Registered nurses looking to advance their practice have several career paths they can take. One option is to become a nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners are advanced practice providers who differ from registered nurses in several ways.

First, RNs either have a diploma, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree. The degree level corresponds with the type and length of time that was spent in school. Nurse practitioners are advanced degree nurses with either a master’s or doctorate in nursing. These degrees translate to an additional two to three years beyond a bachelor’s degree.

Another significant difference between RNs and nurse practitioners is the scope of practice. NPs have a greater scope of practice to include conducting physical exams, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, and prescribing medications. The board of nursing in each state sets forth the specifics of the NP scope of practice, and some states are more restrictive than others.

The highest degree a nurse can obtain is a doctorate of nursing degree. The length of time it takes to earn a DNP depends on the RN’s starting point:

  • RN to BSN takes around two years
  • BSN to MSN takes around two years
  • BSN to DNP takes about three to four years
  • MSN to DNP takes about one to two years

Additionally, some students opt to attend part-time. If so, the length of time to earn a DNP can take a little longer.

Many prospective students may wonder what they will learn in a DNP program. The curriculum can vary between schools, but some of the concepts students can expect to learn include evidenced-based practice, theoretical concepts for advanced-practice nurses, planning, evaluation, and leadership. Additionally, depending on the DNP track the nurse chooses as well as their starting point, they may need to take courses in advanced pharmacology, physiology, and health assessment. These three courses are typically required for BSN students enrolled in a DNP program and following a nurse practitioner track. MSN-prepared students have likely already completed them unless they are changing specialties (i.e., a nurse educator earning a DNP to become a nurse practitioner).

In addition to the core courses and specialty track courses, DNP students are required to complete a final DNP project. The project is to demonstrate that the nurse can identify issues or concerns in health care and provide evidence-based solutions to enhance patient care and improve outcomes.

Aside from it being a commendable academic achievement, earning a DNP can enrich the nurse in many ways. For example, nurses can expand their knowledge base. A bedside BSN nurse can earn a DNP and become a certified registered nurse anesthetist. An adult primary care NP can earn a DNP and become an educator. A clinical nurse specialist can earn a DNP and become a nurse executive. There are so many possibilities available to nurses with a DNP degree—which means a wider scope of career mobility.

Another way a DNP can improve a nurse’s career is that DNP nurses are trained to identify important issues in health care and have the knowledge, and sometimes power, to create change in their work environment. From the time one becomes a nurse, patient care remains the top priority. Nurses serve as advocates for patients on so many different levels, from the new grad bedside nurse to the executive-level DNP nurse. With each academic step, the nurse’s reach becomes longer, sometimes affording the ability to motivate and facilitate change within the highest level of an organization.

DNP nurses also have more of a critical thinking and holistic view of health care. Not only are they considered clinical experts, but they are also experts in leadership, management, and business. Being able to influence decision-making from a business standpoint with a patient-centered point of view is something unique and extremely valuable in health care. This exclusive approach allows patients to have a voice in health care, yet keep an organization sustainable.

In some organizations, DNP-prepared nurses have an edge when it comes to hiring. There is a push for the DNP becoming required for nurses looking to enter advanced practice, so those who earn one may currently have an advantage. Some employers offer higher compensation for DNP nurses as well. Nurses may want to consider earning either a PhD or DNP to become doctorate-level practitioners.

Each nurse has his or her own career and academic goals. One is not “better” than the other. However, for those looking to advance their practice and become clinical experts, the doctor of nursing practice is a great choice.

Latest posts by Amanda Bucceri Androus, RN, BSN (see all)
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