Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree Programs for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs)

Nursing remains the single most diverse professional field in healthcare, offering unique opportunities to specialize by role, patient population focus, disease type, area of medicine and practice settings. Though the healthcare system relies on nurses educated at all levels, those that hold a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) have become critical players in today’s era of healthcare reform.

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DNP nurses are able to effectively fulfill the “triple aim” of a high-functioning healthcare team—one that reduces costs, delivers better population health, and improves patient experiences.

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Expanding Expertise or Preparing for APRN Licensure with the Highest Terminal Degree in Advanced Clinical Practice

Although a portion of DNP-prepared nurses focus their work on non-clinical areas such as administration, health policy and informatics, far more DNP nurses remain in direct patient care, filling clinical leadership positions related to their advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) role:

  • Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)
  • Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

DNP programs for advanced practice registered nurses are also available as BSN-to-DNP programs. These programs are designed for BSNs interested in earning a terminal DNP degree while meeting the qualifications for advanced practice certification and state licensure in one of the four APRN roles and a patient population focus.

The Doctor of Nurse Practice (DNP) provides nurses with the opportunity to expand their level of expertise in clinical practice. DNP-prepared APRNs possess the highest level of education in clinical practice, possessing advanced competencies in practice management, quality improvement strategies, cost measurements, and risk management strategies.

In clinical settings, DNP nurses serve as problem solvers, advocates, and role models, skillfully integrating nursing science to understand the nature of health and healthcare delivery and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.

DNP Programs for Nurse Practitioners, CNMs, CNSs and CRNAs: Admission and Program Requirements

DNP programs earn accreditation through either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Nursing Education (ACEN).

Depending on the college or university offering the program, DNP programs may offer a focus in one or more of the APRN roles (NP, CNS, CRNA, or CNM) and, for NPs and CNSs, one or more population foci:

  • Family/Individual Across the Lifespan
  • Adult-Gerontology (Acute care/primary care)
  • Women’s health/gender-related
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatrics (Acute care/primary care)
  • Psychiatric/mental health

Admission Requirements

Traditional DNP programs—often referred to as MSN-DNP or post-master’s DNP programs—require candidates to possess a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and national certification in an APRN role and population focus.

APRNs who want to acquire a new APRN role and population focus as part of their DNP program must take additional courses and practicum in the selected role.

Note: Some DNP programs accept MSN graduates that do not hold APRN certification, provided they provide evidence of the completion of three, separate, graduate-level courses in health/physical assessment, physiology/pathology (across the lifespan), and pharmacology. These programs allow students to earn their DNP while completing the necessary coursework required to sit for national certification.

Other requirements for admission into an DNP program for MSN-prepared candidates include:

  • Active and unencumbered RN license
  • Active and unencumbered APRN license in the state where clinical experiences will be conducted
  • Minimum GPA (usually 3.0 or above) from their MSN
  • Letters of recommendation from professionals knowledgeable about their academic and nursing leadership ability
  • A statement of professional goals or essay detailing their career, education, and scholarship goals and professional practice accomplishments
  • A current resume or CV

Program Requirements

MSN-DNP programs with an APRN focus consist of about 35-40 credits and two years of full-time study. The curriculum consists of three components:

  • Core DNP coursework
  • Coursework/practice experiences related to the chosen APRN focus
  • Final project

The core of a DNP program with an APRN focus includes coursework such as:

  • Health policy leadership
  • Advanced quality management
  • Measurement of clinical outcomes
  • Collaborative approaches to practice
  • Translation of nursing science to practice
  • Healthcare informatics and technology

Some examples of coursework related to the chosen APRN focus include:

Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

  • Clinical prevention in mental health services
  • Advanced communication for improving mental health outcomes
  • Neurobiology of psychiatric disorders
  • Mental health care delivery systems

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner

  • Neonatal pharmacotherapeutics
  • Developmental physiology of the fetus/neonates
  • Neonatal management

Family Nurse Practitioner

  • Management of complex health problems
  • Methods for evaluation of practice
  • Healthcare economics

Nurse Anesthesia

  • Advanced general practice of anesthesia
  • Chemistry and physics in anesthesia
  • Obstetric and pediatric anesthesia
  • Nurse anesthesia pharmacology


  • Antepartum management
  • Post-partum/newborn management
  • Management of intrapartum complications
  • Gynecologic management
  • Well-woman management

Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist

  • Adult-geriatric syndromes
  • Transitional care of adults across the lifespan
  • Episodic adult health problems
  • Common health problems

DNP programs with an APRN focus always incorporate clinical experiences of at least 1,000 hours. Some programs allow students to transfer up to 500 clinical hours from their MSN program, provided it is in the same APRN role and population focus.

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All DNP programs culminate in a final project, designed to demonstrate the culmination of a student’s work and educational experiences. DNP projects may take on a number of forms, such as:

  • Practice portfolio
  • Consulting project
  • Pilot study
  • Systematic review
  • Research utilization project
  • Manuscript submitted for publication

Program Delivery/Format Options

In addition to traditional, campus-based DNP programs, many DNP programs with an APRN focus are also offered online, thereby accommodating the busy schedules of today’s working nurses. Still many others are offered in a blended format, allowing students to complete some of their program requirements through distance-based study and others through on-campus courses and labs.

Online DNP programs allow APRNs the opportunity to complete the didactic components of their program in a convenient and interactive online format. Many times, faculty advisors of these programs also help students schedule the practice requirements of their DNP at sites close to home.

It is commonplace for online DNP programs to require students to attend one or more on-campus immersion experiences, which provide students with the opportunity to engage in in-depth study with their peers, meet faculty, and network with industry professionals.

In addition to online DNP programs, many institutions offer a more relaxed curriculum through part-time programs, which take about 36 months to complete, and/or a more rigorous curriculum through accelerated programs, which take about 12 months to complete.

BSN-to-DNP Programs with an APRN Focus for Bachelor’s Prepared Nurses

Not all DNP programs are designed for APRNs with national certification. Many institutions now allow bachelor’s prepared nurses to enter a DNP program and earn not only their DNP but also their MSN and national certification in a chosen APRN role and patient population focus.

Referred to as BSN-to-DNP or post-bachelor’s DNP programs, these programs allow Bachelor of Science (BSN)-prepared nurses to first complete the requirements of their MSN degree and sit for the appropriate national certification examination before seamlessly transitioning to the DNP program.

BSN-DNP programs typically consist of between 65 and 90 credits, depending on the chosen APRN specialization, and require about 36 months of full-time study (3-4 years).

Admission into a BSN-DNP program with an APRN focus requires candidates to possess:

  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited college or university
  • A competitive undergraduate GPA (usually 3.0 or above)
  • A current resume or CV
  • A current and unencumbered RN license
  • Letters of recommendation speaking to the candidate’s academic ability, professional competency, and personal character
  • Personal statement or essay outlining the candidate’s academic expectations and future career goals

BSN-DNP students focusing their DNP on an APRN role and population focus must always complete three, separate courses as part of their MSN:

  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Advanced Health Assessment
  • Advanced Pathophysiology

The MSN core also includes courses such as:

  • Health Promotion
  • Biostatistics
  • Principles of Practice Management
  • Ethics in Nursing and Health Care
  • General Research Methods
  • Principles of Epidemiology

Additional coursework correlates to the chosen APRN role and population focus. Clinical requirements for MSN programs typically total about 500 hours.

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Before transitioning to the DNP portion of their program, BSN-to-DNP students with an APRN focus must take and pass a national certification examination recognized by their state’s Board of Nursing:

Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)

  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners
    • Adult Nurse Practitioner (ANP)
    • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
    • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center
    • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (ACNP-BC)
    • Adult Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (ANP-BC)
    • Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC)
    • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (AGACNP-BC)
    • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (AGPCNP-BC)
    • Family Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (FNP-BC)
    • Gerontological Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (GNP-BC)
    • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PPCNP-BC)
    • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC)
  • AACN Certification Corporation
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Adult-Gerontology (ACNPC-AG)
  • Pediatric Nursing Certification Board
    • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Primary Care (CPNP-PC)
    • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Acute Care (CPNPAC)
    • Pediatric Primary Care Mental Health Specialist (PMHS)
  • National Certification Corporation
    • Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (WHNP-BC)
    • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (NNP-BC)

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

  • AACN Certification Corporation
    • Clinical Nurse Specialist; Wellness through Acute Care (Adult-Gerontology) (ACCNS-AG)
    • Clinical Nurse Specialist; Wellness through Acute Care (Pediatric) (ACCNS-P)
    • Clinical Nurse Specialist; Wellness through Acute Care (Neonatal) (ACCNS-N)
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center
    • Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (PCNS-BC)
    • Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (PCNS-BC)
    • Home Health Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (HHCNS-BC)
    • Gerontological Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (GCNS-BC)
    • Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (AGCNS-BC)
    • Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (PMHCNS-BC)
    • Adult Health Clinical Nurse Specialist-Board Certified (ACNS-BC)
  • Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation
    • Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS)

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM)

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