What’s the difference between a PhD in Education, Nursing Education and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree?

Jen Green, DNP, core faculty in the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Capella University, and Julia Bronner, PhD, core faculty for Nursing Education at Capella, explain the difference between the two degrees.

Differences in Outcomes and Focus

The major difference between the two programs is in outcomes and focus. “The PhD is a degree focused on education and research,” says Bronner. “The program has a scholarly approach and includes a dissertation with original research.” She adds that the vast majority of people who earn the PhD end up in the education field, often teaching in higher education and pursuing additional research. This degree is meant to advance knowledge and produce original research that could eventually provide new learning to improve the field of nursing.

In contrast, the DNP doesn’t focus on original research. “The DNP is more focused on the clinical side,” says Green. “It’s focused on quality improvement in health care in real life, real time.” She explains that part of what that means is that students in a DNP program do a capstone project, not a dissertation. The capstone is a quality improvement project meant to solve or improve a current, existing problem. Students are expected to do research, but rather than original research, they will study existing literature and then apply it to solve real world problems.

“The DNP’s role is to bring current literature and research into health care organizations with the goal of improving quality of care,” she says. For example, she had a student who looked at how veterans were not being correctly diagnosed with PTSD in a local health care system. For her capstone, the student studied Veterans Administration research and proposed changes to the intake process. That led to an increase of referrals for PTSD treatment for those veterans.

Theoretical vs. Real World

In essence, the PhD program promotes new, theoretical research, and it also promotes educating upcoming generations of nurses and nurse leadership. The DNP takes the existing literature—which was once theoretical—to find new ways to improve the quality of health care in all its forms. For that reason, both degree programs are tremendously important to the field.

Bronner also notes that the PhD, which can be a requirement for teaching at the higher education level, is increasingly in demand. “Nurses and educators are both graying in the U.S. today,” she says. “We really need more people to fill both roles, and we can’t educate nurses without educators.”

Bronner believes the bottom line is that both degrees have a common goal. “The end point is the continual improvement of patient care, welfare, and education,” she says.

Learn more about Capella’s PhD in Education, Nursing Education and DNP degree programs.

A newsletter for nursing’s rising stars. Send me all you know.