According to the Nurse Practitioner, an online journal for advanced nursing practice, the number of nurses striving for doctorates is increasing at an encouraging rate. By April 2019, all 50 states had DNP programs with more than 30,000 students. Between 2016 and 2017, enrolment increased by more than 15%, and the number of graduates by more than 25%.
Nursing, as a career, is changing. In the past, one didn’t need an advanced degree to succeed. With basic nursing qualifications, many rose through the ranks and eventually retired after a long and satisfactory career.
The profession has become more competitive. Advances in healthcare demand that nurses strive for higher education if they want to move up the ladder.
Those that attain the right credentials can join nursing management or education, or they can become senior practitioners in their specific areas of training.
Why get a DNP?
These courses cost money and take quite some time, so why get a DNP? If your goal is to provide high-quality care to patients, join management in a hospital or clinic or become a nurse educator, earning a DNP is one of the quickest ways to do it. The degree also equips you with the necessary skills to conduct research at the highest levels of your profession.
Whether you are just starting as a nursing student or are already in the practice, it is worth your while to consider what a doctor of nursing practice degree can do for your career.
Before we explore what career opportunities are available for those who qualify, let’s explore what it is and how best to get one.
What is a DNP?
A doctor of nursing is the highest credential that you can attain in the field of nursing. It isn’t like a Ph.D. which focuses on skills that are needed to perform research to extend knowledge in the field of nursing.
A DNP degree is primarily focused on clinical practice. It allows students to climb to the highest levels of the profession within the clinical setting, where they can be involved in making decisions that transform healthcare delivery.
To enroll, you need to be a qualified RN and hold an MSN degree from an accredited institution.
A typical DNP course covers topics such as the scientific underpinnings of nursing practice, organizational and systems leadership and clinical scholarship and analytical methods. You also learn about information systems and technology, healthcare policy and advocacy and inter-professional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes. Students cover clinical prevention and population health and advanced nursing practice.
Qualifications to join the course vary depending on where you enroll, but most institutions require students to have a bachelor’s and master’s before they join.
If you sign up for in-person campus classes, the course may take between three and five years to complete, but you can get it done in two years or less by joining an online program.
What career opportunities are available after you complete a DNP?
You have reached the highest level of nursing practice and the world is your oyster. Careers for DNPs can be found in hospitals and clinics, government health agencies, private sector health organizations, management, consulting and in academia.
Jobs can be classified broadly as clinical and non-clinical. Clinical roles allow you to stay in a healthcare environment, while non-clinical roles will likely take you out of a hospital or clinic and into an office.
Advanced nursing practice roles for DNPs
If you are already a practicing APRN, a DNP allows you to advance in your chosen specialty which may be any of the following:
- Hospice and palliative care – This involves caring for critically ill patients who are typically nearing the end of their lives. Advanced nurses in this field aim to improve the quality of life of those under their care.
- Community health nursing – This is a rapidly growing field that considers socioeconomic and cultural factors that affect a community’s health. You will become an advocate for those you serve, and you may be involved in research, education, rolling out vaccines, designing new healthcare strategies and advising stakeholders.
- Pain management – Nurses in this field assess patient needs, implement and assess treatment plans and test new pain management therapies and treatments.
- Oncology – This is for nurses who are interested in helping cancer patients. They may work in an oncologist’s office, a cancer clinic or the cancer wing of a hospital. Their main job is to help cancer patients manage their illnesses using the latest treatments and therapies.
- Emergency care – A DNP who specializes in emergency care may find themselves running a busy ER in a large city hospital. They evaluate injuries, oversee admissions and ER treatment and take care of patient treatment plans.
- Radiology – DNP nurses who specialize in radiology are tasked with caring for patients who undergo radiation therapy. They work closely with oncology and pain management nurses.
- Orthopedics – This covers patients who suffer from musculoskeletal problems. Nurses may be involved in setting broken bones, providing therapies for those who suffer back and joint pain, spine health and helping arthritis patients manage their illness. They are also involved in care for those who receive joint replacements.
- Nephrology – If you choose to specialize in this field, you will be caring for patients who have kidney disease. You will educate them, as well as their families, on the best ways to manage the illness.
- Endocrinology – This specialty deals with diseases of the endocrine system, such as diabetes, thyroid disease, obesity, problems with hormones and more.
- Forensics – A nurse who specializes in forensics will eventually work to identify patient injuries and determine their scope. They also help collect evidence from victims of violent crime.
Non-clinical roles for DNPs
Non-clinical roles are often found away from hospitals, clinics and hospices. A DNP nurse may work directly with populations to collect data, they may specialize in IT for healthcare, state or national policy, or find jobs within healthcare NGOs and international organizations.
Many are also employed in universities where they are tasked with educating future nurses and making sure students have the necessary skills to transition into the workplace.
There is a different path for older nurses to enter into non-clinical roles because they have more experience, not just in healthcare but in life as well.
Older nurses, for example, are likely to be aware of the practical issues that face their community, their causes and how they can be alleviated. They are better placed to have strong relationships with community leaders, which makes them well-qualified to work as researchers or government advisors.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for the young DNP graduate who would like to enter into a non-clinical role. There are plenty of opportunities within different settings that are looking for the specific skills that are gained with this degree.
How to prepare for a DNP
Higher education isn’t easy. By the time most people get to the point in their lives where they want to attain a doctorate, they have other commitments such as jobs and families that take up most of their time.
Whatever your particular circumstances, you can be a successful doctor of nursing student if you prepare well before you enroll.
Your biggest challenge will be time, so it is important to think carefully about whether you can step away from some of your everyday roles to make room for study.
Here’s what you can do to make things a little easier:
- If you are serious about attaining this degree in the shortest time possible you should be ready to adjust your schedule for the next two or three years.
- Settle on a specialization early in the process. Knowing what you ultimately want to do helps you focus on the right steps to get you there.
- Know the admission requirements and make sure that you meet them.
- Organize your finances. Some employers are happy to pay part or even full tuition for those who want to pursue higher education, but if you have to pay out of pocket you should organize your finances well in advance.
- Have your clinical experience well documented and find out whether you qualify for credits. This can help you finish your course faster.
- Ask at least three well-respected people to write your references. If you want to get into a prestigious school you will find it easier to secure a place.
- Research capstone projects because they may come up during your admission interview.
- Understand evidence-based practice and human research. It gives you an edge and admission is usually easier for those who have some knowledge of these fields.
A DNP is a smart and efficient route to becoming a senior nurse. In two years, you can apply for the best jobs in both clinical and non-clinical settings, and you will be involved in providing top-level healthcare, guiding policy and supervising other nurses. Hospitals, clinics, hospices and other healthcare organizations will be happy to have you, and you can look forward to earning more.