Doctoral Degrees in Nursing

Doctoral Degrees in Nursing

Obtaining a Doctoral degree in nursing is an awesome accomplishment that signifies you’ve reached the pinnacle of academic preparation in nursing. However, tackling the challenge of obtaining your Doctorate in nursing is not something that should be taken lightly. What you want to do with your Doctoral degree and which Doctorate is right for you need to be considered.


Doctoral nursing degrees
Matthew Murphy


February 19, 2024

What is a Doctoral Degree in Nursing?

A doctoral degree in any field is what we consider to be the terminal or final degree for that field. A doctorate is the highest degree you can possibly earn. When it comes to nursing, there are a couple of options to consider if you’re thinking about getting your Doctorate. Each has a different focus and specialization that uniquely supports the profession of nursing.

Doctor of Philosophy, PhD

The PhD is probably most likely what people think of when it comes to Doctoral degrees that are outside what a physician would have. There are numerous PhD focuses out there across many disciplines and professions, and they all focus on research within their field or specialty. 

The PhD in nursing is a research-focused degree with an emphasis on creating new knowledge as it relates to things like nursing practices, healthcare, patient outcomes, and education. These nurse scientists identify a problem, create a hypothesis, develop a way to evaluate that hypothesis through statistical analysis, and synthesize new evidence and knowledge based on their findings.

The PhD project has some great resources you can check out for more insight into what the Doctor of Philosophy is all about. 

Doctor of Nursing Practice, DNP

The DNP degree could be the doctoral degree most directly relatable to the practice of nursing at the bedside. Throughout the DNP academic program, the focus is on evidence-based practice and how to bring that practice to the patients. As a DNP, you are prepared to view potential problems in practice, identify the solution to that problem by investigating and reinforcing best practices, and assist in putting those best practices into action.

Another way to think of this is that the DNP can pick up where the PhD left off, because one complements the other.

A PhD-prepared nurse scientist conducts research and produces evidence from that research. The DNP-prepared nurse focuses on translating that evidence into practice to support optimal patient outcomes.

To learn more about the possibilities in achieving your Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree, check out Doctors of Nursing Practice.

Doctorate in Education, EdD

The EdD is, as you may have guessed, all about education. This is another degree that touches many different disciplines of education outside of nursing, such as those professionals directing school systems who seek to advance scholarly practices. 

The EdD is available with a focus on nursing education through some universities and colleges. Those pursuing their EdD with a focus on nursing will be prepared to be leaders and innovators in the academic preparation of future nurses.

If you’re interested, a great resource to check out the EdD options out there is EdD Programs.

How Long4-6 years2-4 years2-4 years
FocusFocused on research and applicationFocused on research and scholarly advancementFocused on advancing best clinical practices
OutcomeTerminal degree for multiple leadership rolesTerminal degree for academic leadership rolesTerminal degree for clinical leadership roles
ApplicationApplicable to many industriesApplicable to academia Applicable to nursing leadership
Table: Comparison of nursing doctoral degrees

What Can You Do With a Doctoral Degree in Nursing?

Any of the Doctoral degrees mentioned here likely have some elements to set you up for success as a leader in your field. Depending on what you want to do with your professional life, or what your current professional role includes, one of the Doctoral pathways could be better suited than the others.

Nurses with Doctoral degrees have knowledge and skills that support roles outside of what many might consider traditional and can include roles like

  • Academic faculty
  • Advanced Practice Nurse (APRN)
  • Nursing science and research
  • Clinical leadership
  • Health executive 
  • Health policy analyst
  • Healthcare lobbyist
  • Healthcare data analyst
  • Health Writer
  • Nurse consultant
  • Health Program Director

Which Doctoral Degree is Right for Me?

Which Doctoral degree is right for you depends on you as a person, and the reasons you are considering it in the first place. The decision to pursue a Doctoral degree and the pathway to getting there should be guided by what you want to do with your degree when you’re done.

You don’t want to decide you’re going to get your PhD and then try and figure out what you’re going to do with it. You should be thinking in the reverse. Think about what roles you could see yourself in and make your decisions about which Doctoral pathway to pursue based on that. The last thing you want to do is labor through a PhD program geared toward research and academia when your true heart’s desire is to be a clinical leader.

If you think you want to be a member of the nursing faculty, then any of the three mentioned Doctoral programs will likely serve you well. If you want to be a nurse scientist focused on research, you would want to stick with a PhD. The end goal needs to justify the means.

Is a Doctoral Degree The Right Choice For Me?

If you’re thinking about someday pursuing a Doctoral degree you really need to make sure you want it badly enough to put in the work. Sometimes nurses like the sound of completing their Doctoral degree, but when it comes down to the work they run out of steam or they find it’s just too much with everything else in life they need to manage.

Completing a terminal degree is a tremendous amount of work. You will eat, breathe, and sleep school for a period of time, and it does get tiresome. By the time I finished my own DNP degree program I didn’t want to think about or speak about my chosen area of research at all. I was just plain sick of it for a while.

Trust me, there were many times throughout the program that I wanted to throw in the towel, but I’m very happy I didn’t. This is not meant to scare people, it is meant to make sure you have a realistic idea of what the expectations are. Ask around, and talk to some people you know who have been through it. See what their opinion on the workload is.

How Do I Get Started and When?

When and where you get started depends mostly on where you are now. Most Doctoral programs will require at least a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s level coursework to be completed as a component of their admission requirements.

There are some exceptions to this, especially with many of the APRN programs that have transitioned to DNP programs. For these programs, you can be accepted into the program with a Bachelor’s degree and work through the Master’s level coursework as a matriculated DNP student.

The timing of when to start depends a lot on what your life is like and what responsibilities you may be managing while also in school. Some people prefer to delay until their kids are in school or until some other major life event has passed. That is totally okay, and nobody is going to be able to make that decision better than you.

I will also say it’s never too soon or too late to start at least thinking about Doctoral programs if you’re interested, but you need to do your research.

You do not want to apply to and enroll in the first Doctoral program that shows up in your Google search. You need to research the program and think about its unique requirements and how they fit your needs.

Here are some things to consider when looking at programs:

  • Does this program fit my future career goals?
  • Does the enrollment timing of this program match the needs of me and my family?
  • Do I need a program that is online, in-person, or a combination of both?
  • Does the program have on-site residency requirements I might need to satisfy?
  • How long is the program?
  • How much is the program?
  • What is the program’s reputation?
  • Check out the faculty; are there any faculty members that have research interests that align with yours?
  • What are the clinical or research requirements?
  • Are you allowed to take any semesters off if needed?

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