How Many Years Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate Degree in Nursing?

A Comprehensive Guide to Pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice or a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing

If you’re considering a doctorate degree in nursing, you’re likely curious about the time commitment involved in completing the program. In this article, we’ll break down the different types of doctorate degrees in nursing, the prerequisites, and the typical duration of these programs. We’ll also discuss the career prospects and benefits of earning a doctorate in nursing. By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of the journey ahead and can make an informed decision about pursuing a doctorate in nursing.

Types of Doctorate Degrees in Nursing

There are two primary types of doctorate degrees in nursing: Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing. Each degree has a distinct focus and prepares you for different career paths.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The DNP is a practice-based degree that prepares nurses for advanced clinical practice, leadership roles, and healthcare policy development. DNP graduates typically work in clinical settings, administration, or education.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing

The PhD in Nursing is a research-focused degree that prepares nurses for careers in academia, research, and nursing science. Graduates of PhD programs often work as professors, researchers, or experts in healthcare organizations.

Prerequisites and Admission Requirements

Before embarking on your doctorate journey, it’s essential to meet the prerequisites and admission requirements. Most doctoral programs in nursing require the following:

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Some programs accept applicants with a BSN, while others require an MSN. Some institutions offer BSN-to-DNP or BSN-to-PhD programs, which allow students to complete their doctorate without first earning an MSN.

Registered Nurse (RN) Licensure

You must hold an active RN license to be eligible for a doctoral program in nursing.

Professional Experience

Many programs require at least one year of clinical nursing experience. Some may require more, depending on the program’s focus and specialization.

GPA and Test Scores

Doctoral programs typically require a minimum GPA of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale) in previous nursing coursework. Additionally, some programs may require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores or other standardized tests.

Letters of Recommendation, Personal Statement, and Resume

You’ll need to submit letters of recommendation, a personal statement outlining your professional goals, and a resume highlighting your nursing experience and accomplishments.

Duration of Doctoral Programs in Nursing

The duration of your doctorate program in nursing will depend on the degree type and your educational background.

DNP Programs

  • BSN-to-DNP: Typically, these programs take three to four years of full-time study to complete, including coursework and a final capstone project. If you choose to study part-time, it may take five to six years to finish the program.
  • MSN-to-DNP: For nurses who already hold an MSN, the DNP program may take one to two years of full-time study or two to three years of part-time study.

PhD Programs

  • BSN-to-PhD: These programs generally take four to six years of full-time study to complete. Part-time students may take six to eight years to finish.
  • MSN-to-PhD: If you already have an MSN, the PhD program usually takes three to four years of full-time study or four to six years of part-time study

Coursework and Requirements

Doctoral programs in nursing consist of coursework, clinical practice hours, and research or practice-based projects. The specific requirements and curriculum will vary depending on the type of doctorate degree and the institution.

DNP Programs

DNP programs typically include coursework in advanced nursing practice, leadership, healthcare policy, and evidence-based practice. You’ll also complete clinical practice hours, often in a specialty area of your choice. A final capstone project or scholarly practice project is required, focusing on improving patient outcomes or addressing a healthcare issue.

PhD Programs

PhD in Nursing programs emphasize research methods, nursing theories, and healthcare policy. You’ll learn advanced statistical techniques and develop research skills, culminating in a dissertation based on original research. Some PhD programs also require teaching experience or assistantships.

Online and Part-Time Options

Many institutions offer online and part-time options for doctoral programs in nursing, providing flexibility for working professionals. Online programs often use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous coursework, allowing students to complete their degrees from anywhere while maintaining a work-life balance.

Part-time options may extend the duration of the program, but they provide the opportunity to continue working while pursuing your doctorate. It’s important to consider your individual needs and preferences when choosing the format of your doctoral program.

Career Prospects and Benefits

Earning a doctorate degree in nursing can open doors to advanced roles and increase earning potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives was $117,670 in May 2020. Additionally, medical and health services managers earned a median annual wage of $104,280.

Some potential career paths for DNP graduates include:

  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Nurse Midwife

Healthcare Administrator

PhD graduates may find opportunities in:

  • Academia (teaching and research)
  • Healthcare Research Organizations
  • Government or Nonprofit Agencies


The journey to a doctorate degree in nursing is undoubtedly challenging, but the rewards can be significant. With advanced knowledge and skills, you’ll be well-equipped to make a meaningful impact on patient care, nursing education, and healthcare policy. Consider your goals, interests, and the time commitment required as you decide whether a Doctor of Nursing Practice or a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing is the right path for you.

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