Anyone who is in a DNP program already knows about the final DNP project. But if you’re thinking about pursuing a DNP, you need to know more about it.
DNP, FNP, FAANP, FNAP, Associate Dean, Clinical Affairs & Associate
Professor, Columbia University School of Nursing; Editor in Chief, Journal
of Doctoral Nursing Practice; and Executive Director, The Nurse
Practitioner Association New York State, took time to answer our questions
about the final DNP project (also known as the capstone project—please note
that these terms will be used interchangeable in this story). What follows is
an edited version of our interview.
For those who don’t have a DNP and may not know what the DNP project is, please explain what it is and why it’s necessary.
Completion of a final DNP project or capstone in doctoral programs is intended to demonstrate the students’ synthesis of knowledge gained during the program. DNP students should be familiar with AACN’s Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice since most, if not all, DNP programs are expected to adhere to this document.
In essence, the
faculty utilize the final project as means of evaluating whether the student
has developed mastery of the concepts within the students’ course of doctoral
study. The final project must show an improve to clinical practice and/or
How long do nursing students usually spend on their
projects? What are they expected to accomplish?
Projects vary in
length but are generally 1-1 1/2 years. Some examples of final DNP projects
include a quality improvement initiative or other clinical practice change such
as a pilot study, implementation and evaluation of a new practice model with
scholarly dissemination in the forms of manuscripts for peer-review
When they embark on these projects, what should DNP
nursing students keep in mind to help things go smoothly?
One of my mentors
would remind me that the final project was not meant to be my “life’s work.” In
other words, the application of the final project needed to be transferrable. The
education and skills we learned could be applied to different clinical issues,
populations, and settings. The project needed to stay on a reasonable timeline
so that it could be completed. This concept differs somewhat from PhD studies,
where students typically focus on a specialty and continue throughout their
career. Also, PhD dissertations can last through many semesters. Finally,
strong organizational skills are essential since there are many inter-related
parts that need to be coordinated to ensure success.
What are the biggest challenges for nursing students
in completing their projects?
I would say that
there are two main challenges: 1. Having too broad or too ambitious of a
project and 2. Not adhering to timelines. This can jeopardize the entire
If a student is having issues with his/her project,
what should they do?
DNP students need
to regularly meet and communicate with their faculty advisors. Advisors should
help students navigate through unanticipated challenges, bureaucratic delays,
and unexpected results. Other DNP graduates or mentors can also students with
some issues they may encounter. “Crowd sourcing” through social media may also
help students with general issues they may encounter.
What else should nursing students—and nurses who don’t
have and aren’t yet pursuing a DNP, but might in the future—know about the DNP final
Doctoral work in
any discipline is synthesizing information. Final DNP projects tend to take
existing high-level evidence and implement or apply to different practice setting
rather than creating new evidence as is done with the PhD.
In addition, DNP work should not end with the final project. The expectation is for DNP graduates to continue contributing to the scholarly application and dissemination on their work throughout their careers. I encourage anyone wanting to see examples of this scholarly work to visit the Journal of Doctoral Nursing Practice (JDNP) website or check with their institutions’ library.
While some nurses have an ardent passion to become
researchers, Elizabeth Johnston Taylor, PhD, RN, FAAN, a nurse researcher at
Loma Linda University Health in Southern California, admits that she kind of fell
into it. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her job. In fact, it’s quite the
“I find great joy in doing research,” she says.
According to Taylor, nurse researchers will begin a
research project by looking for an answer to a problem. For example, she says, “How
can we improve the quality of life or decrease depression among people with
disease X? or “How can the health care system better provide care for those
with condition S?” S/he will identify something that needs further study. She
says that once they decide what question needs to be answered, they design a
study using scientific methods that will best answer it—whether they are
quantitative or qualitative, use a small sample or big data, are biological in
nature or psychological, etc.
“Each phenomenon you want to study obviously is going to
require its own unique approach,” explains Taylor.
Oftentimes, nurse researchers will get others to help them with data collection, and then may work with a statistician or a team to analyze the data that is collected. Once they’ve found information that may or may not completely answer the question, it’s important to write about the results to disseminate the findings. “What good is it if you don’t share it with the world and allow the world to benefit from it?” she points out.
Taylor’s program of research—which is a researcher’s area of expertise or what s/he often studies—explores patients’ spiritual responses to illness and how nurses can support or nurture spiritual well-being. “From attending some conferences and just having conversations with chaplains, I got anecdotal evidence that some chaplains believe nurses are inappropriately providing spiritual care and/or doing things with patients that they think are within their purview, but a chaplain doesn’t think it is,” explains Taylor. “I’m doing an exploratory study where I’m asking chaplains to tell me more about these kinds of phenomena.”
For nurses thinking about getting into research, Taylor says that they need to realize that this isn’t a part-time job or something you take on with only minimal interest. They will need to earn a PhD and then obtain funding to pursue a program of research. “It really takes a lot of effort,” says Taylor. “Most academics who have a successful program of research probably work anywhere from 40 to 60 hours plus a week. So it really requires a great deal of commitment as well as a great deal of curiosity and passion.”
I presented some of the differences between the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Nursing and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. To recap, the PhD is an academic research degree and the DNP is a practice-focused or professional doctorate for advanced practice nurse (APN) preparation. The PhD prepares nurse scientists and the DNP prepares advanced nurse leaders/clinicians.
“PhDs create knowledge for practice and DNPs use knowledge in practice.”
Why Doctoral Degrees in Nursing is Important!
It can be a hard decision for many nurses to continue their education — doctoral education takes a lot of time and money and there may not be a substantial salary increase at the end of the road. Our students need to work and they have family, social, and professional obligations — add in school work, and that makes for one tired nurse! So is it worth the pain and effort of going back to school?
The Future of Nursing report stated that among the health professions, “nursing is the least well-educated.”(1,p.485) The more nurses we have at the doctoral level, the better it will be for nurses, our future patients, and the Nursing profession. “The current demand for master’s– and doctorally-prepared nurses for advanced practice, clinical specialties, teaching, and research roles far outstrips the supply.”2 I don’t know about you, but that sounds like job security to me!
We need doctorally-prepared nursing faculty, desperately! The nursing faculty shortage is being described as “dire” and has a direct impact on the number of applicants being turned away from nursing schools, and therefore on the number of nurses we can prepare—at all levels.3-5 Though faculty salaries are not as high as top-level clinical positions, there are perks to academic life to consider.
Here are some of the tangible and intangible benefits of doctoral education:
Personal growth and development. Besides the knowledge gained, the inherent satisfaction of knowing that you persevered through tough challenges and obstacles to graduate as a doctorally-prepared nurse. Maturity and independence, time management, and advanced skills are all considered prized results of doctoral education.6,7
Personal achievement.6,7 The high honor of knowing that you have attained the highest level of education in Nursing — fewer than 1% of all nurses in the country have a doctoral degree. Scholarly respect is how one author put it.8
Advanced transferable skills, such as critical thinking, clinical reasoning, analysis, research or quality improvement methodology, writing, presentation and communication skills, etc., that you can take with you to any job or position.6,8,9
Impact/transform the Profession by generating nursing science or improving systems of care.
Impact/transform your organization with the skills to deal with and solve complex problems.
Larger professional network,8,9 social relationships, and support systems with classmates, colleagues, and coworkers that you may not have had the opportunity to work with before.
Your future earning potential may be increased.7-9 Higher rank/position = higher pay (and greater responsibilities). In University, to get on the Tenure-Track or be promoted to a professorial rank, you need a doctoral degree. And doctorally-prepared faculty earn more on average than faculty without a doctorate.8 In the clinical setting, DNPs are frequently at a director, department, or administrator level. Higher degrees also qualify you for higher levels on the clinical or career ladder, which usually come with a salary differential.
Your job opportunities may be expanded because you can qualify for top-level positions and may have a greater choice of career paths. Job security goes hand-in-hand with career flexibility.8 Job satisfaction is the desired outcome.7,9
These are only some of the personal and professional benefits of doctoral education.
I urge you to strongly consider taking that next step and continuing your education. Whether you choose the PhD or the DNP, I believe you’ll see that the benefits will outweigh the struggles, in the end.
Strive for Excellence!
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