Online Nursing Doctoral Programs

Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs present an accessible pathway to a terminal degree in nursing. At this level, students could choose to pursue scientific research or clinical practice. Programs are tailored to fit into the life of a working professional. To that end, both part-time and full-time options may be available.

Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs: Online DNP vs. PhD

The two-principal Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs are the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing. Each of these pathways is distinct, although academically stand as the highest awards in nursing education. In simple terms, a DNP is a professional practice-focused doctorate. A PhD in Nursing is a research-focused degree.

written by Rana Waxman

What Is a DNP?

An online Doctor of Nursing Practice (abbreviated DNP) is the highest degree for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) and nurse administrators. While it has not been fully realized (yet), the DNP is supposed to replace the master’s degree as the entry-level education requirements for APRNs.i

Most online DNP programs are designed to help nurses implement the latest evidence-based medical care practices. They often focus heavily on practical skills without the same emphasis on theory and research methodology as a PhD in Nursing. Consequently, students may be expected to carry out a practice application-oriented “final DNP project,” which is a key part of the integrative practice experience.i

Aside from the DNP project, there are two other aspects to online DNP programs: (1) essential competencies, and (2) specialty-focused competencies. I These outcomes are laid out by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice – October 2006.

Online Doctorate in Nursing

Core courses in accredited online DNP programs are typically based on 8 essentials. Course names do vary, but could relate to these AACN-recommended topics.i

The Eight DNP Program essentials:

  1. Nursing science
  2. Systems leadership
  3. Clinical scholarship
  4. Information systems & technology
  5. Health care policy for advocacy
  6. Inter-professional collaboration
  7. Population health
  8. Advanced nursing practice

Students might also choose to earn their Doctor of Nursing Practice with a specific emphasis. To this end, the AACN also provides curricular elements for four nationally- recognized APRN roles: (1) nurse practitioners, (2) clinical nurse specialists, (3) nurse anesthetists, and (4) nurse midwives.ii

Within these areas, there are other options such as family nurse practitioner (FNP), Adult Gerontology Acute Care, Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and Pediatric Critical Care, to name a few.

Requirements for online DNP programs vary by institution and the education and experience students bring to their program. Some may enter the DNP as a post-Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) student, others as a post-masters (MSN) student.

However, there are other possibilities and it may help to work with an admissions counselor to find a suitable degree plan.

Online BSN to DNP Programs

Online BSN to DNP programs are made for registered nurses who have earned their Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Some BSN to DNP programs may award students both an MSN and a DNP degree upon graduation, while others might only award the DNP.

An online BSN-DNP curriculum could range between 64 and 95 credits – it often depends upon the practice emphasis selected. Some full-time programs might be completed in three to four years, although this is variable. The AACN requires that post-baccalaureate DNP students complete at least 1,000 clinical practicum hours over the course of the program, and many programs require more.

These programs typically include both (online) didactic courses and in-person clinical experiences. Classes that are often central to online BSN to DNP programs typically cover key nursing principles, methods, and standards of care taught at both the MSN level and the DNP level.

Possible Online PHd in Nursing Program Subjects:

  • Biostatistics
  • Advanced practice nursing
  • Health Information systems for patient care technology
  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Health promotion
  • Advanced health assessment

Also, they might require students to take on-site procedures classes as well as those that cover diagnostics skills. Online students might complete their clinical hours under the supervision of local and school-approved preceptors, and may be required to complete several different rotations based on their chosen focus.

To this point, BSN to DNP online concentrations could fall under two main categories: (1) direct care and (2) indirect care. Direct care typically includes APRN roles. Indirect care could include nurse administration, nurse informatics, health policy and public health nursing.

Online MSN to DNP Programs

Online MSN to DNP programs could be geared toward the registered nurse with a BSN degree or for the student who has earned their BSN but has a Masters in a health-related field. As such, degree requirements could depend on these factors.

Curriculums for an MS (Nursing)-DNP with a nurse practitioner (NP) focus could range between 64 and 85 credits. It often depends on the area of practice selected. Some students may be able to transfer coursework to reduce the total number of credits needed to complete degree requirements.

Online Post MSN to DNP Programs

Some online MSN to DNP programs are structured for the MSN nurse who has their APRN license and wants to work towards their online doctorate in nursing practice degree. A MS-DNP curriculum teaches a strong scientific foundation and the leadership skills needed to translate knowledge quickly and effectively to benefit patients in clinical environments.

Because of their level of education and experience, a post-MSN to DNP curriculum for those who are already NPs or APRNs is often a 35 to 39 credit program. In some schools, students might complete their degree in about 3 years of part-time study.

Students who pursue this degree path do not usually re-take MSN courses, but may study advanced care of special populations, health care policy, epidemiology and leadership. Often, their degree plan entails required courses, emphasis courses and the completion of a DNP scholarly project.

Some schools may also offer elective courses so that nurses could work to refine their skill sets. For instance, a class in palliative care could highlight symptom management and care for the patient and family who face a life-threatening illness.

Online PhD in Nursing Programs

Online PhD in Nursing programs are designed to help prepare nurse scientists and scholars through content that is weighted more with meta theory and research methods.i For this reason, classes cover how to synthesize and critically evaluate issues and problems within nursing science.

While a variable, curriculums for online nursing PhD programs could entail about 90 credits, and 3 years or more to complete. The length could depend on whether students enter through a BSN to PhD or MS to PhD program. Also, some students might be eligible for advanced placement if they enter with a BSN and a Master’s in another field. Course names may differ in each school. Some universities may structure curriculums with several elements.

Possible DNP Nursing Elements:

  • Research funding
  • Quantitative & qualitative methods
  • Nursing science
  • Scholarly tools (E.g. statistics, health informatics, epidemiology)
  • Functional courses (E.g. basics for nurse education)
  • Electives
  • Dissertation

Aside from coursework, students who pursue a PhD in Nursing usually complete extensive research to prepare for their dissertation and for article(s) for publication. The dissertation is an original research project that must be completed and defended. It is considered a “knowledge-generating research effort.” i

In some schools, online Ph.D. students may also be required to develop and submit a nationally competitive grant to support their doctoral research.

When asked about their education level, 37 % of nursing professors reported they had a doctoral degree.iii

Online PhD in Education: Nursing Education

An online PhD in Nursing Education is a terminal research degree that might prepare students to take the Certified Nurse Educator CM exam through the National League for Nursing.iv Applicants may need a current RN license, MSN or other nursing related Master’s degree.

Aside from quantitative and qualitative research methods, students could take courses in curriculum development and evaluation, teaching strategy, and scholarship. Core courses address how to design, deliver, evaluate, assess, and lead nursing education programs as well as effectively educate other nurses.

Online Education Specialist: Nursing Education

An online Education Specialist (EdS) degree program with a focus in nursing education is an advanced degree for teachers who want to enhance their knowledge. It is not the same academically as an online doctorate in nursing degree. Students do spend time in scholarly research. However, an EdS typically involves an integrated capstone project instead of doctoral study or a dissertation.

Curriculums may vary, although in some schools, students may need to complete about 33 credits. EdS online learners might study current developments through interactive case studies and real-life scenarios. Also, they could learn to leverage new research and technology to navigate complex educational, organizational and societal issues for nursing students.

Core EdS courses could help students establish the basis for research design. For the Nursing Education emphasis, courses cover key theories, challenges and concepts. Other courses instruct students on how to teach with technology tools, plan lessons and measure outcomes.

Admission to an online Education Specialist program may require an earned post-baccalaureate masters degree and/or doctoral degree from a regionally or nationally accredited academic institution. Examples of acceptable doctoral degrees could include doctor of philosophy (PhD), and doctor of education (EdD). Applicants may also need a valid RN license that has been issued from a U.S. state.

How Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs Work

Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs often mirror their campus counterparts in that the school presents the same quality instruction, just via computer. A final transcript and diploma could look the same as for a student who graduated from traditional, on-campus courses.

While formats differ, doctorate in nursing online programs could entail live web classes and/or recorded lectures. This type of instruction might be especially of interest to nurses who are already working in their profession, or those who live too far from an accredited nursing school.

Web-based learning allows a student to proceed through their degree track at a pace that suits their schedule needs. Many times, courses are “asynchronous,” which means one is not restricted to a specific day or time for (pre-recorded) class lessons. This could allow nurses to complete coursework when it’s most convenient and wherever there’s an Internet connection.

Furthermore, many doctorate in nursing online programs use an instructional approach where students interact with their instructors and fellow students through a variety of web-enabled services.

Methods could include the following:

  • Audio- and video-based lectures and presentations
  • Online chats
  • Discussion boards
  • Document downloads

That stated, other times, classes are also delivered synchronously through live video lectures and virtual classrooms that allow students to interact in real time. Students in these programs might expect to take part in any orientations and webinars online as well. Usually, students then review recorded classroom lectures and discussions through the online platform later.

Common to some online nursing doctoral degree programs are limited campus visits. This could be a time where students attend some campus-based skills workshops, orientations or immersion events. The number of campus visits required varies by program, and each visit may take place over several days.

Features of these residencies might include the ones below:

  • Chance to be mentored
  • Attend regional nursing research conferences
  • Time to collaborate and form professional network

If you’ve never taken an online class, it may offer a certain amount of flexibility in terms of schedule, assignment completion, and other communications and tasks.

Accreditation for Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs

Universities that offer Doctorate in Nursing programs online may be regionally accredited. Individual online nursing doctoral programs may also be approved by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).v

Get Matched to Online Doctorate in Nursing Programs for Free

You can check out online DNP programs or online PhD nursing programs right here. Easily scroll through the sponsored programs on this page. To contact schools, just use the form provided. Find your match here—best thing is it’s totally free!

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  • Purdue University Global

  • Northcentral University

  • Grand Canyon University

  • Rivier University

  • Sacred Heart University

  • Carlow University

  • Walden University

  • Messiah University

  • Liberty University Online

  • Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing