How does a PhD in nursing differ from a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

PhD in nursing

Registered nurses who have decided to advance their career by earning a master’s qualification might want to continue their journey with a terminal degree. Both the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and the doctor of philosophy (PhD) paths are excellent options for health professionals, though they are based on different areas of practice. Generally speaking, the doctor of philosophy in nursing (PhD) centers on research and the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) focuses on clinical practice. The right option for you will depend on whether you hope to pursue a future in research or you are more drawn to the hands-on side of nursing.
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Equally valuable qualifications 

Upon earning a PhD, nurse leaders are prepared to work in a scientific environment. Part of their training involves carrying out independent research projects, but they will also learn how to effectively lead teams of researchers. In years to come, their findings are likely to have a significant impact on nursing practice, and our general knowledge of medicine and patient care. To share their findings, PhD graduates will write for educational journals, attend seminars where they give lectures and take up teaching roles where they instruct the next generation of nurse leaders.

Busy working nurses who are aiming for a role in administration or management may ask: Why get a DNP? At Walsh University, the program is designed to suit the lifestyle and work commitments of registered nurses with a master’s qualification. Students can choose the specialty they wish to pursue as a career and graduate within five semesters. This course is as demanding of its scholars as the PhD, but it’s based on the development of leadership skills.

All DNP courses cover a range of fields, including non-clinical and clinical areas of the profession. Students are taught to perform research and write projects, as well as use primary evidence to find solutions to medical problems. Frequently, the work focuses on improving the quality of practical care that is provided or the performance of a ward or department. Other areas of study are geared toward compliance and the legalities of nursing.

Do these qualifications have to be renewed?

DNPs and PhDs are only undertaken by experienced nurses who want to enhance their existing skills. Once they have attained the qualification, DNPs need to regularly renew their certification for the rest of their career. This should be completed every five years by completing education hours, practice hours or an exam. Once a nurse has completed a PhD program, they do not have to renew any certification, aside from their advanced practice degree if it is relevant to their current position.

Are nurses from both disciplines in demand?

Yes, for a range of social and political reasons, all types of nurses are in huge demand in the USA. People with terminal degrees are always needed to train the next generation of nurses, as well as fill other roles in the healthcare industry. If you are unsure of which qualification fits in with your interests and career goals, read on to find out more about how they compare with each other.

What does a doctor of nursing practice do?

DNP-qualified nurses are involved with advanced care in hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities. It’s similar to the role fulfilled by a nurse practitioner, but they have chosen to take on more leadership responsibilities. Part of their work involves bringing evidence-based research into their practice, and designing innovations which lead to better outcomes for patients. However, they also strive to support the role of other nurse leaders, both in teaching practice and in clinical environments.

What does their day-to-day work consist of?

To a large extent, the work of a DNP will depend on where they are working and what their job title is. The majority of people with this qualification will be involved in developing new clinical research projects or programs that enhance scientific knowledge.

In a clinical setting, they will design and order, or perform a range of medical tests, as well as treat chronic conditions. They work to interpret the results of testing and compare these to a person’s medical history, as well as their past diagnosis and symptoms.

In patient care, they will manage care plans, prescribe medication and liaise with the patient, along with their family, to provide information or guidance. When appropriate, they can educate patients about staying well and following their plan of care. To ensure they are providing accurate advice, they will perform observations and carry out physical examinations of their patients.

Once a care plan is in place, DNPs look for changes in the patient’s condition and overall health before modifying the course of treatment as needed. To ensure that the care provided to each person is optimal, they will collaborate with other nurses and physicians.

Outside of a clinical setting, DNPs can work as researchers, administrators or educators. In these positions, they tend to carry out more academic work and research. They often work towards improving healthcare outcomes using data gathered from informatics. This can be used to change or advance the procedures and strategies of healthcare facilities. Many DNPs create healthcare guidelines for the public and patients, based on the findings of their research.

Are DNPs supervised by a doctor?

The level of autonomy a DNP has varies depending on where they work, in over 20 US states, including Maine, Oregon and Washington, DNPs have full practice authority. They can work independently and do not require that their decisions be supervised by a doctor. Some states provide DNPs with a reduced or restricted practice license, which means they need a medical doctor to sign off on some of the decisions they make. This is the case in New York, Virginia and California. In all 50 states, DNPs can write a prescription for their patients and in 49 states they are authorized to administer controlled substances.

Are DNPs well-paid?

The average annual salary for someone employed as a DNP is around $110,000, but the actual figure that a graduate earns will vary depending on the career path they choose. There are many different executive and leadership positions in the healthcare industry, all of which give professionals the chance to have a significant impact on the delivery of care. 

Other potential roles of a DNP graduate

Some of the roles a DNP graduate might consider include:

Clinical nurse specialist

The duties of a clinical nurse specialist are varied, depending on the setting. Generally, they are responsible for coordinating a range of patient care programs. However, they will also be expected to contribute to other aspects of medicine such as nurse education, performance evaluation and clinical research. They also monitor the quality of care that their facility provides, ensuring that best practice is always adhered to and evidence-based treatment plans are provided to patients.

Medical and health services manager

To keep a facility working optimally, the stakeholders employ a medical and health services manager. DNPs in this role are involved in coordinating care, setting goals for each department and preparing a realistic budget. They will also manage the facility’s finances, supervise staff to ensure legal compliance is being met and deal with any queries. Depending on the size of the hospital or clinic they work for, medical and health services managers could take care of a single department or the entire building.

Chief nursing officer

The chief nursing officer (CNO) plays a strategic role in the facility which employs them. They ensure that the standard and quality of care remain high and that any policies developed by clinical nurse specialists are implemented correctly. They oversee various aspects of patient care, ensuring that it is delivered according to operational recommendations. It is often the CNO who researches healthcare technology to find out more about tools or equipment that would be useful in their organization. Finally, this role includes an element of mediation, as they ensure the lines of communication between doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are always open.

What does a doctor of philosophy in nursing do?

A doctor of philosophy (PhD) in nursing can be employed in academia, scientific research or government. They work to find out more about the practice of nursing, but also the science behind medications, treatments and care. In addition to performing research, PhD graduates are often involved in teaching, as their experience combined with their academic prowess makes them excellent educators. If their research demands it, PhD nurses can work alongside a registered nurse in patient care, but they do not occupy an advanced role in this field.

In research posts, PhD nurses will search for issues that could make valuable research projects, then design the program and carry out the necessary research. They gather, collate and analyze large amounts of data to support their findings, then publish papers or reports to share their results. If a project will be costly, they write detailed proposals and then use these to apply for grants that might fund their work. 

To keep their data valid and accurate, they design and monitor quality assurance checks. Aside from publishing the results of their research, PhDs attend conferences, meetings and workshops to discuss their work with other professionals. Their detailed knowledge of medical enquiry, practice and theory means that they are often asked to train laboratory staff.

Should a PhD nurse choose to pursue a career in education, they can find a position in the medical faculty of a college or university. Here they will prepare the curriculum for nursing courses, write study materials and keep both of these updated. PhD nurses can lecture to master’s and undergraduate students, as well as evaluate the success of the programs these scholars complete. 

They will play a key role in professional associations, giving advice to colleagues, assisting with research proposals and mentoring newer recruits. Many will also work directly with students to provide advice, grade their work and monitor their performance in a lab or clinical setting.

Are PhD nursing graduates well-paid?

PhD graduates are paid an average of $97,000 per year, although the exact figure will depend on the role they choose on graduation. There are a huge range of roles for a graduate in this field to consider, from working with government agencies to supervising research departments and assisting with hospital governance. The qualification marks PhD nurses as experts in their field, people with frontline nursing experience who can translate their academic knowledge into real-world solutions. Some of the possible roles for PhD graduates include:

Medical research consultant

PhD nurses who enjoy problem-solving and investigative work can find a position as a biotech research consultant. Using a range of techniques, they study cells, tissues and organisms, as well as new drugs and treatments. They then collate the findings of their research and look for practical uses in medicine and beyond. Medical research consultants could be involved in the design of new clinical studies, as well as practical work. Either way, they search for cutting-edge new remedies to improve the experience and recovery of patients.

Director of clinical services

Based in a hospital or other healthcare setting, a director of clinical services guides the clinical direction of the facility. They employ a strong and professional leadership style that unites medical teams from across the facility. Part of their role involves monitoring the standards of treatment programs, maintaining a culture of patient-centered care and continually striving to improve the experience of patients. To keep the facility operating in the long term, they oversee its financial performance and search for ways to maximize efficiency.

Health policy advisors

Working for government departments and non-profits, health policy advisors play a key role in supporting the wellbeing of the nation. In government, they are called upon to advise lawmakers when changes to healthcare policies are being considered. Their role includes taking part in research, as well as creating the policy and then working to enforce it. These might be laws on accessibility to healthcare, patient safety or working conditions for nurses. Elected officials are responsible for making the laws which affect US citizens, so they must be guided in this task by experienced health policy advisors.

In conclusion

Nurses seeking to advance their career will find that both the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and the doctor of philosophy (PhD) paths are excellent options. Choosing between them will depend on your interests and the job you ultimately desire. PhD accredited nurses are especially well suited for pursuing research positions, while nurses who have earned a DNP are well positioned for leadership roles in clinical settings.

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