PhD vs DNP: What's the Difference?

Exploring doctoral degrees in the field of nursing, but not sure if the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the right option for you? This overview will provide you with important details on how they compare.

PhD vs DNP:

Put simply, the PhD in Nursing is a research doctoral degree, and the DNP is a practice doctoral degree.

  • The PhD program prepares nurse leaders for careers in scientific research. Students train to conduct nursing research and lead research teams, develop theory and contribute to the body of knowledge of nursing and the health sciences, and disseminate research findings through scholarly publications, presentations and teaching.

  • The DNP program prepares nurses for careers in nursing leadership and administration in both clinical and non-clinical areas of healthcare along the continuum. Students develop skills to apply and translate research into nursing practice. Students use evidence to solve problems and conduct a scholarly project. These projects are related to quality/performance improvement or compliance.

Scholarship is central to both programs. PhD students defend a dissertation, and DNP students present a scholarly project. Both PhD- and DNP-trained nurses should be prepared to lead multidisciplinary teams that address health care issues.

What careers do graduates pursue?

  • PhD program graduates are nurse scientists that work in research or hold leadership positions in academic and non-academic settings. Recent graduates of UCSF’s PhD in Nursing program hold professional titles such as assistant professor, manager of clinical research unit, faculty instructor, post-doctoral fellow, program director, co-founder and chief nursing officer.

  • DNP program graduates are nurse leaders that work in a variety of health care settings as administrators, nurse practitioners or health care executives. Recent graduates of UCSF’s DNP program work as chief nursing officers or are in director-level positions.

Comparing UCSF School of Nursing's DNP and PhD Programs: 

Focus Nursing practice Nursing research
Program Length 7 quarters 4 years (some students may finish as early as 3 years) 
Required Units

48-67 units total
(Units vary based on the number of practicum units an applicant brings into the program.) 

8-12 units per quarter
Mentored Teaching Experience During Program Not required (Students can pursue an optional certificate to gain teaching experience.) Yes
Clinical Hours During Program Yes, administrative hours No
Culminating Assignment Scholarly Project Dissertation
Course Format

Remote learning with 3 in-person immersions
(Immersions take place at the beginning, middle and end of the program.)

Cohort Model Yes No
Part-Time Option No No
GRE Required No No
Point of Entry

APRN with master's degree in nursing or RN with master's degree (but not APRN).

Must be a licensed RN. License can be from outside California.

Must show evidence of a minimum of 240 practicum hours (through transcript or portfolio review). 

Bachelor's degree or higher in nursing.

Must be a licensed RN with a minimum of 1 year of professional experience. License can be from outside California.

Funding* See student funding page In-state tuition and fees are covered for the first three years of study. For out-of-state students, the out-of-state tuition is covered for the first year. Students also receive stipends to assist with living expenses. Additional financial support from scholarships, grants and employment may be available.

*Graduates of both DNP and PhD programs are eligible for the Nurse Faculty Loan Program (NFLP). Visit the funding page for additional information.

More information about admissions requirements can be found on the DNP program and PhD program pages.

Advice for Applicants:

As you explore doctoral degree options, reflect on the following questions:

  • When you consider your long-term professional goals, do you plan to work primarily in research or practice?

  • If you are pursuing the PhD degree, it is important that your research interests match the expertise of faculty in the program. What are your research interests? How do you hope to engage in research once you complete your doctoral degree? Explore the research themes of UCSF School of Nursing faculty and connect with a faculty member that matches your research interests (search by research topic and choose “School of Nursing” from the “School” menu).