How to Get a PhD in Nursing Administration

health care administration is in the midst of a profound transformation. Nursing administrators will lead the effort to bring efficiency and lower cost to medical care. These specialists bring expert financial and organizational acumen to the delivery of health care, streamlining care management and improving quality outcomes.

A terminal doctorate–PhD or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)–prepares you to take the reins in nursing administration. These research-intensive degrees foster innovation and leadership, producing “experts in designing, implementing, managing, and evaluating health care delivery systems.” You can forge new strategies for effective health care management through original research. The PhD and DNP in nursing administration position you to make an impact, either as a professor and scholar or as an administrative leader.’s guide to the doctoral degree in medical-health with a specialization in nursing administration takes you through the planning and logistics of applying to a PhD or DNP program. Gain perspective on nursing administration and your own professional objectives, and develop an action plan for earning the highest degree in your field.

A Guide to the PhD or DNP in Nursing Administration

Today’s nursing administration graduate student faces more options than ever before. A doctoral degree generally takes four to six years to complete. In addition to full-time campus programs, you’ll encounter online PhD and DNP programs. Online doctorates in nursing administration allow you to complete the degree without disrupting your professional career.

Nursing Administration: Then and Now

Nursing administration traces its antecedents to professional practices first articulated by Florence Nightingale in the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past several decades, nursing administration has emerged as an academic discipline with a theoretical basis as well as an applied practice. Doctoral degrees in nursing administration are a relatively new phenomenon, driven by a post-1990s emphasis on nursing theory and research, as well as escalating demand for administrative reform.

To learn more about the nursing discipline, visit’s Guide to Majors, where you’ll find sections devoted to health care administration and nursing.

Doctoral Degrees: PhD or DNP in Nursing Administration

Today’s graduate nursing administration programs offer two terminal degree options: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

The PhD in nursing administration is an advanced academic research degree in the tradition of science doctorates. Students develop new research in theoretical foundation of nursing administration, and go on to careers as university professors and academic researchers. For an overview of the PhD degree, see’s Online PhD Degrees and Doctoral Programs resource page.

The DNP in nursing administration, the more common of the two doctorates, is the highest professional practice degree. This degree emphasizes applied research, preparing graduates for leadership positions in nursing administration.

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) offers the following definition of the DNP, as distinct from the PhD in nursing administration:

The research emphasis in a nursing practice doctorate program differs from a traditional PhD program. Rather than preparing nurse scientists for research careers, [the DNP] program shall prepare graduates to use research knowledge and methods to create, implement, and evaluate practice interventions, health delivery systems, and clinical teaching. As well, this program prepares graduates to assume a key role in establishing national practice guidelines and conducting clinical trials. (NONPF, Recommendation 4)

Both degrees offer a rigorous education and the prestige of a terminal degree. The right one for you depends on your career and research objectives.


In most cases, nursing administration is itself a specialization within a general nursing doctoral program. As the discipline evolves, however, doctoral students and scholars are defining distinct subfields and areas of research within nursing administration. You may pursue research in the following specialized areas:

  • Quality of Care
  • Program Evaluation
  • Nursing Management Practices
  • Policy Analysis
  • Delivery of Care and Operational Logistics
  • Strategic Planning
  • Financial Planning

You may find that different programs emphasize different aspects of nursing administration, a reflection of resident faculty research and industry partnerships. Your specialization options depend on available faculty mentors and resources–if you have your sights set on a specific research area, it’s important to choose a program that supports your interests.

Career Track

The doctoral degree you choose should determine which career track you pursue: academic or advanced practice.

PhD graduates generally go on to university professor and academic research positions. Some academics also serve as consultants to health care facilities and public policymakers.

The DNP in nursing administration “prepares nurse executives to influence and lead community, national, and global health policy.” Job titles include nurse executive, senior administrator, program director, and administrative policymaker or public policy researcher. Both career paths offer intellectual challenge and leadership opportunities–as well as rising demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies health care administration as one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S.

Plan for a Doctorate in Nursing Administration

No matter which doctoral degree path you pursue, the secret to achieving your goal is planning and commitment. Build a solid foundation for your educational journey by researching your options and applying to the PhD or DPN program that best matches your interests and career goals.

The following guide takes you through the research and application process step by step. You’ll find links to online resources to help you prepare for the road ahead.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Nursing Administration Program

First and foremost, identify the doctoral programs that can help you pursue your research interests and realize your ambitions.

1. List Accredited PhD or DNP Programs

Start by compiling a comprehensive list of PhD or DNP programs in nursing administration. Make sure you consider doctoral programs accredited by recognized accreditation agencies. Accreditation is an important baseline measure of a program’s quality–it guarantees the value of your degree, the quality of your education, and affects your eligibility for federal financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved accreditation agencies.


Online directories and accrediting agency member lists offer good starting points for your research. sponsors a database of accredited online doctoral programs. Search Degrees by Subject to find online and campus PhD or DNP programs in nursing administration, or browse a list of university partners.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is the leading national accreditation authority for graduate nursing schools. The agency maintains a searchable database of accredited member institutions. You’ll find a number of online and campus DNP programs in nursing nationwide.

2. Campus or Online Education

Nursing administration doctoral programs are evolving to accommodate a more diverse student body dominated by working professionals. Although many PhD and DNP programs still require some campus residency, a growing number of schools are developing online education options. Online DNP degrees, for example, cater to mid-career nursing administrators seeking the perspective and skills to take on senior leadership roles.

The right program format for you depends on your learning style, personal circumstances, and career goals.

The online degree is a good choice for working professionals with independent access to research facilities or a context for applied research. Online DNP candidates often make up for access to campus resources by developing a research project related to their professional role.

The campus option remains a great option for nursing administrators pursuing an academic career. PhD candidates benefit from close collaboration with faculty and peers, access to libraries and research facilities, and teaching opportunities.

Many programs combine aspects of both formats, incorporating temporary campus residencies and administrative or clinical internships.

3. Explore Academic Programs

The heart of your program research takes you into the details of specific academic programs. The goal is to identify programs that accommodate your research interests and support your professional goals.

Take into account the following factors as you assess each program’s academic resources and specialties:

  • Faculty research topics
  • Research facilities
  • Specializations
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Special programs: conferences, publications, research centers, etc.
  • Internships and clinical residencies

Finding a faculty mentor who shares your interests is at least as important as finding a program that supports research in your field. If you have a specific research topic in mind, identify leading scholars in that area and have them direct you to the best academic programs.

Resources offers a time-saving first step in your academic program research. Fill out an online form indicating your requirements and the system automatically puts you in touch with schools that match those criteria. A school representative or academic program counselor will contact you to answer any questions about the university’s degree requirements, resident faculty, research facilities, and more.

School Web sites help you gather more detailed information about individual programs. Many Web sites feature links to professor and graduate publications, faculty bios, course descriptions and reading lists, and graduation requirements.

Academic Journals offer a valuable resource for identifying innovators and thought leaders in nursing administration. Major publications include:

  • Journal of Nursing Administration
  • Nursing Management
  • Nursing Administration Quarterly
  • Nursing Economics
  • Seminars for Nurse Managers

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, identify the five or six programs that offer the best quality without overreaching your competitiveness as an applicant.

Take into account the following factors as you assess program quality:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Graduation Rate
  • Job Placement Statistics
  • Career Support Resources

Keep in mind that the top doctoral programs in nursing administration can be very selective. Your academic record, research experience, and professional standing play into your admissions prospects.


University Program Rankings offer an easy way to compare graduate nursing programs in general. These regularly updated studies use various metrics to gauge reputation, selectivity, and program quality. The major rankings include:

Research Funding Data is another indicator of program quality and available resources. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) publishes Award Data indicating the amount of NIH research funding graduate nursing schools have received.

Admissions Department Data give you a clear sense of a school’s selectivity and admissions criteria. You can also learn more about graduate student demographics and job placement.

Campus Visits allow you to experience the program firsthand. Tour campus facilities, meet with potential faculty mentors and peers, and audit graduate courses.

Step Two: Apply to PhD or DNP Programs in Nursing Administration

Step One gives you a solid foundation for the application process. Identifying the best fit may not only set you up for success in the program, but it may also increase your chances of admission. In this section, you’ll set your plans in motion by preparing and submitting applications to your chosen PhD or DNP programs.

1. Complete Prerequisites

PhD and DNP programs in nursing administration generally require:

  • Completion of an accredited nursing program, with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing (BSN or MSN)
  • Current license to practice nursing (RN or international license)
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE) (in some cases)

International students face additional requirements such as:

  • Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) examination’s Education Resources Guide offers resources to help you meet these requirements, with information on test preparation, online prerequisite courses, and more.

2. Prepare Application Materials

Application requirements vary, but most schools require you to submit the following materials:

  • Letters of recommendation from academic mentors or professional colleagues
  • Academic transcripts
  • A statement describing educational objectives and research interests
  • Test Scores
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae
  • Nursing license

3. Secure Financial Aid

Start applying for financial aid now. You’ll find a range of resources specifically for doctoral students. Find financial aid through the following university, public, and private sources:

  • Private and university-funded scholarships and grants
  • Teaching and research assistantships
  • Tuition waivers
  • Federal or private student loans
  • Federal Pell grant
  • NIH or private research grant
  • Employer sponsorship

Step Three: Join the Academic Community

With your applications headed to the admissions committee, your academic journey has begun. Prepare for the program by building relationships with your peers and future mentors. The following networking strategies and resources can help you become an academic insider.

1. Subscribe to nursing administration journals

The publications listed above should give you an idea of who the thought leaders are and what concerns are shaping the debate on administrative reform.

2. Join professional organizations

Professional and academic associations offer an opportunity to connect with your new colleagues. Some organizations to consider include: The National Association Directors of Nursing Administration (NADONA) and the American Nurses Association (ANA).

3. Attend conferences

Universities and professional associations host conferences to facilitate the exchange of information and build a sense of community among researchers.

The PhD and DNP in nursing administration lead you straight to the pinnacle of your profession. Whether you choose a career in academic research or administrative leadership, you’re in a position to impact the delivery of health care for generations to come. Launching your educational journey with a solid vision of your future can help you make the most of this historic opportunity.


  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
  • American Nurses Association.
  • Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs, National Research Council.
  • Award Data for Individual Organizations, National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  • Best Nursing Schools, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
  • Carol J. Galganski, MSLS, MSHSA. “Mapping the literature of nursing administration.” Medical Library Association.
  • CCNE-Accredited Doctor of Nursing Programs, American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Fulton, Janet S., PhD, RN. “The Need For Some Sense Making: Doctor of Nursing Practice: A Confusion Regarding the Focus of the DNP.”
  • National Association Directors of Nursing Administration (NADONA).
  • National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC).
  • National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF).
  • PhD – Focal Area: Nursing Service Administration, University of Iowa.
  • PhD in Nursing Program, George Mason University.
  • Shaw, Maureen C., RN MN. “The discipline of nursing: historical roots, current perspectives, future directions.” Journal of Advanced Nursing (1993).
  • UTHSC DNP Program in Nursing Administration, The University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
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