As healthcare around the world rapidly changes, education within the field has to constantly evolve. In order for higher education institutions to keep up with the industry, they’ll need to offer additional opportunities for registered nurses to advance their career. For those in the nursing profession looking for new ways to grow, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree might be the best path to your personal and professional goals.

Here’s an overview of what a DNP degree is, the importance of it, and what to look for in a DNP program.

What Is a DNP Degree?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a terminal degree and one of the highest levels of education a nurse can obtain. It provides a pathway to healthcare leadership for nurses who want to take their career to the next level and improve patient outcomes. Unlike traditional PhD programs, DNP students typically do not focus on what is considered to be traditional research but on implementing and testing that research and other evidence-based practice in real-world healthcare settings.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) a DNP degree requires:

  • Translating research into practice
  • Evaluating evidence
  • Applying research in decision-making
  • Implementing viable clinical innovations to change practice

Part of a DNP curriculum involves project-based learning through consistently analyzing and implementing best practices and evidence-based research. Nurses can then take this process and its results and share them with other practitioners in order to roll them out in their own clinical practices.

In the early 2000s, when the AACN was first developing the DNP degree, it requested input from healthcare educators and practitioners on what the degree's purpose and curriculum should be. As a result, the degree was established as a pathway for nurses to enhance their career opportunities, while still offering exceptional care to patients.

Today, a DNP degree makes advanced practice nurses eligible for leadership roles in their current practice and elevates their standing within healthcare institutions. Many nurses with a DNP continue their advanced practice clinical roles and often find themselves in positions of authority in healthcare, education, and even the government, including:

  • Nurse Educator
  • Nursing School Administrator/Dean
  • Chief Nursing Officer

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The Importance of a DNP Degree

There are several benefits of earning a DNP degree, but perhaps the most important are its ability to advance your career, offer competitive salary opportunities, and allow you to develop and fine tune your skill sets.

Career Advancement

For nurses interested in career advancement opportunities that lead to leadership positions in hospitals and clinics, a DNP degree is becoming increasingly necessary. As it is more recognized across the industry, DNP requirements are appearing in upper-level job requisitions—specifically positions within government agencies such as the CDC and NIH.

“The DNP provides a clinical option for advanced preparation in nursing practice that is more comparable to other interprofessional education,” explains the AACN. Outcomes of the degree include:

  • Ability to publish scientific journal articles
  • Act as a thought leader in healthcare
  • Increase salary potential

Education Opportunities

As more higher education institutions are requiring a terminal degree to teach in pre-licensure and master’s-level programs, nurse educators are also finding the value in a DNP degree. “We hope that we're generating more educators for the nursing profession so that we can someday get to the bottom of this nursing shortage that we have across the country,” says Dr. Donna Barry, director of the DNP on-campus programs at Regis College.

Well-Developed Skill Set

While nurses obtaining their DNP degree already have an impressive compilation of both clinical and professional skills, the DNP curriculum touches on the possible skill gaps that nursing professionals have when moving into either a leadership or mentoring role.

According to the AACN, transforming healthcare delivery recognizes the critical need for clinicians to design, evaluate, and continuously improve the context within which care is delivered. Therefore, it’s critical that nurses are prepared at the doctoral level with a blend of clinical, organizational, economic and leadership skills to significantly impact healthcare outcomes.

What to Look For in a DNP Program

While various DNP degree programs exist throughout the country, it’s imperative that nurses find the right fit for their personal and professional needs. As you research potential programs, it’s important to look for a variety of course offerings to ensure you’ll get the full breadth of curriculum and practical opportunities as well as the projected timeline of degree completion. In addition, it’s crucial to consider the following factors before choosing a program.

The Right Learning Environment

The right learning environment for this type of degree is an important factor to consider. This can relate to things such as class size, online vs. remote learning, and faculty size. These are all incredibly important because they speak directly to the ability to connect with faculty.

Programs, whether online or in-person, that offer consistent contact tend to keep students more engaged and well-prepared for future challenges in the field. Regis College’s Post-MS to DNP and BSN to DNP are excellent examples of programs that foster an inclusive learning environment. At Regis, reaching out to professors for help doesn’t feel like a burden, but rather an integral part of the learning process.

The Right Professional Outcomes

While earning a DNP has similar outcomes no matter what institution you choose, it’s best to look for programs that have mentors that align with your professional goals. Consider researching the professional outcomes of recent graduates to make your enrollment decision easier.

Degree outcomes aren’t entirely reliant on an institution's alumni, but rather how a program addresses important questions nurses should consider during this pivotal moment in their career. Some of these questions include:

  1. Will this allow me to be a better provider for my patients?
  2. Can I take the scholarly projects from this program and use them in my current work setting?
  3. Will this program advance my career in the ways that are most important to me?

If you can confidently answer “yes” to each, that DNP program may be the right fit for you.

Advance Your Career With a DNP Degree

For those hoping to differentiate themselves from other BSN or MSN graduates, a DNP degree is an excellent option. It can elevate your career, offer new professional opportunities, and allow for more skills development.

“It’s important to find a DNP program that aligns with your professional and personal reasons for enrolling,” says Dr. Barry. Once you’re able to pinpoint those factors, you’ll be one step closer to advancing your career in nursing.

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