1. McMahon, Janet Tompkins MSN, RN

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The doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) degree is becoming increasingly popular as a terminal degree option for nurses desiring to advance their education. The DNP is an exciting option for a doctoral degree because of its unique clinical focus for the healthcare workforce.


Why the DNP?

The reasons to return to school for your DNP degree may include achieving a personal goal or perhaps you have the passion, purpose, and drive to create a new opportunity for change within nursing. The DNP degree is a new avenue for today's healthcare leaders, and the role of the DNP-prepared nurse has great merit and value in our current care delivery systems. This role is essential for providing nursing leadership with an evidence-based practice (EBP) focus for improving clinical outcomes.


According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing's (AACN) Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice, there's a need for more organized leadership within the healthcare industry. The Institute of Medicine's Future of Nursing report also supports the DNP degree, endorsing the need to double the number of doctorally-prepared nurses by 2020. The call to action for improving our healthcare delivery systems by more resourceful utilization of the DNP-prepared nurse's role is most imminent.


The DNP-prepared nurse can act as a change agent within the profession. One example of this contribution is bridging the gap between theory and clinical practice. According to the AACN, the DNP-prepared nurse is responsible for obtaining and utilizing evidence-based scientific knowledge to problem-solve and disseminate new working knowledge to interprofessional healthcare disciplines. The DNP-prepared nurse is a facilitator of emerging EBP as a catalyst for advancing patient care and outcomes within the healthcare facility, as well as the community at large. The utilization of resources rich in evidence-based knowledge is fundamental.


The DNP-prepared nurse can also work in academia or higher education with nursing students. Sharing scholarly knowledge and educating future nurses is a pathway to improving care outcomes, as is role-modeling leadership behaviors through teaching. This is an excellent way to make a positive change within all healthcare settings.


Another area of focus and contribution is to engage the workforce by participating on shared governance committees within healthcare facilities. The change in current national healthcare policies has created a need for more scholars of evidence-based clinical practice. The DNP-prepared nurse can be a leader of improved patient care outcomes by facilitating new knowledge and examination of current policies and practice. According to the AACN, the DNP-prepared nurse must possess accurate knowledge of clinical practice policies and procedures for the patient population so that new strategies for excellence, safe practice, and proficiency can be accomplished. As a visionary leader, the DNP-prepared nurse can encourage other professionals to improve outcomes and achieve benchmarks for change through collaborative efforts. The role of the DNP-prepared nurse participating on hospital research committees as a team member or chairperson can be invaluable to the institution.


Job opportunities for the DNP-prepared nurse are widespread. You can work within a variety of healthcare systems, such as healthcare administration, leadership, clinical practice, and education. DNP-prepared nurses are involved in healthcare policy making at the national and regional levels as clinical experts and resources. Others practice as legal consultants for law firms or within private practice. The scope of the DNP-prepared nurse's role continues to expand.


Salaries for DNP-prepared nurses vary by state. The average range in the United States is $71,000 to $122,000, according to Some of the scales are related to a nurse practitioner or advanced practice background, making the pay range difficult to determine. DNP-prepared nurses who are employed in academia are evaluated by the hiring system to create the proposed pay scale within the institution.


What's required?

There are several DNP degree program types. Options are primarily focused on online and hybrid format educational models. Some of the programs may require a residency in which the DNP student spends time on campus for a few days to a week for an immersion experience or capstone presentation. Classes may be taken part time or full time.


There are numerous enrollment options, such as BSN-to-DNP, MSN-to-DNP, and even PhD-to-DNP. Many nurse practitioners are also choosing to advance their educational focus by pursuing a DNP degree, and nursing education team members and clinical faculty are utilizing the DNP degree to transform clinical knowledge at the bedside through teaching.


Admission criteria are competitive: an undergraduate- or graduate-level grade point average of 3.0 or higher, successful Graduate Record Examination scores (this may be optional or waived based on other criteria), RN licensure, and a curriculum vitae or resume. Programs may require a personal interview with the admissions committee, an electronic portfolio to demonstrate professional work, and three professional references attesting to your ability to succeed. Lastly, official transcripts and proof of RN licensure will be required for submission and review upon acceptance to the program.


The DNP curriculum invites an opportunity for examining the healthcare system. Leadership, interdisciplinary communication, healthcare policy, informatics, scholarship, and application of healthcare theories are some of the potential course topics.


The credit load for the DNP degree varies from 30 to 60 (approximate) credits. The degree can be completed (depending on the program) within 18 months to 4 years. Typically, documented clinical practicum hours in your graduate and undergraduate program are also evaluated as part of the admission requirement/prerequisite. It isn't uncommon for the expectation of documented practicum hours to be between 500 and 1,000 hours for admittance.

Figure. DNP-prepared... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. DNP-prepared nurses are involved in healthcare policy making at the national and regional levels as clinical experts and resources.

The program will review your official transcript for any previous clinical hours that can be applied toward hours of practice in the DNP program. Also, the hours are related to your course of study and exclude employment hours as a nurse. When you matriculate into the program of study, professional liability insurance during the clinical practicum is expected by most programs.


Although some DNP programs require a formal dissertation, others utilize an EBP capstone project as the end product of study and graduation. The capstone is a formal coursework project with an assigned committee that approves it before research is conducted. Project results are generally published in a manuscript or scholarly paper and disseminated in the literature. The DNP student may undertake a quality improvement project versus completing a research dissertation as required by the PhD student. DNP students are involved with disseminating research findings into clinical practice within the various types of capstone projects.


The DNP student has opportunities for financial assistance via national scholarships and grants; criteria are individualized for scholarships that are within the program. The AACN's website lists scholarships for students to consider under the financial aid section. Other scholarships are available through nursing foundations for DNP students who have a focus or concentration area in a specific discipline (for example, obstetrics, cancer, and so on). There are also scholarship opportunities available through various professional organizations. Membership in a professional organization may be helpful in obtaining financial assistance if you meet the criteria.


Make sure to review the accreditation of programs you're considering to ensure that the program is in "good standing" versus in warning or denied accreditation. Student loans and other financial benefits may be compromised if a program doesn't meet expectations for accreditation.


Making a difference

The DNP degree is worth your consideration as a future degree. It's utilized in many healthcare settings and within clinical education. The ability to make EBP changes within clinical practice and disseminate new knowledge and best practices in healthcare as an expert is exciting and noteworthy. Making the choice to apply to a DNP program is individualized based on your motives and goals. Personally, I think it's one of the best options for those who wish to make a difference in clinical practice and improve patient outcomes.




American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The essentials of doctoral education for advanced nursing practice.


Chism L. The Doctor of Nursing Practice: A Guidebook for Role Development and Professional Issues. 2nd ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2012.


Institute of Medicine. The future of nursing: leading change, advancing health. Doctor of nursing practice (DNP) salary.