How to Get a DNP, DNS, or PhD in Nursing

In 2006, 108 schools offered doctoral degrees in nursing. In addition to a PhD, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) are doctoral degrees granted in nursing. The number of doctorate degrees offered in nursing has risen as nursing itself has become more complex.

A PhD in health with a specialization in Nursing may prove particularly valuable for nurses who want to obtain senior management positions. Although not required in all cases, senior management jobs are increasingly going to holders of advanced degrees in nursing.

The ability to teach nursing at the college level is another terrific opportunity associated with going beyond the Registered Nurse (RN) license to obtain a doctoral degree in nursing such as a DNS or DNP. Many qualified applicants for undergraduate nursing colleges are being turned away because of a shortage of qualified nursing faculty.

Overall prospects for job growth in the field of nursing are excellent. Nurses who have obtained PhD-caliber degrees in nursing may be uniquely positioned to serve the common good while doing quite well for themselves at the same time.

However, you must carefully research the different types of doctoral degree nursing programs available, as well as the individual schools that offer these programs. There are many choices to make before you actually choose a particular school.

How to Apply for a PhD Program in Nursing

The first thing to do is to take an overview of the types of doctorate degrees offered in nursing. There are quite a few, and detecting differences between them can be difficult, even for seasoned RNs who are familiar with the various acronyms involved.

If a particular doctorate degree in nursing strikes your fancy, search for campus degree programs by location to find a doctoral degree in nursing near you.

PhD in Nursing Education

A PhD in Nursing education is one option for nurses looking to share their knowledge with others by entering the teaching profession. A PhD in Nursing education may qualify you for a professorial position at an on-campus or online nursing degree program.

The PhD in Nursing education teaches you about how to teach nursing for a living. Because you must already possess a master’s degree in nursing or a related field before starting a PhD degree in nursing education, teaching techniques are emphasized.

Typical coursework for a PhD in Nursing education degree may include:

  • Curriculum development
  • Teaching strategies
  • Nursing theory and history

By the time you graduate with a PhD degree in nursing, you should be prepared for the Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) exam. Colleges and universities use the CNE exam as a measuring stick of your readiness to teach nursing as a professional academic.

Online PhD Degree in Nursing Education

Obtaining an online PhD in Nursing education, as opposed to attending an on-campus program, is an interesting possibility not only from your perspective as a student, but also because you may want to teach online yourself someday.

In that sense, familiarity with online education could be viewed as a plus by some employers. Top online doctorate programs may even prefer to hire their own graduates.

PhD in Nursing

Pursuing a PhD degree in nursing may be a strong option if you are already an advanced practice nurse with an established area of specialization. The PhD in Nursing is traditionally a more science-intensive course of training, and may last up to five years.

An advanced practice nurse has a master’s degree and is known by area of specialization. The four areas of specialization for advanced nurses are:

1. Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A nurse practitioner has more authority and expertise than a regular registered nurse, as indicated by the legal ability to write prescriptions.

2. Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

A certified registered nurse anesthetist is licensed to administer anesthesia to patients.

3. Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

A clinical nurse specialist specializes in a particular area of medicine such as cardiology, pediatrics, or mental health.

4. Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

The certified nurse midwife has expertise in birth and motherhood nursing topics.

If you have already gained distinction in one of the above areas of specialization, and want to pursue even greater knowledge in your current area of expertise, a PhD in Nursing may be a better choice for you than a PhD in Nursing Education.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is a relatively new doctoral degree program that is being adopted by an increasing number of educational institutions. Finding that elusive balance between science, ethics, and fiscal concerns has become extremely difficult in today’s health care system. DNP graduates are well-equipped to take on that challenge.

If you could picture yourself starting or running a stand-alone clinic or a division of a large hospital, think about pursing a DNP. The DNP can help students secure a comprehensive and well-grounded understanding of how quality medical care is best delivered and administered in the real world.

Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS)

Nurses deal with science every day, but nursing itself may also be considered a science. The Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) degree addresses the latter half of this equation by teaching the “hard” side of nursing, the part that has to do with statistics and economics.

A nurse with a DNS degree can be expected to have thorough knowledge of:

  • Staffing
  • Health outcomes measurement
  • Business processes
  • Information technology
  • Budgeting

If you approach nursing as more science than art, and want to tackle the thorny problems of how to make health care delivery more efficient and accountable, pursuing a doctor of nursing science degree may be right for you.

PhD in Nursing Philosophy

Nurses who obtain a PhD in Nursing Philosophy are the scholars that help build up the body of knowledge medical professionals need in order to heal people every day, for example publishing in nursing journals or working at a public policy think tank.

Applying for a Doctorate Degree in Nursing

If just hearing about the variety of doctorate degrees in nursing offered and the challenges inherent in each degree seems daunting, rest assured that choosing which doctoral degree program to pursue may be the hardest part of the application process.

Once you’ve identified exactly which degree you want and why, you’re far advanced towards making a responsible choice.

Still, a bit more research is required to make the best choice of schools. As nursing schools of varying quality proliferate due to the huge demand for nursing education, proper research becomes ever more important. You want to choose a doctoral degree program that will be respected in the industry.

Should You Consider an Online Doctorate Degree in Nursing?

Many currently practicing nurses, cannot envision obtaining a PhD degree in nursing online. While such concerns are certainly valid, online doctorate degrees in nursing have strengths, too. The obvious and primary benefit to an online PhD degree in nursing as opposed to attending an on campus doctorate degree program is flexibility in terms of class schedule.

Online doctorate degrees in nursing, after all, are specifically designed with the working RN in mind, knowing that your job does not allow time for being stuck in traffic, visiting a professor in-person for office hours, or haggling about student parking passes. Besides the pleasant absence of those life logistics problems, an online PhD in Nursing may open your mind anew to the exciting possibilities of information technology, specifically with respect to the practice of nursing.

One has only to examine the health care reform packages being passed around the halls of Congress to see that mastery of information technology can help you become a better nurse. Electronic medical records are just one notable example of this trend.

Without discounting the value of on campus doctorate degrees at all, an online PhD program may increase your excitement about and understanding of the future of nursing.

Criteria for Choosing a Doctoral Degree in Nursing

Now it’s time to name the essential and optional criteria by which you can choose the best PhD, DNP, or DNS degree in nursing program for your purposes.


When choosing a PhD, DNP, or DNS degree in nursing, be extremely wary of any educational institution that is not accredited. Accreditation can affect your eligibility for financial aid–and even employment.

At the same time, it’s instructive to realize that the nursing shortage of the past years has caused some chaos in the industry, reducing the ability of nurses to participate in accreditation work. The National League for Nursing Accreditation, for instance, has only accredited one doctorate degree in nursing in the entire nation. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education has been more active overall, but also has a backlog of programs to review.

In light of this situation, prospective students for doctorate-level nursing programs must look to non-industry-specific accreditation organizations for guidance. To check the validity of an accrediting organization, view the list of approved approvers at the Council for Higher Education, the premier authority on accreditation.

Educational Requirements

Although there are a few doctorate degrees in nursing that allow you to get your master’s while you get your PhD, the vast majority of doctorate-level degree programs require a bachelor’s and a master’s degree before you can apply for a PhD, DNP, or DNS degree program. To check the educational requirements of particular programs, you can easily submit a query form to multiple schools through and receive multiple responses.

As a starting point, though, assume that you’ll need a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing. If you don’t yet have those degrees, search for nursing degrees by level to discover the right online nursing program for your stage in life.

Experience Requirements

Nursing is a profession that quickly weeds out the ivory tower theorists and utopian dreamers. The whole culture of nursing is geared to learning by experience. Many doctorate degree programs in nursing respect this tradition by requiring at least two years of nursing work experience as a condition of admission. Contact schools directly to learn more about experience requirements.

Financial Aid

Pursuing a doctorate-level degree in nursing can be costly, both in terms of dollars spent and paying work crowded out by the need to study. Because nurses, especially highly educated nurses, are in such demand, a large number of grant and scholarship programs are available to nurses seeking education.

The American Association of Colleges and Nursing maintains an excellent list of financial aid options available to nurses interested in pursuing doctorate degrees in nursing. also offers information on obtaining financial aid.


If you’re leaning towards an on-campus doctorate degree in nursing, search for schools by location. Maybe that PhD degree in nursing is within driving distance or maybe it’s time to move to a new place for a new adventure.

Do Your Homework: Research Doctorate Degrees in Nursing

The complexity of choosing a suitable online or on-campus PhD, DNP, or DNS degree in nursing is mitigated by the panoply of resources available to you as you do your research.

Pursuing a doctoral degree in nursing is a big decision and must be treated as such. Keep researching on-campus and online doctoral degree options until something not only feels right, but makes perfect sense from a logic and career perspective.


  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing
  • American College of Nurse Midwives
  • American Nurses Association
  • American Society of Registered Nurses
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurses
  • National Council of State Boards of Nursing
  • National League for Nursing
  • National League for Nursing Accreditation
Our Partner Listings