Do You Need a Doctorate to be a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurses don’t need a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) to be Nurse Practitioners currently, but they need a Master of Science in Nursing or MSN. However, some advanced practice nurses will need a DNP starting as soon as 2025.

Nurse practitioners are a much-needed part of the healthcare industry. So, a current nurse may wonder if you need a doctorate to be a family nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners are highly-trained Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who organize patient care and provide primary care to patients.

APRNs who earn doctorate degrees have chosen to take their education and training to the highest level. Although, some positions may require a doctorate in the near future. So, here is some helpful information for nurse practitioners, including degree levels.


Education Requirements for Nurse Practitioners

To become a nurse practitioner, an individual must meet the following requirements.

  • Must be a licensed registered nurse
  • Must earn a master’s degree from an accredited school
  • Must specialize in one area of nursing
  • Must pass a certification exam
  • Must earn a license specifically related to APRNs

APRN programs prefer applicants with bachelor’s degrees in nursing, but RNs who only completed diploma or associate degree programs can earn the degree through a bridge program. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing but health-related field can also become APRNs through the bridge program.


Which APRN Nursing Roles are Changing?

The MSN is currently the standard for advanced practice registered nursing roles. However, many nursing associations recommend a move to a doctorate as the entry-level degree for these advanced nursing roles. By 2025, a doctoral degree will be the entry-level degree mandated for certified registered nurse anesthetists. Additionally, the requirements for nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists may change soon.

Advanced nursing roles include:

  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse Anesthetists
  • Nurse Midwife

What are the Types of Nurse Practitioner Specialties?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners can obtain certification from several different agencies, such as the American Nursing Credentialing Center. In addition to having a master’s degree, nurse practitioners are board-certified in at least one nursing specialty. Below are a few advanced practice registered nurse specialties a nurse practitioner can choose in direct care and also clinical practice.

  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNP)
  • Adult Nurse Practitioner (ANP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGAC-NP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPC-NP)
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) / Family Nurse Practitioners (FNPs)
  • Gerontological NP (GNP)
  • Pediatric NP / Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner ( PPC-NP)
  • Acute Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP-AC)
  • School Nurse Practitioner (SNP)
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioner (ENP)
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
  • Oncology NP
  • Orthopedic NP
  • Cardiology NP
  • Aesthetic Nurse Practitioner
  • Hospice and Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner (HPC-NP) 

Do You Need a Doctorate to be a Nurse Practitioner?
Do You Need a Doctorate to be a Nurse Practitioner?

What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)?

When nurse practitioners choose to earn a doctorate and satisfy all the education and certification requirements, they’ve earned a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) credential. DNPs are healthcare providers who have taken their training to the highest level. Furthermore, these health care professionals are qualified to provide high-quality advanced nursing care in a clinical setting.

Some licensed nurse practitioners have taken their careers to the top level, so they are leaders in advanced nursing practice. The doctor of nursing practice is a terminal degree. With a DNP, a nurse qualifies for a leadership position in both academic and clinical settings. Most DNP prepared nurses work as researchers, administrators, or in academia.


Master’s vs Doctorate Degree

The MSN used to be the top degree for RNs and nurse practitioners. However, DNP programs are now terminal degrees for this nursing profession. RNs or nurse practitioners with master’s degrees are still highly-qualified and sought-after professionals. But, many healthcare facilities now consider DNPs as the cream of the crop.

DNPs receive a high level of education and training. Our healthcare system increases in complexity every day. And improving patient care outcomes is one main reason behind the push to have more DNPs. Additionally, with the need to educate more nurses, there is an increased need for doctorally prepared nursing faculty.

So, the American Associate of Colleges of Nurses recommended that all nursing schools develop a program for advanced practice nurses. This program combines the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with the DNP program curriculum. Additionally, there are bridge nursing programs to get nurses with an MSN qualified with a DNP. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill has an MSN to DNP that takes approximately two years and is 36 to 42 credit hours.


When will Nurse Practitioners be Required to Have a DNP?

This question still does not have a definitive answer. However, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing AACN recommended in 2004 that the DNP be the standard for all advanced practice nursing roles. The increasingly complex knowledge nurses need to provide basic patient care spurred this proclamation. But, so far, Nurse anesthetists are the only group to implement a change in their education requirement.


Details of Changes for APRN Nursing Education

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) formed a task force in 2002 to examine the current status of doctoral nursing programs. Then, the AACN compared various models and made recommendations for future degree programs.

First, the AACN position statement recommended the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) be the degree associated with practice-focused doctoral nursing education. Additionally, the practice doctorate should be the graduate degree for advanced nursing practice (ANP) preparation. This includes the four current APN roles: clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, and also nurse practitioner.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

So far, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) are the only APRNs with a change. Right now, an MSN degree is the requirement to practice. However, after 2025, these nursing professionals will need a doctoral degree to earn APRN licensure in the field.

Therefore, all CRNA nursing programs are shifted to doctorate programs starting January 1, 2022. DNP programs are the most popular option. However, students can choose to earn a different doctoral degree. Below are some of the other options.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS or DNSc)
  • Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)
  • Doctor of Management Practice in Nurse Anesthesia (DMPNA)
CRNAchanges
Current requirement:MSN or higher
Upcoming changes:doctoral degree required by 2025
MSN program:until end of 2021
Date to enroll in a DNP:2022 and later
Need a DNP to practice:2025 and later
CRNA changes

Nurse Practitioners

Qualified MSN graduates can earn an APRN license and become nurse practitioners. However, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) advocates for DNP degrees as the requirement for NPs. And the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) also endorses a DNP entry-level standard for NPs by 2025. But there is still no requirement, only a recommendation.  

Nurse Practitionerchanges
Current requirement:MSN or higher
Upcoming changes:DNP recommended by 2025
MSN program:anytime
Date to enroll in a DNP program:No date set
Need a DNP to practice:No date set, recommended by 2025
Nurse Practitioner

Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical nurse specialists can enter the field with an MSN. However, this may change in the coming years. Furthermore, the National Association of Certified Nurse Specialists recommends the DNP as an entry-level degree for CNSs by 2030.

Clinical Nurse Specialistschanges
Current requirement:MSN or higher
Upcoming changes:DNP recommended by 2030
MSN program:anytime
Date to enroll in a DNP program:No date set
Need a DNP to practice:No date set, recommended by 2030
Clinical Nurse Specialists

Nurse Midwives

The MSN is still the degree requirement for certified nurse midwives. Furthermore, there are no plans to change the education requirements. Additionally, the American College of Nurse-Midwives does not endorse changing the educational requirement. 

Nurse Midwiveschanges
Current requirement:MSN or higher
Upcoming changes:No changes announced
MSN program:anytime
Date to enroll in a DNP program:No changes announced
Need a DNP to practice:No changes announced
Nurse Midwife

Benefits of Earning a Doctorate Degree

There are several benefits to a nurse practitioner earning a doctorate degree instead of a master’s degree.

  • Provide increased knowledge and skill to improve patient outcomes and also nursing practice
  • Provides increased leadership and also managerial skills
  • Adds to the number of faculty needed for clinical instruction
  • Developing competency and also skills for more complex faculty, clinical, and leadership roles.
  • Higher wage potential (more)
  • Better career opportunities
  • Qualified for academia and also leadership roles

What is the Difference Between a DNP and a Nursing PhD?

There are only two doctoral-level degrees in the nursing profession. They are the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) and also the Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). Furthermore, they both terminal degrees in the profession. So, they are the highest degree an individual can earn in the field. However, there are some differences between these two degrees.

Doctors of Nursing Practice are advanced nursing specialists committed to providing high-quality healthcare, whether working in a clinical setting or teaching young students in a university. So, earning a doctorate to be a nurse practitioner may be an intelligent decision for aspiring NPs.

DNPPhD
focuspractice-focusedresearch-focused
studiesleadership in healthcare, evidence-based practice, and advanced practice nursingillness trajectories and the care systems we use to treat them
courseworkstatistics, clinical diagnosis, disease management, budget planning and administration, healthcare policy, and healthcare systemadvanced theory, research methodology, data analysis, chronic illness issues, and care systems
teaching Teaching is optional Teaching is required
clinicalthe clinical component is 1,000 hoursno clinical component
projectmust complete a capstone projectwrite a senior thesis
degreegeared toward working nursesnot geared toward working students
employmentleadership positions in large healthcare organizations or facilities, expert clinicians, or academic positions that emphasize clinical practice and education.academic tenure-track positions or serve in management roles at research organizations
DNP vs PhD


So What Now?

Well, just like everything else, you need to make some decisions. Answers are different for each individual and also depend on where you are in your nursing career and life.

How close are you to retirement? Are you on the home stretch of your working life? Naturally, spending a lot of money and also time on an advanced degree is not a great decision for nurses close to retirement. But, younger nurses with many years of work ahead may find an advanced degree a worthwhile decision.

Are you already considering returning to school to earn an MSN? Then, consider your options for earning a DNP instead of an MSN. Do you want to focus on nursing leadership or work in patient care? It is also a good idea to ask your employer if they offer any tuition assistance programs for nurses who enroll in a DNP program. Taking the initiative to level up your education may show your employer you are a great investment!

If you are already in school and working on an MSN – congratulations! You should finish your degree. But also, think about your next steps for earning a DNP. Additionally, ask your nursing instructors about new programs your school may offer. With these new guidelines, more MSN-to-DNP bridge programs will likely emerge.  


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