A doctoral degree is the highest level degree in the nursing field. There is more than one type of doctoral degree: Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). There are several features that distinguish one terminal degree from the other that can influence your decision regarding which one is best for your career needs.
One of the concerns with many nurses who want to pursue additional education is finding a program that allows for flexibility so they can continue their current nursing careers. Generally, there are more options for flexible programs with the DNP. This degree program is more common than the Ph.D., so it is often easier to find a program. Additionally, you are more likely to find an online program if you pursue a DNP. Some online options are more of a hybrid model, with most of the coursework being completed online and some in-person components. Even with an online program, it may be important to choose a program that is local or within a reasonable traveling distance. Many programs have agreements with nearby medical facilities to help students have practical experience.
Nurses who are more interested in the research aspect of medicine will likely find the Ph.D. program better suits their career goals. A Ph.D. program is research-based, which is apparent from the foundational coursework. Nurses will take several courses in statistics, which allows nurses to learn different statistical methods and when each one is appropriate. Research methods is also a foundation course and may encompass several semesters. Learning how to do a research study and the different types of research methods, such as quantitative and qualitative methods is critical for study design. Nurses in the Ph.D. program are paired with an advisor. They will work closely with their faculty advisor and develop a line of research to complete their dissertation. Successful defense of a dissertation is also a key difference between a Ph.D. and DPN.
Many colleges have specializations in their DNP program that are not usually found in Ph.Ds. programs, since the DNP is a practitioner model. Nurses who not only want to become nurse practitioners but also want to offer specialized care will benefit from a DNP program with opportunities for specialization. Having a specialized degree can open more job opportunities, especially as nurse practitioners become more common in a variety of medical settings. For example, becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner allows for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. These professionals may work as part of a medical group or in an inpatient mental health setting. Other specializations you might find are nurse anesthetists, pediatrics, and gerontology. Within the specialties of pediatrics and gerontology, there may be programs geared toward nurses who want to work in primary, acute, or critical care settings.
Both a DPN and Ph.D. are excellent options for nurses who want to reach the highest level of their profession. The right program often boils down to whether you want a career that is more practical or research-oriented.
Contact a local nursing school to learn about your options for doctor of nursing degrees.