Online Nursing Doctorate [Ph.D.] Program Guide

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Updated on May 11, 2023
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Brandy Gleason has nearly 20 years of nursing experience in bedside, supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership positions. She currently teaches in a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master's students through their final projects. Her ...
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A doctorate in nursing is the terminal degree in the field and comes in two forms: a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and a doctor of philosophy in nursing (Ph.D.). Compared to the more clinical DNP, a nursing Ph.D. focuses more on research, education, and policy. In this guide, we examine online nursing Ph.D. programs in more detail, delving into common career options for graduates and the best individual programs.

The typical nursing Ph.D. program lasts 4-6 years. Online learners may save time and money by taking advantage of reduced travel requirements and more flexible scheduling. Prospective students can follow multiple pathways to a doctorate in nursing, and graduates enjoy strong and varied career prospects.

The demand for nursing leaders and advanced nursing positions is high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the addition of over 120,000 advanced practice nursing positions between 2020 and 2030. According to the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), the majority of nursing leaders earn $90,000-$169,999 per year.

What Is an Online Nursing Ph.D. Program?

An online nursing Ph.D. equips students with the skills and training needed to improve patient care, healthcare systems, and/or healthcare education. Students learn to research and develop theories and scholarship related to nursing practice and policy.

A nursing Ph.D differs from a DNP program in that the former focuses more on research and education while the latter focuses more on leadership and advanced clinical practice.

Why Get a Nursing Ph.D. Online?

Pursuing a nursing Ph.D. online prepares graduates for many advanced research, teaching, and leadership positions. A doctorate in nursing leads to some of the most lucrative and in-demand positions in healthcare.

Between 2020 and 2030, the BLS projects 22% job growth for nursing professors. These professionals earned a median annual wage of $75,470, as of May 2020.

What Can I Expect From an Online Nursing Ph.D. Program?

An online doctorate in nursing may appeal to aspiring nursing professors, researchers, and healthcare leaders. In addition to developing research and leadership skills, learners can hone their communication and critical thinking abilities in these programs. Online Ph.D. students learn to tackle major issues in healthcare while balancing work, teaching, and home life.

Most programs require 45-60 credits of coursework and take 4-6 years to complete. While curricula and requirements vary by program, students may need to complete teaching and lab assignments on top of extensive research demands.

A doctorate in nursing can also help learners develop specialties through research and concentrated training. While many programs do not offer formal specializations, students may encounter the following options:

  • Nurse Educator
  • Public Health
  • Nursing Leadership
  • Nursing Informatics

Types of Nursing Ph.D. Programs


While there are few, if any, RN- or ADN-to-Ph.D. pathways, similar options may be available. For example, prospective students may enroll in an RN- or ADN-to-MSN program first. Graduating from this type of bridge program can then qualify graduates for Ph.D. programs.


BSN-to-Ph.D. programs offer students an accelerated pathway to a doctorate in nursing. These programs have the advantage of focusing on research and advanced topics at an earlier stage.


Most Ph.D. programs require applicants to hold a master's degree. These degrees build on the advanced topics and research in MSN programs and usually take 4-6 years to complete. Students can develop their research interests and specializations in these programs.

What Courses Will I Take in an Online Doctorate in Nursing Program?

Health Sciences Research

This course teaches students the methods and processes used in designing, conducting, and analyzing research in the health sciences. Covered topics may include literature searches and reviews, testing, and report writing. Students also examine major issues and developments in contemporary health sciences research.

Science in Healthcare

This class teaches students how to effectively use science in healthcare careers and research. Participants learn to capture information and translate it into useful applications for healthcare systems and practices. Learners may also explore ways of creating research questions based on the field's needs.

Critical Perspectives in Healthcare

This course examines how various perspectives shape views and understanding of healthcare systems and practices. Learners delve into major issues in the field, such as race and gender, resource allocation, and politics. Students look at the ways in which these perspectives impact health outcomes.

Foundations in Clinical Research

This course teaches students to produce high-quality research, covering project design, evidence collection, and analysis and translation of findings. Covered topics may include epidemiology and biostatistics — two major career pathways for researchers.

Measurement and Statistics in Healthcare Research

This course equips learners with the skills needed to collect, measure, and analyze quantitative data in health research. Learners train with new technologies in the field and develop an understanding of various applications of healthcare data. Covered topics may include sample selection and scale performance.

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Are the Admission Requirements for an Online Doctorate in Nursing Program?

Admission requirements for a doctorate in nursing vary by school and program. RN licensure is likely required at this level, and most Ph.D. programs require applicants to possess an MSN degree. However, BSN-to-Ph.D. pathways accept BSN graduates, and some traditional Ph.D. programs accept BSN graduates who have an MBA or a health-related master's degree.

Doctoral programs in nursing may also require prospective students to complete relevant prerequisites in health policy and basic sciences. Read on to learn about other common requirements.

Test Scores

Graduate schools may require applicants to submit GRE scores. While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many schools dropping this requirement, prospective students may still want to engage in GRE prep to boost their scores and improve their chances of admission.

Letters of Recommendation

Most programs require some form of recommendation letter. These typically come from former employers and professors who can vouch for the applicant's abilities and program readiness. Most schools require 1-3letters.


Most graduate programs ask applicants to submit a resume and cover letter. While an online nursing Ph.D. program may not require a certain amount of nursing experience, experience is necessary for many programs. Schools typically ask for resumes to learn more about an applicant's professional history.


Essays for an online doctorate in nursing program typically focus more on an applicant's future goals than their past accomplishments. While these essays may address the applicant's personal journey, they should concentrate on their research interests and how those align with the school and program.

Official Transcripts

All schools require official transcripts. These records show how well an applicant has performed in the past, which courses they took, and which courses they may still need to take. Transcripts also speak to a student's educational journey and can lead to transfer credits.

Still Looking for the Right Fit? Discover Similar Programs.

What Can I Do With an Online Nursing Ph.D.?

Career Outlook

An aging population and a growing need for more medical services has created large demand in the healthcare field. In turn, this demand has created a need for more educators, leaders, and researchers. The World Health Organization projects that the global healthcare industry will be short 18 million workers by 2030.

While many healthcare jobs are competitive, the growing field and shortage of qualified professionals should create an attractive job market for graduates with a nursing Ph.D. The BLS projects strong growth for many of the leading career pathways between 2020 and 2030, including postsecondary nursing teachers (22% growth), medical scientists (17% growth), and advanced practice nurses (45% growth).

As such, graduates can pursue several professions that feature excellent outlook in terms of growth and salary potential. While salaries vary considerably by position, the median annual wage for nursing professors was $75,470 in May 2020 and over $250,000 for the top 10% of nursing leaders.

See where an online nursing Ph.D. can take you. Learn more about nursing careers.

Career Paths

Nursing Professor

Nursing professors work in colleges and universities and train the next generation of nurses and healthcare professionals. They develop curricula, run research projects, and publish their own scholarship and findings. They also provide guidance and support for students as they progress through their studies.

Median Annual Salary: $75,470 (May 2020)

Clinical Nurse Researcher

These nurse researchers may work for schools, government agencies, or private organizations. They identify research questions and conduct trials and tests. Researchers often work on a team and present their findings through publications and presentations.

Average Annual Salary: $72,450 (September 2021)

Director of Nursing

Directors of nursing supervise nursing teams and units, implement policies, and report to administrators. They may manage budgeting, along with handling patient and family communications when needed.

Average Annual Salary: $92,940 (September 2021)

Director of Nursing Research

Directors of nursing research manage research teams and activities. They may help design research strategies, provide support for team members, establish collaboration and publication processes, and help move findings into practice. Directors of nursing research also make connections with other organizations, faculties, and agencies who may benefit from their research.

Average Annual Salary: $88,130 (September 2021)

Chief Nursing Officer

Chief nursing officers oversee nursing activities and follow established hospital procedures, working to ensure the safety and comfort of patients. Their daily duties may include managing shifts and developing nursing plans and strategies.

Average Annual Salary: $134,600 (September 2021)

Nursing Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

Licenses and Certifications

All RNs and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) need state licensure to practice, which requires a passing grade on a national certification exam. APRNs need at least a master's degree. While individual state nursing boards handle licensure, APRN certification can come from the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists, the American Midwifery Certification Board, or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board.

Online nursing Ph.D. graduates can also pursue specialty nursing certifications. These credentials are offered by various national organizations and provide certified professionals with a way to stand out from their peers and demonstrate specialized training and experience. While not typically required for employment, these credentials can improve a candidate's career opportunities and earning potential.

A doctorate in nursing can meet the education requirements for most specialty certifications, though candidates without an advanced practice MSN may need additional education and experience in the field. Below are several available certifications for advanced nursing professionals:

  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
  • Certified Nurse-Midwife
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Acute Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Director of Nursing Services

Continuing Education

As the terminal degree in the field, an online doctorate in nursing rarely leads to another degree. Nevertheless, many graduates continue their education in various ways, including earning the continuing education credits needed to maintain licensure and certification. They may also pursue condensed graduate certificates to advance their training in a specific subdiscipline.

In some cases, Ph.D. graduates may want to pursue another healthcare doctorate degree, such as biomedical or pharmaceutical medicine.

How Do I Choose an Online Doctorate in Nursing Program?


Cost is one of the most important considerations when choosing a program for many students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of graduate tuition and fees was $12,171 per year at public schools and $25,929 per year at private schools during the 2018-2019 school year. When calculating price, learners should determine the true program cost by considering books, rent, and how online learning might reduce their travel expenses or out-of-state tuition rates.

Program Format

The right program features the appropriate format. Online learners can find asynchronous or synchronous delivery options, along with part-time and full-time schedules. Prospective students should align their work and home schedules with their study hours to create the best learning environment.


A school's location can play a significant role, even for distance learners. Online students can look for out-of-state schools that offer in-state tuition rates, and they should identify potential on-campus or in-person requirements to ensure they can meet them.


When picking a school and program, prospective students should consider accreditation. Schools must hold regional accreditation for learners to gain access to federal aid. Additionally, nursing programs must also have programmatic accreditation to qualify graduates for licensure and employment. When researching programs, seek out accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Research Opportunities

Nursing Ph.D. students should consider their research interests when choosing a program. They should look at the school's faculty members, ongoing research projects, and partnering organizations to identify the best landing spot for them. Online learners also need to understand how they can participate remotely or how they can attend campus for research purposes.

Student Support

Prospective learners should figure out what kind of student support services prospective schools offer. They can look to see if a school hosts a career services team, mentorship opportunities, alumni partnerships, and other types of academic and research support. They might also look at the student organizations and research facilities available.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Nursing Ph.D. Programs

Is a Ph.D. in nursing worth it?

A nursing Ph.D. can lead to the most advanced academic and leadership positions available to nursing professionals. In addition to traditional advanced nursing positions, graduates can pursue teaching, research, and director roles — positions that offer excellent growth and salary prospects.

How many years does it take to get a Ph.D. in nursing?

An online nursing Ph.D. usually takes 4-6 years to complete, though accelerated programs may shorten that timeline.

Are research nurses in high demand?

Despite a steady increase in the number of graduates with a nursing Ph.D., the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports a shortage of doctoral graduates to fulfill demands in the industry. As the healthcare industry expands, more teachers and researchers are needed to investigate growing health concerns and educate the next generation of nurses.

How much money can I make with a nursing Ph.D.?

A doctorate in nursing can lead to high earnings. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for postsecondary teachers is around $80,000, with the top 10% earning more than $179,540 per year. Additionally, the top 10% of nursing leaders make more than $250,000 per year, according to AONL.

What are the highest-paying jobs with a doctorate in nursing?

According to AONL, system chief nursing executives make the most money among nursing leaders. Their survey found that more than 50% of these professionals earned over $300,000 per year. Additionally, more than 10% of non-system chief nursing executives made more than $300,000 annually.

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Portrait of Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches in a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master's students through their culminating projects.

Gleason brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.

Gleason is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the well-being of students and healthcare professionals. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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