How to Find the Perfect PhD in Nursing or DNP Program for You

Nurses who are thinking about pursuing a doctoral degree have several factors to consider. Are they interested in teaching or are they aiming for a career in nursing leadership? How much is tuition, and are there financial aid opportunities? How long does it take to get a degree? Are there online options available to complete doctoral education?

Finding the right doctoral program is critical for nurses to have a worthwhile experience in their studies and fulfill career aspirations. Here are some of the factors to consider in deciding upon a doctorate in nursing program.

PhD in Nursing vs. DNP degree

In choosing a doctoral nursing program, one of the first things to consider is whether you are interested in a career in nursing education or want a more practice-focused degree. The Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, or PhD in Nursing, tends to be the preferred degree for those interested in pursuing a career in higher education and nursing research.

While the PhD in Nursing is the most common degree for those pursuing a doctorate in nursing education, other schools confer a Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) or Doctor of Education (EdD) degree.

Meanwhile, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is designed for nurses who are looking to move into specialized advanced nursing practice. The DNP degree is best suited for those who are looking for careers as advanced practice nurses such as nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists as well as nurse executives and administrators. Knowing your desired career path can be helpful in choosing the right doctoral degree program.

Admissions and program requirements

Prospective nursing students should be aware of the admissions and program requirements when deciding upon a doctoral program. The minimum standard requirements for admission to most doctoral nursing programs include an RN license, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, college transcripts, letters of recommendation and an essay.

Most nursing schools also require a resume or curriculum vitae of relevant educational or work experience. Depending upon the program they’re applying to, students need to have previously completed a master’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Some nursing schools offer GRE waivers for high-performing students, and many schools allow students to transfer a certain number of hours of college credits from another nursing program.

To get a doctoral degree, all nursing students must complete a minimum number of hours of required coursework, but significant differences exist between the PhD and DNP program requirements. For example, students enrolled in PhD in nursing programs must complete a research project, usually a dissertation, while students enrolled in DNP programs should complete a minimum of 1,000 hours of post-baccalaureate clinical practice work as part of their requirements. Since different programs have different requirements, students should carefully consider which program best meets their needs.

Tuition and scholarship opportunities

Cost is a major consideration when applying to any graduate program, and nursing school is no exception. Students should choose a doctoral nursing program they can afford and look for scholarship opportunities to reduce the cost.

Tuition costs and fees can vary greatly depending upon a number of factors, such as whether the student is in-state or out-of-state, whether the nursing program is on campus or online, and whether the program is offered by a public or private university.

A comparison of 97 regionally accredited online DNP programs in 2017 found the average cost for in-state students was $27,754, with the lowest being about $10,500 and the highest over $60,000. However, costs can vary considerably and typically are higher for out-of-state students and for traditional on-campus programs that require housing.

While a doctoral education can be costly, a number of scholarship and student loan opportunities are available to help nurses finance their education. Students should contact the financial aid offices of the programs to which they are applying for information on grant and loan programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education, such as Perkins Loans, Plus Loans and Stafford Loans.

The American Cancer Society, Nurse Practitioner Health Association, Nursing Economic$ Foundation and other organizations also offer scholarship awards of between $1,000 to $5,000 to qualified nurses pursuing advanced nursing degrees. The AACN has a directory of these and other scholarship opportunities on its website. Many nursing schools also offer their own scholarships to doctoral students.

Online programs

Many practicing nurses enjoy the flexibility of online DNP programs and online PhD in nursing programs and the ability to continue working while completing a degree on their own schedule. These online programs also give students the ability to take courses remotely in programs located in different parts of the country, without having to live near the campus.

Many different online options are available to nursing students. Some schools offer accelerated online BSN-to-DNP programs and online BSN-to-PhD programs for baccalaureate nurses who want to get a doctoral degree without a master’s degree.

Online MSN-to-DNP and MSN-to-PhD programs are for those who have already completed a master’s program and want to continue their graduate education to get a doctorate in nursing. Many of these programs are offered 100% online, although DNP degrees also require clinical practice work and a clinical project, and PhD in nursing degrees typically require completion of a dissertation.

Some nursing schools also offer DNP-to-PhD programs and DNP/PhD dual degrees for nurses who are interested in getting both a practice and research doctorate.

Students should consider several factors in evaluating doctoral nursing programs, including whether the program is accredited. Many stories have been written about “degree mills” from unaccredited universities with degrees of questionable merit so accreditation is an important factor to consider.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing have online databases of accredited DNP programs, listed by state and institution. The U.S. Department of Education, which administers and coordinates most federal assistance to colleges and universities, also publishes a list of all recognized accrediting bodies and state agencies that oversee nursing education at the graduate and undergraduate level.

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