Ph.D. in Nursing Programs Guide

A Ph.D. in nursing prepares nurses for the highest level of practical care, looking to convert research into practice.

Updated July 12, 2023 · 5 Min Read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Degree Options & Potential Careers

The Future of Nursing, a report released by the Institute of Medicine in 2009, created a blueprint for improving nurse education by the year 2020. The report explained that nurses with advanced degrees receive better training and are more prepared to take on leadership roles in data collection, policymaking, or workforce planning.

Doctoral candidates for nursing must be hardworking, detail-oriented, passionate, and eager to advance nursing science. Even if the Institute of Medicine meets its goals, only 10% of nurses will have a Ph.D. by the year 2020; therefore, the career outlook for those who have an advanced degree is good.

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

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree and a Ph.D. in nursing are both advanced degrees, but have different goals and career outcomes. A DNP helps prepare nurses for the highest level of practical care, looking to convert research into practice. A Ph.D. in nursing focuses on advancing research and knowledge in nursing science.

Curriculum requirements vary by school. Prospective students should research the colleges they are interested in to determine specific degree requirements. In general, DNP programs require a clinical project that demonstrates practical knowledge and Ph.D. programs require an original research project and dissertation.

DNP degrees typically require 70-95 credits, while Ph.D. programs require 70. Ph.D. graduates typically find research or policy careers while DNP holders pursue clinical professions or management positions. However, there is some crossover. For example, both DNP and Ph.D. degree holders can work as nurse practitioners. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Featured Online DNP Programs

Find a program that meets your affordability, flexibility, and education needs through an accredited, online school.

Should I Earn an Online Ph.D. in Nursing?

Nurses have a lot to gain from earning a Ph.D. The benefits of a Ph.D. in nursing include greater independence, heightened job security, more authority, and higher salaries.

  • Authority: Ph.D. holders are experts in nursing. As such, degree holders can pursue leadership positions in healthcare policy and practice where they help shape the healthcare industry, create safer practices, and effect change on a national level.
  • Independence: Degree holders have options not available to regular nurses. Nurse practitioners with a doctorate can open independent practices in at least 20 states and the District of Columbia. This allows nurses the freedom of working for themselves while still providing valuable care to patients.
  • Job security: Though education efforts are underway, the vast majority of nurses do not hold advanced degrees, and even fewer hold doctorates. This scarcity means Ph.D.-holding nurses can find and keep jobs in postsecondary education, management, and policymaking.
  • Salary: As with most careers, salary potential increases with higher education levels. For nursing, Ph.D. and DNP holders have the highest salary potential, due in part to the types of available careers, such as high-level managerial positions.

What Can I Do With an Online Ph.D. in Nursing?

A Ph.D. opens many doors, including in industries not typically suited for nurses. Nurses with doctorates can work in hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices, or at an independent advanced practice, but they can also pursue careers in government -- local, state, or federal -- and in academia.

Students should work through their Ph.D. programs with specific career goals in mind and research what further steps they need to take to achieve those goals. There are many options for degree holders. For example, in academia, graduates can pursue careers as professors, administrators, or researchers.

Graduates interested in healthcare can become nurse practitioners, nursing researchers, or managers in hospitals or clinics. At the intersection of healthcare and government, degree holders can become healthcare policymakers, consultants, or advisors. Below are a few career options for nurses with doctorates.

Career Profiles

Postsecondary Instructor

Nursing programs sometimes turn away qualified nursing candidates because there aren't enough instructors. A Ph.D. in nursing qualifies graduates to teach the next generation of nurses while still conducting their own research. This path offers a lot of job security for nurses with doctorates.

Nurse Director

Nurse directors manage nursing activities in healthcare institutions like hospitals and clinics. They oversee staff, manage budgets, and facilitate communication between nurses and other healthcare professionals. While a Ph.D. is not required, salary increases with higher levels of education.

Chief Nurse Anesthetist

Chief nurse anesthetists coordinate and supervise anesthetic procedures. They are responsible for anesthetic protocols and evaluating patients. Nurse anesthetists work closely with patients and staff, which requires strong leadership and communication skills. Some facilities may not require a Ph.D. for this position, but having one improves chances of being hired.

Clinical Research Nurse

Clinical research nurses oversee clinical trials to improve patient health. These nurses work with many different illnesses, people, and medications. They must monitor the effects of new treatments and pay close attention to the welfare of their patients. A Ph.D. in nursing sets job seekers on a track for advancement and management positions.

Dean of Nursing

Dean of nursing is an administerial position at a college or university. Deans oversee the college of nursing and provide counsel to faculty, staff, and students. They must have a thorough knowledge of nursing education, conduct personal research, and ensure their school follows federal and state policies and regulations.

Nursing Ph.D. Program Overview

While all colleges and universities have different qualifications and curricula, there are some similarities between online Ph.D. nursing programs. Below, prospective students can find information on application requirements, curricula, and program outcomes for online Ph.D. programs. Degree seekers can learn what application materials they need and what to expect from the experience.

Prospective students should always research specific requirements for the schools and programs that interest them.

Application Requirements and Admission Criteria

All online programs require a bachelor degree in nursing, but some require a master's. Prospective students usually need a cumulative 3.0 GPA, and both their bachelor's and master's degrees should be from accredited schools.

Ph.D. candidates may need current RN licensure to be considered for a program. Some schools also require a scholarly paper focused on nursing and a resume detailing previous professional experience. Colleges encourage nursing experience -- particularly clinical nursing experience. In some cases, additional certification -- like the advanced practice national certification for nurses -- may be required.

Prospective students should prepare a statement of purpose outlining their educational goals and consider what they will say if asked to sit for an interview with an admissions officer. Few programs require GRE scores, though some do.


Online Ph.D. nursing programs typically offer both core and specialty credits. Core classes cover theoretical practice and research methods and are the foundation for the degree, so they are required. Students earn the majority of their credits in their core classes.

Specialty courses allow students to pursue their particular areas of interest. These classes focus on specific subject matter related to future career prospects. Specializations may include health systems, clinical nursing science, and caring science. Specialty courses require fewer credits than core courses. Some programs also offer electives, which could be interdisciplinary, allowing students to explore other, non-nursing-related fields.

While remote students take most of their classes online, many colleges and universities require some time spent on campus even for online programs. These residencies are usually short but mandatory. Requirement details vary by school, but you can find a few example courses below.

  • Research Design, Methods, and Statistics
    Students learn the most current research methods and how to design a research project to yield the best results. This course also emphasizes data usage and statistics in research.
  • Promoting Healthy Populations
    This course teaches preventative healthcare for families, individuals, and communities. Students determine the influence of environmental, sociocultural, and economic factors on a healthy lifestyle.
  • Nursing Practice
    Students examine nursing from a theoretical standpoint and learn to apply fundamental nursing concepts and processes. This course helps students develop clinical reasoning and decision-making skills.
  • Data Analysis
    Ph.D. candidates must learn the best techniques for data analysis and applying it to their research. This course delves into types of data and common collection methods for each.
  • Leadership in Healthcare
    This course teaches essential leadership skills specific to the healthcare system. Nurses learn healthcare policy, information management, and organizational skills.
  • Thesis Project
    Students conduct an individual research project and translate their findings into a dissertation under the supervision of a faculty member. All degree seekers must defend their dissertations in order to receive doctorates.

Program Outcomes

Practicing nurses, managers, and nursing researchers need to understand the ethical standards of the healthcare industry, engage with their peers, and utilize research to improve health outcomes. Ph.D. programs are designed to help with this by creating new knowledge through research, defending the social significance of nursing, engaging scientists and nurses in scholarly discussion, and cultivating ethical responsibility in scientists.

Ph.D. focus on research benefits in particular. Graduates conduct research in a thorough, empirical manner, study the research of other scientists, and apply new discoveries to theoretical models or use them in clinical practice.

Accreditation for Online Nursing Ph.D. Programs

When searching for the perfect college or university, prospective students should consider accreditation. Accreditation -- regional or national -- proves that the institution meets rigorous academic standards. The majority of Ph.D. programs will not accept candidates who don't have undergraduate or master's degrees from accredited universities.

For nursing programs, students should look for accreditation from the Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA), and the American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM).

Popular Resources

Whether you’re looking to earn your online degree or you’re a parent looking for answers, you can find all of your questions covered here. Explore these resources to help you make informed decisions and prepare for whatever is thrown your way.

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