What Is a DNP Degree? Advanced Nursing Degree Guide

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Learn more about how a DNP, a terminal degree in nursing, could fit within your health care career goals.

[Featured image] A DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) student in a lab coat, stethoscope, and head scarf works on her degree at a laptop computer.

If you’re looking to advance your nursing career and are passionate about patient care, you could find new and rewarding opportunities in the medical field with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Learn more about the degree program, the cost, and the many career paths you can prepare for with a DNP.

What is a DNP degree?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice degree (DNP) is a terminal degree that provides advanced training for nurses who hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). The DNP degree is a doctoral-level degree, although it is not the same qualification needed to become a medical doctor. Instead, this practical degree allows nurses to equip themselves with advanced skills and knowledge within the nursing field. 

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

DNP program overview

When earning a DNP degree, you will learn core competencies called essentials. Essentials are defined by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and required by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education for schools to become accredited for DNP degree programs. 

In April 2021, the AACN adopted 10 new core competencies that accredited nursing schools will gradually integrate into their curricula. If the DNP program you choose has not yet made the transition, your course content will focus on the following eight essentials, as defined by AACN [1]: 

  • The scientific underpinnings of nursing practice

  • Organizational and systems leadership skills

  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice 

  • Information systems and patient care technology 

  • 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

Additionally, specialty nursing organizations define their own focused competencies designed to prepare the DNP graduate for the practice and instructional experiences of a particular specialty. 

DNP programs that have transitioned to the most current 2021 standards will offer coursework based on 10 competencies, as defined by AACN [2]:

  • Knowledge for nursing practice

  • Person-centered care

  • Population health

  • Scholarship for the nursing discipline

  • Quality and safety

  • Interprofessional partnerships

  • Systems-based practice

  • Informatics and health care technologies

  • Professionalism

  • Personal, professional, and leadership development 

What are the routes to a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree?

Admission to a DNP program is rigorous, and the exact requirements depend on the school you are applying to. The most efficient route to a DNP is to have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. However, you can qualify for many DNP programs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). You can expect all DNP programs to require you to have an active and unencumbered RN license. 

MSN to DNP

If you hold a Master of Science in Nursing, you could qualify for admission to most DNP programs. Some programs will allow you to have a master's in a health-related field as long as you have a BSN. 

Each school has its own requirements, but typical entry criteria include licensure in the state you’ll attend school, letters of recommendation, minimum hours of practice experience, minimum GPA, and an admission interview. 

You might also be required to have APRN national certification in a specialized role, such as nurse midwife, nurse practitioner, or nurse executive. If you attend full-time, you can expect to complete the program in one to two years. Part-time options are also available.

BSN to DNP

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from an accredited program is another common way to qualify for admission into a DNP program. Some schools may accept a non-nursing bachelor's degree if you have a Registered Nurse (RN) license. 

You will complete your master's level work while studying for your DNP. You can choose to specialize in an area of nursing, such as gerontology, health care leadership, pediatrics, or psychiatric mental health. 

To gain admission, you will likely need to meet a minimum GPA requirement, licensure, and have completed specific coursework, especially statistics. This route will typically take three to four years to complete when attending full-time.

How much does a DNP cost?

Earning a DNP through a BSN to DNP route will cost more than the MSN route since the program is longer. Each program cost varies depending on the type of school and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state resident. Specializing in a particular nursing field tends to cost more since extra credits are required for graduation.

A BSN to DNP program can range from around $26,000 to $254,000, whereas an MSN to DNP program might cost $17,000 to $170,000, according to figures collated by NursingProcess.org [3]. According to DoctorofNursingPractice.org, you can expect to pay an average of $21,318 for a post-master’s DNP if attending an in-state public school and $36,784 for out-of-state attendance. A private school costs an average of $74,752 [4]. 

What does it take to earn a DNP?

Along with the DNP essentials listed above, graduation requirements include completing all graduate coursework, including your area of emphasis. You'll likely need a minimum GPA of around 3.0 and supervised clinical hours typically totaling 1,000. A residency project is generally required as well.

How can a DNP degree benefit your career?

For experienced nursing professionals, earning a DNP can open new opportunities in a rewarding career. Because a DNP degree is recognized in all 50 states, you’ll be able to work across the country. As a DNP, you can choose where you want to work, and most often, you can choose your schedule to accommodate your personal life. A DNP degree might qualify you for leadership positions and an opportunity to increase your earning potential. 

What can you do with a DNP?

As a DNP graduate, you can advance your career in your field of study. Some specialties you can qualify for are nurse-midwife and clinical nurse specialist. If your goal is to teach, you may pursue work as a college or university professor.

Post-secondary nursing instructor

Median annual salary: $77,440 [5]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 12% (faster than average)

If you enjoy teaching others nursing skills, a college or university professor career is possible with a DNP degree. You might work in a classroom setting or clinical practice as an instructor. 

Nurse anesthetist

Median annual salary: $195,610 [6]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 45% (much faster than average)

A nurse anesthetist prepares and administers anesthesia. In addition to having a degree, you must be licensed in the state where you work. 

Nurse midwife

Median annual salary: $112,830 [6]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 45% (much faster than average)

Nurse midwives provide services to expectant mothers. As a nurse midwife, you’ll care for mothers before and during childbirth and provide care to the mother and child following delivery.

Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)

Average annual salary: $87,125 [7]

As a clinical nurse specialist, you’ll provide patient care. A CNS can also work as a nursing instructor. 

Certified nurse practitioner (CNP)

Average annual salary: $91,722 [8]

A certified nurse practitioner provides advanced patient care. As a CNP, you can diagnose and treat patients and prescribe medications. 

Psychiatric nurse practitioner (PNP): $93015

Average annual salary: $93,015 [9]

As a psychiatric nurse, you can work in mental health, women’s health, and with patients of all ages. A PNP can diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medications, and do much of what a physician does.

Are DNP degree holders in demand?

The career outlook for DNP degree holders is promising, as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth of 45 percent throughout the decade for many workers with these credentials [6]. Workers retiring or transitioning to other careers drive some of this growth, along with increased health care services.

Next steps

If you’re interested in beginning or advancing your nursing career, explore more than 5,000 courses from leading universities and institutions on Coursera. Options include Integrative Nursing and Nursing Informatics Leadership from the University of Minnesota, Anatomy from the University of Michigan, or Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us from the University of Pennsylvania. Join our global community and start learning today!

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Article sources 

1. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. "The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice, https://www.aacnnursing.org/Portals/42/Publications/DNPEssentials.pdf." Accessed July 8, 2022.

 2. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. "The Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education, https://www.aacnnursing.org/Portals/42/AcademicNursing/pdf/Essentials-2021.pdf." Accessed July 8, 2022.

3. NursingProcess.org. "How Much Does The DNP Program Cost?, https://www.nursingprocess.org/dnp-program-cost.html." Accessed July 8, 2022.

4. Doctor of Nursing Practice. "What Does It Cost to Earn a DNP?, www.doctorofnursingpracticednp.org/what-does-it-cost-to-earn-a-dnp-doctor-of-nursing-practice/." Accessed July 8, 2022.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Postsecondary Teachers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm." Accessed July 8, 2022.

6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-5." Accessed July 8, 2022.

7. Glassdoor. "Clinical Nurse Specialist Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/clinical-nurse-specialist-salary-SRCH_KO0,25.htm." Accessed July 8, 2022.

8. Glassdoor. "Certified Nurse Practitioner Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/certified-nurse-practitioner-salary-SRCH_KO0,28.htm." Accessed July 8, 2022.

9. Glassdoor. "Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/psychiatric-nurse-practitioner-salary-SRCH_KO0,30.htm." Accessed July 8, 2022.

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