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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.

Stephen Ferrara, 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 patient outcomes.

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 submission. 

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 project.

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 project?

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.

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