Nurses with doctoral degrees may oversee and develop health care programs.

Nurses who earn a doctorate can enjoy a wide selection of careers, including providing patient care as advanced practice nurses, teaching students as college faculty members and performing advanced scientific research. Well before earning a doctorate, students must first complete a Bachelor of Science in nursing, which typically takes four years and leads to initial eligibility for RN licensure. Students can also earn a two- or three-year diploma or associate degree to become RNs, but will need to complete a B.S.N. through a bridge program before being eligible for most doctorate work.

Nursing Doctoral Degree Options

The field of nursing offers two general types of doctoral degrees: the practice-focused doctorate of nursing practice or D.N.P. and the research-focused Ph.D. Nursing Ph.D. programs train graduates to conduct investigations in order to gain knowledge and develop new techniques that can then be applied in the health care field. Many graduates combine teaching and research in their work. D.N.P. programs, on the other hand, foster leadership and critical thinking abilities, which can translate to critical care, teaching or other roles in administration or health care policy.

D.N.P. Program Structure

Students who already have a master's degree may complete D.N.P. requirements in one to two years, though schedules vary by program. Because the D.N.P. is becoming the preferred degree for advanced practice nurses, with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing supporting efforts to make it the standard requirement for the role by 2015, some schools offer advanced B.S.N.-to-D.N.P. programs. These programs can usually be completed in three or four years. Over 150 schools offer the D.N.P. as of 2013, according to the AACN.

D.N.P. Program Courses

D.N.P. programs generally require courses that teach students to analyze and observe, then transfer the information learned into their daily work, which may include caring for patients. Typical course topics include epidemiology, nursing foundations, analytical methods, nursing leadership, budgeting and current issues in health care. Students must also complete practicums in the field and may need to develop independent capstone projects.

Nursing Ph.D. Program Structure

The research-focused Ph.D. may take three to five years to complete, depending on the school. Over 120 schools offer the nursing Ph.D. and some programs offer both types of doctoral degrees to cater to students with varying career goals. Rather than a Ph.D., some nursing schools offer a Doctor of Nursing Science degree, abbreviated as D.N.S. or D.N.Sc. As this is research-focused, the AACN considers it to be equivalent to the Ph.D. As with the D.N.P., online and distance learning courses may be available, as well as part-time scheduling options.

Nursing Ph.D. Program Courses

Exact coursework varies by school, especially since some schools may have either a more research- or teaching-focused curriculum. Courses may cover topics such as teaching strategies, health care ethics, research design, curriculum design and the history of nursing. Additionally, students usually complete practicums in education and research, and finish a dissertation. A minimum number of practical teaching hours may be required.