As a registered nurse (RN) or nurse practitioner (NP) you may be looking to the next step in your career and/or education. As a member of a fast-growing and competitive field, you’re likely looking for opportunities to take on a leadership role that results in higher earning potential and professional standing.

Obtaining a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree helps nurses develop the leadership skills, clinical knowledge, and expertise needed to become more capable healthcare providers.

In order to properly prepare for both your education and nursing career, it’s important to know several aspects of a DNP program—including how long it will take to complete. Since the timeline of completing an advanced degree can vary, you’ll want to be aware of and consider the factors that often determine your professional and academic trajectory.

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How Long Does a DNP Program Take?

It’s important to remember that while a DNP degree can seem like a lengthy and daunting process, it’s also an investment. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), DNP programs typically contain three to five years of full-time study.

In fact, nurses have comparatively more disruption to their careers and education than other professions according to the AACN. While this can be attributed to the largely female-led profession, which often shifts according to family needs, it also speaks to the experience required to enroll in advanced degrees like a DNP.

As a result, graduate courses are staggered over multiple years to allow for simultaneous work as an RN or NP. “We understand that our students have lives,” says Dr. Donna Barry, director of the DNP on-campus programs at Regis College. “They have a family. They’re working full time. So they take a class or two at a time, or they take them on the weekends.”

This approach makes this path even more attainable than before. “It’s easier to integrate something like this into an already busy life, and take your time. It’s worth it in the end,” says Dr. Barry.

Factors That Can Impact Your Timeline

While there are a number of factors that affect the length of time it takes to complete a DNP program, perhaps the most influential ones deal with past experience and how much time you’re willing to put into the program. Here’s a look at how these circumstances can affect your doctorate timeline.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time

While part-time students will take longer to complete their degree, this may be the most attainable track for nurses looking to balance their studies with their personal and professional responsibilities. However, if you’re more concerned with completing the degree program as soon as possible, it might be a good idea to enroll full time, if your schedule permits. While some schools, like Regis College, don’t offer full-time options, they do provide flexibility in the number of classes students can take (i.e., one or two classes per semester).

Online vs. In-Person

While in-person programs are more common among DNP studies, nurses also have the option to complete their degree online. While many nurses choose an online program because they feel it best integrates with their busy schedule, schools like Regis College offer the same type of access to an expanded cache of courses both online and in-person. This allows students to enroll in a program that best suits that academic and professional needs.

Previous Work Experience

Hands-on nursing experience is critical “for individuals who want to eventually provide advanced care independently,” says Dr. Barry. It arms students with the experience that can meet some of the pre-requisite and clinical elements required of DNP programs. Bringing this previous experience into a DNP degree allows students to move quickly through their course requirements.

Previous Educational Experience

Previous education, according to Dr. Barry, is one of the biggest factors in determining the length of a DNP program. “If you’re approaching your DNP degree as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) student, you’ve already taken some of the required courses for the DNP program,” she explains. “These students can cut their DNP journey a bit shorter.”

There are other educational backgrounds that can be interested in earning a DNP though. For example, individuals who just graduated from a BSN program may already know they want to pursue a career that requires a DNP degree. In those cases, nurses will need to earn credits toward both a master’s and doctoral degree, which takes longer.

The Impact of Education Level on Timeline

Since education is such a vital aspect in determining how long it will take to earn your degree, here’s a closer look at the different educational tracks to a DNP degree.

Associate-Level Nurse

Associate-level RNs who wish to earn a DNP degree may find they have a long road ahead of them. For these students, says Dr. Barry, obtaining a DNP degree can take five to six years. But with a methodical approach to earning a degree, a DNP is definitely possible. For associate-level nurses, the best and most expeditious path is to obtain a BSN and then enter a BSN to DNP program track.

Students at Regis College looking for the best path to a DNP degree should enroll in their Nursing Upward Mobility Track. This allows students to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and build on prior experience to provide a clear path to different nursing careers.

Bachelor’s-Level Nurse

Nurses and students who have their BSN degree can expect a slightly quicker path to a doctoral-level degree by following a BSN to DNP track. For these students, the curriculum can take up to four years to complete. While this path isn’t common among RNs, it’s an excellent choice for those who immediately want to take on leadership roles or positions in academia.

Master’s-Level Nurse

Nurses who’ve earned their MSN can take an even more direct route to their DNP degree, which is called a Post-MS to DNP track. This more direct pathway to a DNP degree takes only two years to complete for multiple reasons. For one, nurses at the master’s-level typically have years of experience in the field. They also already have several credits included in a DNP curriculum under their belt. This leads to a quick timeline in earning a DNP degree.

Is a DNP Degree Worth It?

If the process of getting a DNP degree seems long and daunting, you might wonder if the degree is worth the time and effort. The short answer, says Dr. Barry, is “yes.”

A DNP degree prepares students for high-level positions in the nursing world, and allows them to enter the workforce poised to take on leadership roles with high-earning potential. In fact, according to PayScale the average median annual salary for nurses with a BSN degree in 2021 was approximately $86,500, while those with an MSN earned around $96,000 per year and DNP-level nurses had a median annual salary of $104,000.

If you’re looking to advance your career in nursing, consider pursuing one of the many paths available. Regardless of your current situation, a path is always available. You just need to be willing to put in the time and follow the necessary steps.

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