Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The best DNP programs prepare you for the highest levels of leadership in specialized nursing practice. DNP degrees are more practice-oriented that a traditional or online PhD in nursing and will prepare you to integrate new nursing research into everyday clinical practice and education. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) states that DNP programs should take around 3 years of full-time study (including summers) or 4 years on a traditional academic calendar.

Top accredited DNP programs are designed to strengthen your leadership abilities and allow you to promote better clinical practices by using research and education. As a DNP student, you will probably be required to attend professional seminars on clinical research as well as keep up with the latest research in nursing academic journals. However, you will also gain considerable advanced clinical experience that is intended to help you translate that research into nursing practice.

Who should pursue a DNP in nursing?

The AACN and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) recently decided that all new advanced practice nurses (APNs) will be required to earn a DNP instead of a masters in nursing (MSN) after the year 2015. Although they will make exceptions for nurses who are already practicing APNs before this date, the DNP is quickly becoming the standard degree for advanced practice nursing.

An article by the U.S. News and World Report reports that more and more schools are developing DNP programs in order to meet the high demand for this degree that will come after 2015. Students can expect to have more opportunities to pursue this degree at a wider variety of schools in the next decade.

DNPs have the most diverse role of any nursing professionals, therefore it is especially important for you to have an interest in both the theoretical and practical sides of nursing. In addition to teaching, keeping up with the latest research and evaluating nursing practices, many professionals who hold DNPs are also passionate about healthcare laws and administration. For this reason, some of the best nursing career options for nurses with a DNP involve working with the public policy side of healthcare at the local, state or federal level.

Studying online for a DNP in nursing

You may have doubts about enrolling in an online DNP program since 1 of this degree’s main focuses is clinical practice. However, many traditional nursing schools now offer hybrid programs that allow you to gain on-site clinical experience while taking most of your graduate-level nursing courses online.

Some of the best online DNP programs offer both part-time and full-time options. Additionally, online courses are usually asynchronous, which means that you do not have to take classes at specific times. However, in an accredited DNP online program you will typically have to complete over 100 hours of clinical work under the supervision of a faculty member. These clinical hours must be scheduled in advance with your clinical preceptor and they must be completed on-site in a healthcare setting.

This concentration on clinical practice is what will distinguish your DNP degree from a PhD in nursing. Your DNP coursework will teach you how to evaluate and improve healthcare models, nursing strategies and current health policies, while a PhD in nursing focuses on the technical and theoretical aspects of nursing research.

Doctorate-level coursework and program requirements

The best DNP schools design their programs so that students first complete advanced coursework and then apply the knowledge that they gain from these classes to write examination papers, develop their final clinical project and orally defend their findings in front of the faculty and nursing professionals. The AACN recommends that DNP programs provide a minimum of 1,000 hours of practice for post-baccalaureate students in supervised clinical and academic environments.

Whether you are a traditional student or are enrolled in 1 of the top DNP online programs, you will have much more freedom over how you spend your clinical hours compared to undergraduate and MSN nursing programs. Students who pursue a DNP are usually independent, self-directing professionals. Learning how to strategically use your clinical hours to develop your knowledge of a specific field of nursing is critical to your professional development.

Toward the end of your DNP program, you will combine the knowledge that you gained through your coursework, research and clinical experience and use it to develop a final capstone project. In contrast to a theoretical, research-based PhD dissertation, a DNP capstone project requires you to create a concrete, evidence-based proposal for improving real healthcare practices.

Your capstone project gives you the chance to demonstrate mastery in an advanced nursing specialty field. Although every DNP capstone project is unique, they generally require you to design and test a new, research-based clinical innovation either in patient care or healthcare management.

These final projects usually take place during the last 2 to 4 semesters of your DNP program. Each of these semesters is typically dedicated to 1 part of your capstone project such as clinical research, theory development and oral presentation.

Gaining admission to a DNP program

All DNP programs require you to finish your bachelors (BSN) or masters in nursing (MSN) before you can gain admission. Some DNP programs will also accept students with a masters degree in a field other than nursing, such as health science or healthcare administration. However, these students will usually have to complete additional nursing coursework which can lengthen the amount of time that they need to complete the program.

In addition to a BSN or MSN, you will also need a current RN license to apply to a DNP program. Although some schools accept RN licenses from anywhere in the U.S., you will usually have to register for a license in the state where the school is located before you can begin working on your clinical practice hours.

Almost all DNP programs also ask you to write a statement of purpose in which you describe your professional interests and goals. Once your application has been processed, you will probably be invited to interview with 1 or more faculty members before you are admitted to the program. Finally, a few of the best DNP schools will even require applicants to have an advanced practice nursing certification before they start their first semester.

Holding a job during your DNP program

DNP students may find it difficult to balance a job with the graduate coursework and hundreds of clinical hours that they are required to complete. However, working in a hospital or physician’s office can provide DNPs will additional experience and give them access to experienced doctors who work in their specialty field.

It is very common for DNP students to base their capstone projects on the same specialized nursing field in which they work. For instance, a DNP student who works as a nurse in a cardiology unit might create a capstone project that evaluates a new technique of screening for heart disease.

It is very common for RNs and APNs to continue working as nurses, nurse educators or clinical managers during their DNP programs. If you decide to work while you are enrolled in a doctorate nursing program, be prepared to have a very busy schedule and little free time. However, most DNP students find that the pay and experience that they earn by holding a job is worth the sacrifice of a little leisure time.