Earning an Online DNP

In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) voted to transition the requirements for advanced nursing practice from MSN to DNP programs. Since then, hospitals and practices across the country began requiring advanced practice nurses to hold DNPs, and schools opened programs to fill this need.

Graduates who complete online DNP programs can work as nurse practitioners, nurse administrators, and nurse anesthetists. While many MSN programs allow nurses to fill these roles, the industry’s push toward DNPs makes doctoral degrees better investments. This page details the benefits of online DNP programs, job opportunities for DNPs, how to pay for DNP degrees, and what students learn in these programs.

Why Get an Online DNP?

Pursue Deeper Knowledge and Specialization

Accredited online DNP colleges give nurses the chance to reach the pinnacle of their practice. DNP programs often include research courses, capstones, and clinical rotations that allow learners to deepen their understanding of medicine and the role of nurses. These students specialize in specific areas of treatment and graduate as experts in those fields. Expert status gives them personal fulfillment, respect from their peers, and more chances to impact patients' lives.

Career Advancement Opportunities

With online DNP degrees, professionals can earn the credentials to work as advanced practice nurses. Graduates fill high-paying positions such a chief nursing officer, nurse practitioner, or nurse educator. Although master’s degrees in nursing can also lead to some of these careers, PayScale data shows that nurses with DNPs earn more money. Furthermore, many healthcare organizations require new advanced practice nurses to hold DNPs, even when the state grants licenses to MSN candidates.

Online Learning Technology

Online DNP programs allow nurses to continue working while they further their education. The convenient scheduling and flexibility allow students to fit lectures, research, tests, and discussions around their unique work schedules. Furthermore, online learning technology enables degree candidates to learn from revered experts, even when they live across the country. While all accredited online DNP schools require candidates to complete some in-person hours, these can often take place in facilities near the students’ homes.

What's the Difference Between a DNP and a Ph.D. in Nursing?

While Ph.D. programs in nursing prepare learners to work as researchers and academics, DNP degrees give graduates the skills to practice advanced nursing in clinical settings. To prepare candidates for these positions, Ph.D. and DNP programs deliver unique curricula. For example, Ph.D. students take courses that focus on research methods, care systems, statistical analysis in healthcare settings, and theories of nursing. Meanwhile, DNP degree candidates take classes that teach them to apply nursing theories to real patients or healthcare organizations.

Ph.D. and DNP programs also differ in important structural ways. For example, Ph.D. students complete dissertations, which often make up the last half of the program. On the other hand, DNP learners gain hands-on experience in the form of clinical rotations. These students also declare specialties that determine which classes and practicums they complete. Concentrations include nursing leadership and several types of nurse practitioner specializations.

Prerequisites for Online DNP Programs

Online DNP programs each set unique criterion for applicants. Prospective students should carefully review each institution’s prerequisites to make sure they qualify. Some standards remain common among schools; for example, most programs require candidates to hold RN licenses. Below are five of the most common prerequisites for the top online DNP programs.

  • Current RN License Most online DNP programs require candidates to hold an active, unencumbered RN license in at least one state. To fulfill this requirement, candidates should earn a BSN and/or MSN degree, then take the appropriate national licensure examination. Nurses must then renew their licenses according to state laws.
  • Graduate Degree in Nursing Some of the best online DNP programs require applicants to hold a graduate degree in nursing from an accredited school. These degrees do not necessarily have to be in the same specialization that candidates pursue in their DNP program. Prospective students can enroll in online MSN programs that meet their needs, including online universities and MSN programs for non-nurses.
  • Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing Although some online DNP programs only accept candidates with graduate degrees, other schools offer programs for candidates with BSNs. Candidates with associate-level nursing degrees can fulfill this requirement by completing RN-to-BSN programs. Students with no experience in nursing can also find BSN programs to suit their needs.
  • 3.0 GPA or Higher Whether schools want DNP candidates to hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree, they often require applicants to demonstrate academic promise with their GPAs. Many schools require applicants to hold at least a 3.0 GPA on all of their previous nursing coursework. The top online DNP programs may even require a 3.25 or 3.5 GPA.
  • Professional References Admissions boards want to know that candidates will succeed in advanced practice nursing roles, so they often request professional recommendation letters. Candidates should ask current and former supervisors to write these recommendations on an official letterhead. The best recommendations come from healthcare supervisors, but some schools accept letters from professionals in other industries.

How Much Can I Make With an Online DNP Degree?

According to PayScale, graduates with DNPs earn an average annual salary of $101,000. The amount a graduate should expect to earn varies based on factors such as years of experience, location, and job title. For example, family nurse practitioners in the bottom 10% earn about $77,000, while the highest earners make $114,000 per year.

Below, we provide descriptions of some common DNP career paths and their average salaries.

Potential Careers

When choosing careers, make sure to only select jobs that require a DNP and not just a degree in nursing in general. In other words, if you're set on a DNP, pursue advanced careers that are best suited for or strictly require a doctorate degree.

Careers Stats Description

Chief Nursing Officer

Average Annual Salary: $127,237

These administrative professionals oversee all nursing units within healthcare organizations. They set safety policies, oversee budgeting, manage staff levels, and design emergency strategies. The best online DNP programs give candidates management, program evaluation, and healthcare policy implementation skills.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

Average Annual Salary: $145,789

These specialized advanced practice nurses administer anesthesia to patients in hospitals and surgery centers. They may work alongside anesthesiologists or as the only anesthesia professional on a team. While some MSN programs offer candidates CRNA credentials, many healthcare organizations require CRNAs to hold doctoral degrees.

Nurse Practitioner

Average Annual Salary: $92,792

Nurse practitioners complete many of the same tasks as doctors of medicine. For example, they can write prescriptions and administer medications. Many hospitals, clinics, and outpatient centers require nurse practitioner candidates to hold doctoral degrees. Nurse practitioners often specialize in specific areas of medicine, such as emergency or pediatric care.

Paying for an Online DNP Program

Online DNP students pay different tuition rates depending on the type of institution and their state residency. Furthermore, students often save money when they enroll in accelerated programs. The most affordable online DNP programs usually take the form of accelerated paths at public universities in the student's state.

Degree candidates can fill funding gaps with grants, scholarships, and loans. Some healthcare organizations help employees pay for higher education.

Below, we list a few scholarships specifically for graduate nursing students.


Private companies, nonprofit organizations, and universities provide scholarships to all types of students. Applicants may qualify based on their academic performance, cultural background, financial need, and career goals. DNP students can qualify for scholarships aimed at graduate nursing students or general doctoral candidates, including those listed below:

What to Expect From an Online DNP Program

Depending on the specialization, students take classes in either advanced healthcare practice or healthcare management. Many courses take place entirely online, either through synchronous or asynchronous courses. However, students typically must complete in-person components for clinical hours. During these courses, students shadow professionals in healthcare environments and gain hands-on experience with patients. Many schools allow students to complete clinicals at any approved healthcare provider in the country.

Major Milestones

BSN-to-DNP programs typically take about three years to complete, while MSN-to-DNP plans last a little over two years. The structure of online DNP programs varies depending on the specialization; however, some common milestones exist between programs.

  1. Bridge Program

    Candidates who enter BSN-to-DNP programs start with a series of classes that cover many of the topics from MSN classes. While the bridge classes do not allow learners to earn master’s degrees, they prepare nurses to enter DNP programs.

  2. Online Coursework

    DNP programs include about 40 credits, many of which come from traditional, lecture-based courses. In the first year of online DNP programs, these courses cover topics like integrative healthcare, informatics in patient care, and ethics.

  3. Clinical Rotations

    Online DNP programs with clinical nursing specialties include in-person training inside healthcare organizations. Some programs start these rotations immediately, while others include them only in the last year.

  4. Capstone Project or Research

    Nurse administration and leadership programs often include capstone projects or thesis-style research courses. Students work on these in their final semester or year.

  5. Defend Capstone/Thesis

    DNP programs that include capstone or thesis classes often require learners to defend their conclusions in front of faculty members. If degree candidates successfully complete this step, the faculty recommends them for graduation.

  6. Pass Board Exams

    After graduation, nurse practitioner candidates must pass national board exams that match their specialties. They must then apply for the appropriate license in their state.


The curricula in DNP programs vary depending on the specialization. However, most DNP degree candidates take variations of the following courses.

Health Policy Analysis
and Development

These courses prepare graduates to understand and implement healthcare policy. Students also learn how these laws impact healthcare businesses. Both clinical practitioners and nurse leaders need these skills to stay compliant.

Research Methodologies
and Analysis for Healthcare

These courses help candidates understand statistical analysis and research methods in healthcare settings. Students also learn to analyze studies so they can implement evidence-based practices in clinical nursing and nurse leadership.

Healthcare Informatics

As technology continues to rapidly change healthcare organizations, companies need practitioners and leaders who understand how to use big data in healthcare. These courses cover the current status and future of healthcare informatics.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Professional organizations help students and recent DNP graduates build their professional networks. Members can attend annual conferences, gain continuing education hours, go to local networking meetings, and access exclusive job boards. These associations also help candidates earn credentials to further their careers. Associations may advocate for their members within legislative halls, provide professional insurance, and offer medical journal subscriptions. Students choose professional organizations based on their desired career and may join more than one association.

  • American Organization for Nursing Leadership: Members join nearly 10,000 colleagues in different nurse leadership positions. Benefits include subscriptions to leading health management publications, helpful toolkits, access to member communities, a comprehensive career center, and continuing education opportunities.
  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners: AANP welcomes nurse practitioners in all specialties, along with students in DNP programs. Members gain access to free continuing education, clinical resources, groups for specialized practitioners, discounts to national conferences, votes on policy positions, and several industry journals.
  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists: CRNAs and students pursuing this specialization can join this organization to access continuing education, annual meetings, and anesthesia journals. Members also enjoy access to professional insurance and lobbyists who advocate for their interests.
  • American Nurses Association: ANA connects nurses at all levels of practice across the country. Members gain professional development resources, access to a comprehensive career center, exclusive discount programs, subscriptions to nursing publications, and mentorship opportunities.
  • The American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Attending an online DNP program with accreditation from the AACN Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education is crucial for students. This resource helps students learn more about this credential and offers a list of accredited programs.