Both research (PhD) and practice (DNP) doctorates prepare graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to teach clinical skills and theory, to provide the leadership required to positively influence nursing education and care, and to conduct research or otherwise apply research to education.
The fundamental difference is in the practice-focused nature of the DNP:
- The PhD in nursing is a degree generally designed to prepare graduates for positions in academic leadership and research at universities and other academic institutions.
- The DNP emphasizes the development of leadership skills in clinical practice and is designed to prepare graduates for clinical education positions in hospitals and other direct patient care settings.
The majority of nursing education takes place in hospitals and other clinical practice settings, often far away from the halls of academia. While PhD-prepared nurse educators lend their expertise to the classroom, DNP-prepared nurse educators are able to effectively translate their knowledge and clinical experience to teach evidence-based nursing skills and high-level theory to nursing students and practicing nurses in the real-world setting.
DNP nurse educators conduct and/or translate research on issues concerning nursing practice and respond to national directives aimed at:
- Leading curriculum change
- Developing models of cost-effective education
- Preparing a workforce to meet the needs of a reformed healthcare system at the national and global levels
Reforming Nursing Education: DNP-Educated Nurses Are Leading the Movement to Reduce Costs While Improving Evidence-Based Clinical Education
As an advocate for evidence-based teaching, the National League for Nursing (NLN) supports doctoral preparation for clinical educators. The NLN believes that DNP-prepared clinical educators are in a better position to advance the science of nursing education, both by conducting original research and by translating and applying research in the practice environment.
Doctorate-prepared nurses—both PhD and DNP nurse educators—are critical to building a nursing workforce capable of dealing with the increasingly complex demands of the nation’s healthcare system. The NLN believes that nurse educators prepared at the doctorate level are in a better position to give their students the kind of systems and organizational-level understanding of healthcare they need to make substantive contributions and effect real change at the clinical level.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, the Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, doctorate-prepared nurse educators are also seen as key to leading the movement to improve and redesign nursing education programs in an effort to make them more cost-effective.
DNP programs for nurse educators are endorsed by a number of prominent organizations, including the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Foundation cited the how pedagogy courses at the doctoral level produce graduates that are better prepared to transform nursing education to meet the needs of today’s healthcare system.
The Foundation further reported that nurse educators prepared at the doctoral level are needed more than ever in academic and practice settings to develop the programs used to teach evidence-based approaches to coordinated care.
According to the NLN, a lack of doctoral-prepared nurse educators to lead education reform and address the most pressing issues in nursing practice will result in a workforce that is ill prepared to provide accessible and affordable care to diverse populations in multiple settings. Nurse educators prepared at the doctoral level are the vital link to a future nursing workforce that will lead healthcare reform.
How DNP Programs Prepare Graduates to Be Leaders in Clinical Nursing Education
DNP programs involve in-depth study in research methods (statistics and analysis), the history and philosophy of nursing science, and leadership skills– all of which prepare graduates to be educational leaders capable of redesigning and improving upon clinical training programs.
The goal of these programs is to prepare graduates to serve as expert practitioners with the knowledge of a skilled educator. Graduates of DNP programs in clinical education are able to evaluate the outcomes of the educational models they design and implement and demonstrate links between educational outcomes and the quality of patient care.
DNP programs for nurse educators prepare graduates to:
- Design curricula that prepares students to deliver patient-centered, population-based care as part of interdisciplinary teams
- Facilitate opportunities for students to work on interdisciplinary research teams
- Evaluate the impact of large-scale educational innovations
- Manage learning environments with a diverse student body
- Translate and implement findings from nursing education research
- Use information technology to empower learning strategies
But contributing to improving education is just the beginning. The DNP also emphasizes the development of clinical practice leadership skills with the goal of preparing graduates to:
- Provide evidence-based direct patient care
- Conduct translational and comparative effectiveness research on patient outcomes
- Facilitate change and innovation in the healthcare system
DNP Programs for APRN Clinical Educators
DNP programs are well suited to preparing advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to educate fellow staff members, patients, and communities. In fact, education often becomes a key function of the APRN role.
Although most practicing nurses are exposed to research and evidence in practice, DNP nurses in advanced practice nursing roles (nurse practitioner, nurse-midwife, nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist) are able to implement the findings in ways that improve nursing practice, and by extension, patient outcomes.
While a practice-focused doctoral degree in an APRN role prepares nurses with advanced and specialized knowledge in an area of nursing practice and patient population focus, the discipline of education encompasses an entirely separate body of knowledge.
APRNs with an interest in clinical education may need additional education in the educator role and pedagogical methodologies, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Many DNP programs specific to clinical practice in an APRN role offer students the opportunity to take additional coursework and gain practical experience that would prepare them to fill the role of nurse educator.