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Online DNP Programs in Nursing Leadership and Administration (MSN to DNP)

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree represents the highest level of educational attainment and professional development for practicing nurses who have master’s-level training and a desire to earn a terminal degree in the nursing profession. These degree programs provide advanced training and instruction in the most up-to-date medical and patient-care systems, practices, and technologies, as well as in the use of current research in the evidence-based practice of nursing. They focus on the communication and organizational leadership skills required to work in top tier clinical, administrative, and educational positions of the complex healthcare system. Nurses who graduate from DNP programs are generally considered to be ready to advance into leadership roles throughout the nursing profession, in hospitals, healthcare organizations, medical groups, and other clinical care facilities. DNPs may also move into clinical research and teaching positions alongside graduates from more purely academic and research-oriented PhD in nursing programs.

Note: This page is dedicated to MSN-to-DNP programs designed for RNs looking to earn their DNP without additional training in a nursing clinical specialty. The programs on this page do not prepare students for clinical licensure.

What is a DNP Degree?

A DNP degree is conferred to RNs who have completed advanced clinical training and didactic instruction in the practice of nursing at the doctoral level. While there are specialized DNP programs that offer additional clinical training and instruction for APRN certification, the core DNP curriculum is designed to prepare RNs with MSN degrees for advancement into senior nursing positions without additional certification.

Nurses in DNP programs cultivate the skills and knowledge to succeed in clinical, administrative, educational leadership, and executive positions, depending on the their area of specialization. To achieve this, the general training for DNPs, as outlined by the American Association of College of Nursing (AACN) and its affiliated nursing program accreditation body, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), encompasses proficiencies in nine broad areas:

  • Scientific Underpinnings for Practice
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvement and Systems Thinking
  • Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
  • Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology for the Improvement and Transformation of Health Care
  • Health Care Policy for Advocacy in Health Care
  • Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving the Nation’s Health
  • Advanced Nursing Practice

In addition to general advanced training, DNPs receive targeted instruction in one of three main areas of nursing: executive leadership; nursing education; or advanced clinical practice. Graduating from a DNP program requires at least 1000 hours of post-baccalaureate supervised clinical experience, with a minimum of 500 hours being completed as part of the DNP curriculum.

Overview of Online DNP Programs

Online DNP programs offer a more flexible and convenient alternative to traditional campus-based DNP programs. Students in online DNP programs take the same courses and fulfill the same requirements as they would in a campus-based program, but receive all or most of the instruction through distance learning technologies. They view and participate in lectures and class discussions using a learning management system (LMS), which delivers course materials to students located anywhere with an Internet connection. Interactions between students and instructors are facilitated by the LMS, and exams and other assignments may be accessed and submitted online.

While some DNP programs offer 100% of their classroom instruction online, others require that students attend a limited number of on-campus sessions. In addition, the clinical component of a DNP program requires students to complete clinical training at an approved site in their geographical area. Students in online DNP programs should expect to complete at least 500 clinical hours during the program in order to reach the 1000 clinical hours needed to graduate.

Identifying Online MSN-to-DNP Programs

Online MSN-to-DNP programs are fairly standardized and recognizable as Doctor of Nursing Practice degree programs. It is, however, important to note that the DNP differs from another type of nursing doctorate, the PhD in nursing, formally referred to as a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing. While there is some overlap in the instruction nurses receive in these programs, nursing PhD programs are separate in their focus and their purpose from DNP programs: a nursing PhD is designed for students aiming to pursue careers in academic and scientific research, while DNP programs prepare students for advanced practice of nursing in clinical and administrative areas of the public and private healthcare system. DNP programs are commonly listed under several headings:

  • DNP – Leadership/Executive Leadership: These programs often admit any MSN-trained RN and offer training in healthcare systems management and organizational leadership as well as a core DNP curriculum. (Note: Some programs may require APRN certification for admission.)
  • DNP – Advanced Clinical Practice: These programs usually require applicants to hold an APRN certification and include coursework that focuses on the latest advances in clinical practice in addition to the core DNP curriculum.
  • DNP – Nurse Educator: These programs are designed to train RNs for practice-based teaching positions and may require applicants to have some prior teaching experience in addition to an MSN degree.
  • DNP – Nurse Practitioner: These programs are less common than other MS-to-DNP programs and require students to be licensed in the same APRN specialty as the program’s focus. For example, an MSN-to-DNP program with a FNP (family nurse practitioner) focus will require applicants to hold an FNP license. Like Advanced Clinical Practice MSN-to-DNP programs, these programs cover the core DNP curriculum and provide training in the latest clinical advances with a narrower focus on a specific APRN specialization.

How Categorizes Online MSN-to-DNP Programs researches online MSN-toDNP programs and classifies them based on several criteria. To be included on the site, a program must be offered by a regionally accredited, non-profit college or university that has programmatic accreditation from the CCNE and/or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). In addition, the programs on this site must offer all or most of their classroom instruction online. Programs that require students to attend more than three campus-based sessions per academic year are not currently listed on the site.

Note: As noted above, the MSN-to-DNP programs described and included on this page are designed for RNs who have completed master’s programs and are only looking to earn their DNP by completing the DNP curriculum. The programs on this page do not provide the training and preparation required for additional APRN licensure and certification.

What Students Learn in Online MSN-to-DNP Programs

There are three instructional components of online DNP programs. The bulk of a typical DNP curriculum – ten or more courses – is devoted to skills and knowledge outlined by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice. This includes didactic instruction in evidence-based practice and research methodologies; organizational leadership and healthcare systems; healthcare technology and informatics; healthcare finance and policy; and professional communication and collaboration in the practice of nursing. A smaller portion of the curriculum – typically one to three courses – covers topics specific to executive leadership, advanced clinical practice, or nurse education. For example, an executive leadership DNP program might include instruction in systems change and innovation in healthcare; an advanced clinical practice DNP might include coursework in clinical diagnostics and pathophysiology; a nurse educator program might include coursework in the design and implementation of nurse training programs. Finally, there is the supervised clinical component of a DNP program, which may include a formal practicum and/or capstone project that counts toward the 1000 hours of post-baccalaureate supervised clinical experience required for graduation.

Common Courses in Online DNP Programs

The table below provides an overview of coursework that is typical of a DNP program. These courses are drawn from actual online DNP program curricula.

Course TitleCourse Description
Innovation and Leadership in HealthcareThe implementation of evidence-based practice innovations to improve outcomes and efficiency in nursing.
Research for Evidence-Based PracticeIdentifying, interpreting, and utilizing relevant research in the practice of nursing.
Clinical DiagnosticsAdvanced tools, techniques, and protocols for assessing and diagnosing patients.
Ethics in Healthcare Practice, Research, and PolicyThe ethical concerns that attach to the practice of nursing in the context of the larger healthcare system.
Healthcare informaticsInformation technologies and their use in healthcare systems to track patients and support-decision making.
Applied Statistics for Evidence-Based PracticeThe use of statistical methods in assessing and evaluating and improving nursing practices.
Healthcare Economics and FinanceBusiness principals and financial management applied to healthcare and nursing.
Organizational Theory and Management in NursingThe use of organizational management theory to address issues in nursing, including quality control, risk reduction, and strategies for assessing the improving the delivery of care within an organization.
DNP Clinical ImmersionSupervised clinical experience in an approved healthcare setting.
DNP CapstoneAn independently researched investigation of a specific issue in nursing practice related to student’s area of specialization.

Admissions to Online MSN-to-DNP Programs

Admissions criteria and requirements for online MSN-to-DNP programs vary depending on the type of program and by school. In general, these programs require students to have an active unrestricted RN license and to have completed an MSN program. Programs can then be broken down into four different types based on their admission requirements. These include:

  • RN + MSN: Many online MSN-to-DNP programs admit RNs who hold an MSN degree in any field of nursing. This includes graduates from MSN programs in nursing administration, clinical nurse leader, nurse educator, and APRN specialties (NP, CRNA, CNS, Midwifery). The majority of these MSN-to-DNP programs are leadership or nurse educator programs.
  • NP/APRN Required: Some online MSN-to-DNP programs require applicants to be trained, certified, and licensed as NPs/APRNs. The majority of advanced clinical practice programs and some leadership programs require an APRN certification for admission.
  • RN + BSN + master’s in a related field: Some online MSN-to-DNP programs have a provision that allows RNs who hold a BSN degree but not an MSN degree to apply if they have a master’s degree in a related or complementary field. This could include licensed RNs with a Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Health Administration (MHA), and/or Master of Management in Healthcare (MMHC) degree. These programs are not as common as those that require an MSN for admission.
  • Specific APRN Specialization Required: A small subset of online MSN-to-DNP programs with an advanced clinical practice focus require students to be licensed in the same specialty as the DNP program specialty. For example, an MSN-to-DNP program with an advanced clinical practice focus on family nursing may require applicants to have APRN certification and licensure in family nursing practice. In general, these programs are rare compared to the other types of programs.

Additional admissions requirements may include the submission of GRE test scores, up to three letters of recommendations, a personal goals statement, relevant transcripts, and/or a professional CV. In addition, DNP programs may prefer candidates with one or more years of experience in a leadership/managerial position and/or a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.

One final factor that can be an important consideration for applicants to online MSN-to-DNP programs involves the 1000 hours of supervised clinical hours required to graduate. Some online DNP programs are designed for students who have already logged 500 of these hours as part of a prior MSN program, while others accommodate students who have fewer than 500 supervised clinical hours by allowing them to complete those hours during their DNP internships.

Online MSN-to-DNP Program Format Options

There are several structural and formatting differences that may be an important consideration for applicants to online DNP programs. Most programs are designed to accommodate working professionals, as well as those who cannot relocate or would prefer not to commute to a campus-based program. However, differences in online instructional methods can affect the relative flexibility of an online DNP program; some enrollment options may be more preferable than others for students who are working full-time; and some online programs require attendance at one or more in-person campus sessions. These differences are important to know about and weigh when researching online programs.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: There are two primary modes for online learning. Synchronous instruction is similar to a traditional classroom experience in that online lectures and discussions take place at set times, during which students must be logged on to the LMS in order to participate. Asynchronous instruction allows students to access lectures and other course materials at their own convenience through the LMS. While asynchronous instruction offers added flexibility, it does require more self-motivation, as students must adhere to a syllabus, submit assignments on time, and keep up with scheduled readings. Synchronous instruction provides more structure, which some students may prefer, and many programs that utilize synchronous instruction schedule synchronous activities in the evening and at other times that are convenient for working professionals.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: Depending on the program, a typical MSN-to-DNP program can be completed in one-to-two years by students who enroll full-time and begin the program with at least 500 hours of supervised clinical experience from an MSN program. A typical full-time course load is two or three classes per semester, and students aiming to complete a DNP program in less than three years generally take courses year round, during the fall, spring, and summer semesters. However, many programs offer a part-time or extended-plan enrollment for students who would prefer to take fewer courses per academic term – usually just one or two. Part-time enrollment options vary, but students who opt for an extended enrollment plan generally take three or more years to graduate, depending on how many courses they take per semester and whether or not they choose to attend year round.

Campus Visits: Campus visits are a required component of some but not all online MSN-to-DNP programs. These sessions may involve orientations, presentation, lectures, and other instructional activities. They are separate from supervised clinical hours, which are typically completed at approved locations that are convenient for each student. Campus visits, often referred to as immersion session or intensives, are held at a designated location and require students to travel and stay at that location for several days. They are an opportunity for students to meet face-to-face with instructors and fellow students, and may include seminars and colloquia devoted to topics that are integral to DNP training. However, students may incur travel and lodging expenses in addition to tuition costs and university fees while attending these sessions. Programs that require more than three campus visits per year are classified by as hybrid DNP programs and are not currently included on the site.