Best Online Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs

ASO Staff Writers
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Updated November 30, 2023
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Degree Options & Potential Careers

To earn a DNP online, students need a high level of determination and commitment to their education. The program’s focus on clinical work typically requires students with a passion for healthcare delivery and compassion for treating patients. For those who do complete the program, however, the career often brings significant rewards.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) professions are projected to grow more than four times that of the national average career through 2026. Furthermore, the median annual wages in the field is nearly three times higher than the average career. To help candidates better understand what their future could hold, the following information highlights what an online DNP program entails and some of the possible outcomes.

What’s the Difference Between a DNP and a Ph.D. in Nursing?

The primary differences between an online DNP program and a Ph.D. in nursing typically comes down to clinical practice and research. In most online DNP programs, students focus on clinical work, applying their coursework and training to a practical setting and spending a significant number of hours in a clinical setting. The Ph.D. in nursing, conversely, emphasizes research. Students often spend much of their time researching and working on their dissertation.

This difference is commonly reflected in the professional world as well. The clinical emphasis of an online DNP program often leads graduates to careers as APRNs, such as nurse practitioners or nurse midwives. In many cases, the programs incorporate licensure training to help students prepare.

While a Ph.D. in nursing can also lead to clinical work, the research-heavy programs lead more directly to academia or research. Overall, the heavier coursework and clinical components of online DNP programs usually result in a heavier credit requirement, though Ph.D. programs typically take longer to complete.

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Should I Earn a DNP Online?

The reasons for acquiring a DNP online vary for every individual, but the degree does offer some benefits that many people look for, especially those that pursue a career as a nurse practitioner.

What Can I Do With an Online DNP?

With a DNP, graduates can pursue a variety of healthcare careers, but many graduates with this degree explore one of the major APRN professions. According to the BLS, more than 75% of people who pursue an APRN career go into the nurse practitioner profession. Approximately 20% become nurse anesthetists and 5% become nurse midwives. These highly trained graduates can also pursue careers as clinical managers or specialists. Almost half of all APRNs work in physician offices, whereas 28% work in hospitals.

In addition to the APRN professions, DNP graduates may also choose to pursue a career in academia. Working as a postsecondary teacher or researcher represents one of many primary career paths for doctorate students in any discipline. Other career opportunities include private organizations, nonprofits, and the government. The following list covers in more detail some of the most popular career options in this field.

Career Profiles

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners occupy the professional space between a registered nurse and a physician. These licensed professionals perform nursing duties, along with many physician duties, like treating patients, prescribing medication, and designing treatment plans. Though a master’s degree represents the most common degree in this field, doctorates may offer graduates additional opportunities.

Certified Nurse-Midwives

Nurse midwives most often work with mothers and families, assisting in the labor, prenatal care, and counseling services. These licensed professionals may work in clinics, hospitals, or public health departments. While many clinical nurse midwives possess a master’s degree, candidates with doctorates may receive more opportunities and benefits.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists work in hospitals or clinics and administer anesthesia to patients. These licensed nurses must assess patients and situations and determine what anesthesia to use. Most nurse anesthetists possess a master’s degree, but a doctorate may provide graduates with access to more opportunities.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Another form of APRN, the clinical nurse specialist often oversees healthcare clinics or departments, managing its practices and operations. These professionals may take charge of training and staffing needs, along with any supervisory roles necessary. Candidates with a master’s degree may take on these positions, but doctorates prepare graduates more thoroughly or qualify them better for the position.

Postsecondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers instruct college and university students in their area of expertise. In addition to teaching, these professionals conduct their own research and scholarly work. To earn a postsecondary position, teachers need a doctorate and possibly some experience.

DNP Program Overview

When it comes down to the program itself, every school offers something new and different. To make the admission process a little easier, however, the following information explores what the typical online DNP program looks like. Below, students can learn about the various application components, how schools usually build their curriculums, what some of the courses might look like, and what skills students stand to gain in the program.

Application Requirements and Admission Criteria

To satisfy the admission requirements for their desired program, students should examine what their application requires and complete each of the steps carefully. Typically, these programs require students to possess a master’s degree with a 3.0 GPA or higher. Some programs may request higher grades, along with GRE or GMAT scores. Conversely, some schools may admit students with only a bachelor’s degree.

Additionally, applicants usually must submit recommendation letters and personal letters. Recommendation letters typically come from teachers or employers and speak to the applicant’s capability in the program or field. Personal letters may address the student’s interest in the field or highlight potential research or career goals.

In many online DNP programs, applicants with professional experience or licensure receive preference. These qualifications demonstrate the candidate’s practical familiarity with the healthcare world and may help in acquiring clinical hours.

Curriculum

How each program breaks down depends on the school and the degree, but most online DNP programs require between 60 and 75 credits. The typical curriculum breaks down into the following primary components: core, research, clinical, and electives or specializations. The core program, which usually makes up about 40% of the program, may include courses on policy, management, and advanced healthcare practices. The elective component takes up about 10% and allows students to specialize in a niche area or create an interdisciplinary focus.

The emphasis of research in these programs varies considerably. Since most online DNP programs feature less research and more clinical work, this component may only make up 10% of the program. Many online DNP programs include a thorough research project that students complete at the end of the degree. Students seeking a career in academia or research should consider a Ph.D. in nursing or a research-based DNP.

The clinical element of these programs often takes up a large portion of time spent in the degree. Practical courses may cover 40% of the degree requirements, and students may complete as many as 1,000 clinical hours. In these courses and experiences, students build clinical expertise and learn to translate research into practice. For more information, the following list explores some of the more common courses offered in a DNP program.

Program Outcomes

Throughout a DNP degree, students gain a set of skills that allow them to pursue highly advanced careers. For learners in a clinical program, they may obtain more than 1,000 hours of clinical experience prior to completing the program. This level of experience ensures that graduates can operate advanced technology and medical equipment confidently, plus perform the various medical procedures required of them. Graduates also gain familiarity with research, which enables them to translate evidence-based theory into practice to make for improved care.

At the management level, graduates often learn various leadership techniques. They also gain an understanding of the power structures and policies within the industry. Equipped with this knowledge, DNP graduates can make improvements to care delivery and processes. They can also work toward reforming or improving organizational operations and functions. They may even possess specialized training that allows them to branch out into various fields, such as gerontology or pediatrics.

Accreditation for DNP Online Programs

Accreditation for DNP programs comes from two different places: regionally and nationally. Institutionally, all schools should hold regional accreditation from one of the approved accrediting agencies. For students, employers, other schools, and industry organizations, regional accreditation ensures that the school met the industry and regional standards.

At the program level, all programs should carry national or programmatic accreditation from one of the major nursing accreditation industries, like the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. For DNP programs, other accreditations might come from the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education or the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs. Students can check accreditation statuses on the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

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