhD and DNP programs at the University of Florida (my Alma Mater), you will find the PhD curriculum heavily emphasizes the research component, requiring 18 credit hours versus 3 for the DNP. The PhD also requires more theory and statistics courses, and requires more credit hours in order to graduate (62 versus 48). On the other hand, the DNP program requires more practice-oriented courses, such as epidemiology, pharmacology, diagnostic reasoning, health policy, health behaviors, informatics, leadership ... This is not to say that a PhD cannot also be clinically oriented or that a DNP cannot participate in research activities. Rather the emphasis for each program is different.

I see the choice between a DNP and PhD as a personal one. It is dependent upon one's interests, goals, aspirations, and available resources/funding. Those who choose the DNP may be more interested in practical content rather than the intensive research-focused PhD curriculum. One may choose the DNP because she/he is more interested in pursuing a career in clinical practice as there is a significant physician shortage, especially in primary care. The U.S. healthcare system is in dire need of leaders who will help to improve quality, safety and cost-effectiveness of interdisciplinary healthcare. The DNP curriculum is aimed at developing leaders in policy, administration and practice.

There is also a significant nursing shortage that is related to a shortage in nurse educators. Even though many universities may not offer tenure track positions to DNPs, DNPs are natural educators to teach clinical contents. Additionally, with the explosive increase in the number of DNP programs and students enrolled in these programs, DNPs will no doubt be needed in academia.

One may choose to pursue a DNP degree because it generally requires less time to complete than a PhD. However, PhD students may receive better funding opportunities in educational scholarship/fellowship awards. A PhD degree is also more prestigious, especially in academia, but both degrees are considered terminal degrees in nursing.

Choosing between pursuing a DNP or PhD may not be an easy task. For me, it took some research and I consulted many experts and mentors. Their first questions for me were "What are your interests?" "What would you like to do with this degree?" I weighed in on the pros and cons and I feel I made the right decision. No matter what the final decision is for an NP, any doctoral education will better prepare nurses to be "at the table" with other healthcare providers to improve patient care on an individual and on a population level. More education will also promote nursing as a profession and improve the nursing image.

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