There’s no sugarcoating it: pursuing a doctoral degree is tough. Balancing a clinical job with classes and homework—not to mention family time and your social life—takes determination and sacrifice. But if you’re prepared for the challenge, that hard-won degree may be the best investment of your life.

That intimidating introduction aside, keep in mind that hundreds of nurses proudly graduate with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) or another doctoral degree every year. So what does a D.N.P. program really entail? We asked two experts some common questions surrounding doctoral study, from the admission process to program requirements. Both doctoral-prepared nurses, they can speak to their personal experiences as they now guide other nurses as university administrators.

Q. D.N.P. or Ph.D.: How should nurses choose between them?

TORRES: Ph.D. and D.N.P. programs differ both in their goals and in the competencies of their graduates. The decision to pursue a D.N.P. or Ph.D. depends on your career goals. While a Ph.D. student generates and develops new knowledge, a D.N.P. student translates research already done, evaluates it to see if it works for a specific problem or project, and then puts it into practice.

Ph.D. programs focus heavily on scientific content and research methodology, so if you want to be a nurse scientist/scholar with a research-centric career, you should pursue a Ph.D. The D.N.P. is designed for nurses seeking a terminal degree in nursing practice and offers an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs.

Generally, a D.N.P. is the choice for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, or Nurse Midwives) or nurses in other areas of specialized nursing practice (nursing administration, informatics, public health) who want to continue practicing in their area of expertise and are interested in gaining advanced knowledge and skills.

In recent years, there has been a growing demand for D.N.P. programs and degrees. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), currently there are 153 D.N.P. programs, and between 2009 and 2010, the number of students enrolled in these programs increased from 5,165 to 7,034. In the same period, the number of nurses graduating with a D.N.P. doubled.

RODRIGUES FISHER: The increasing need for practitioners with D.N.P.s stems, in part, from hospitals and health systems looking for skilled nurses who can provide primary care to many people and, in particular, to those in low-income communities. There is also a move to increase the number of Latino and African American nurses who have advanced practice degrees because patients want primary care providers who have the same understanding of cultural beliefs and health care issues.

In order to determine which advanced degree is best for you, it’s important to decide if you want to continue practicing or if you wish to pursue research and teaching.

TORRES: Rather than concentrating on dissertations or research, D.N.P. programs help nurses build upon their current practice, learn new skills, and conduct applied research. Many doctoral students also find great value in completing a project that they can readily apply in practice.

Q. How should nurses prepare for the doctoral program application process?

RODRIGUES FISHER: Start by brushing up on your writing, language, and math skills. They will serve you well. In my personal experience, because English is not my first language, it was important for me to study and brush up on my writing and math skills. I struggled until a professor in my master’s program recommended I take an English course; it was truly the best decision I could have made. After bolstering my language and writing abilities, I felt prepared to take the GRE for my doctoral program.

You should also generate a list of organizations you support, either as a member or otherwise. For example, if you participated in a fundraiser for the American Heart Association or did something to engage members of your community to encourage minority students to continue their education, be certain to list those activities in your application. If you are out in your community doing good deeds, institutions will recognize you as someone who would represent them well.

Make sure someone else reviews your application before you send it in! It’s important to submit a polished application. It should shine a light on you and your achievements, but any mistakes will be blinding.

TORRES: Some schools require Ph.D. and D.N.P. applicants to write an essay about why they want to earn a doctoral degree, what their career goals are, and what they hope to accomplish with the degree. The essay needs to be well-written, with no spelling errors and good grammatical structure.

Many doctoral programs also request written references. Be especially careful who you ask to provide a reference—preferably it should be someone in your area of practice or a faculty member who teaches in that area—and make sure they know you well. Check with the institution if you have any questions about the application or the process.

Q. What are admission counselors looking for in nurses’ applications?

TORRES: Counselors evaluate applications based on a variety of factors, including academic record, essays, and prior experience. Requirements may include a master’s degree or its equivalent, a 3.0 minimum GPA in that master’s program, an active R.N. license, two or more professional references, and official transcripts of highest course work completed, plus the completed application and fee.

RODRIGUES FISHER: Yet, it’s not just about the applicant’s individual grades. Admission counselors look at the whole person, and they want people with broad, varied experiences.

Some questions admission counselors will be asking themselves as they review applications are “What have they done?” “What committees have they served on either in their community or in their health care facility?” and “Have they demonstrated they will be successful in the program?” It’s important to list all activities and committees you are involved in and specifically what your role was on those committees.

TORRES: Doctoral programs may also prefer (or require) a number of years of professional nursing experience. International students may need to demonstrate equivalency via an additional evaluation from the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS).

The D.N.P. requires 1,000 post-bachelor’s clinical hours, of which 500 must be at the D.N.P. level. Admission counselors will obtain information on how many clinical hours the entering students had in their master’s program.

Q. What does the typical doctoral program entail?

TORRES: A typical D.N.P. program is developed based on AACN’s The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice and covers both course work and clinical hours. The publication outlines the curricular elements and competencies that must be present in programs conferring the Doctor of Nursing Practice.

Doctoral course work is very rigorous. Time management is important, and you will need to closely examine how you are going to complete the course work and use your time to your advantage.

An integral part of the D.N.P. program is the final D.N.P. project, which is usually based on an issue or problem at the student’s institution or facility. It’s important for students to work closely with their schools to ensure the institution supports the project’s implementation. During this project, the student will typically accrue the practicum hours needed. In some ways, the D.N.P. project is similar to a dissertation since it requires approval of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and includes a committee to guide the project.

RODRIGUES FISHER: All doctoral programs require a lot of reading and library research. Once you get through your core course work, it will be important to identify your research area and possible mentors. One additional piece of advice: focus your course work in the direction of your research.

Q. How might doctoral course work impact a working nurse’s personal life?

RODRIGUES FISHER: Going back to school to pursue your doctorate will definitely impact your personal life. I worked full time, went to school, and had a family to take care of, but the great support from my family made it all possible. My husband made sure the children were taken care of and the housework was done. The house wasn’t always as clean as it could be, and I missed some of my children’s games, but because of the partnership with my husband, we made it work.

TORRES: Before you start a doctoral program, talk with your family so they understand what’s involved, how it may impact them, and how they can help you succeed. You will soon discover how many courses you can manage at a time and whether you can handle a full- or part-time commitment, based on your family, work, and other commitments.

Online programs typically offer nurses more flexibility to work their classes around individual schedules. But even if the delivery method is online, course work still takes time, and doctoral students quickly realize they won’t be able to continue to do all they were doing before deciding to pursue a doctorate. On average, each course is a minimum of 15 hours of work per week.

RODRIGUES FISHER: They say if you educate a woman, you educate a family, and I believe this to be true. Yes, going back to pursue my doctorate took away from some of the other things in my life, but my children benefited as they saw me working hard to achieve what I wanted, both for myself and our family. I was proud to be that kind of role model for them. Work hard and you will be rewarded.

Q. How will a nurse’s duties change after obtaining his or her D.N.P.?

TORRES: Most nurses pursue their D.N.P. because they want to advance in their careers and increase their income. According to the 2009 salary survey conducted by ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners magazine, D.N.P.-prepared NPs earned $7,688 more than master’s-prepared NPs.

Many graduates move into a new job or position where they can use the skills they learned while acquiring their D.N.P. Others decide to take on additional responsibilities in their current jobs or go into teaching.

RODRIGUES FISHER: The biggest change is more responsibility. As a nurse with a D.N.P., you will be put into leadership positions supervising other nurses. You will also have a more familiar relationship with physicians at your facility. In short, a D.N.P. means increased opportunity.

Q. What do you think about the AACN’s push to have nurses earn a D.N.P.?

TORRES: I support the movement toward the D.N.P. In the transition to the D.N.P., nursing is moving in the direction of other health professions such as medicine (M.D.), dentistry (D.D.S.), pharmacy (Pharm.D.), psychology (Psy.D.), physical therapy (D.P.T.), and audiology (Aud.D.) to provide their professionals with a practice-oriented degree. Nursing is advocating having more nurses obtain their D.N.P., so we are headed in the right direction. In fact, the AACN membership approved a target goal for transition of Advanced Practice Registered Nurse programs to the D.N.P. by 2015.

RODRIGUES FISHER: It’s not just a push from the AACN, but also from the Institute of Medicine to have more educated nurses out there to deliver needed health care to the nation. We are an aging population that is living longer and needs more care. However, with a shortage of health care providers, we need to have nurses who are prepared to practice, are well educated, and can work in a colloquial role with physicians.

Many nurses who choose Walden University do so to advance their careers and become better practitioners. Colleges and universities are looking to develop lifelong learning programs, such as associate to master’s programs and B.S.N. to D.N.P. programs, in order to quickly meet the increased and growing demand for more educated nurses.

Q. What advice do you have for nurses debating whether or not they should pursue a doctorate?

RODRIGUES FISHER: My number one piece of advice is to think about what you are willing to give up for a short period of time in order to pursue your doctorate. I had to give up some of my personal and family time to advance my education and career. For me, the end results—making contributions in the quality and delivery of care and giving patients the best health services they can receive—are truly worth it.

TORRES: Know your career goals, assess your personal life, and identify your passion. Where are you in your career, and what do you want to do? Do you want to concentrate on research and academia, or do you wish to advance your practice?

Timing is everything, so ask yourself: Is this the right time in my life to do this? If not now, when?

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