Best Online PhD Degrees in Nursing

Oct 19, 2021

What is an Online PhD in Nursing Program?

A Ph.D. is one of two terminal doctoral degrees in nursing, the other being the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which can be available online. While the DNP is practitioner-oriented, a Ph.D. is aimed at aspiring researchers and teachers of nursing, a degree for scholars rather than advanced practitioners.

Typically an online Ph.D. program in nursing involves between 60 and around 75 credits or more of mostly remote coursework study culminating in a research dissertation. Programs typically cover a range of classes, such as leadership, policy, and nursing science, as well as classes in research methods and statistics to train candidates as nursing scholars. A Ph.D. in nursing typically takes 3-6 years of study and research, and this will likely vary based on what previous education you bring to the program. Transferable credits from a master's of science in nursing (MSN) may reduce required credits compared to a previous bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN).

However you get there, an online Ph.D. in nursing aims to be a flexible path to nursing leadership, research and education.

Why Should I Get an Online PhD in Nursing?

If you are an experienced nurse and want an academic and professional challenge within medical and health fields, you have different options ahead of you. You could do an online doctorate in health science, in healthcare management, in human services, or in public health. You may have a considered a graduate certificate in an area such as healthcare management. Or, if you want the challenges of research within the field of nursing and the flexibility of remote study, you could do an online Ph.D. in nursing.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there is a critical national shortage of nursing faculty to create nursing curriculum and train future nurses. There is also a need for clinical nursing researchers to investigate how people surviving illness can manage to live their lives. A nursing Ph.D. program can combine clinical research with research methods and prepare you, as a professional nurse, with a new professional challenge that still focuses on patient care. Additionally, an online degree could mean you could still work to support yourself while earning a doctorate.

What is the Difference Between a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) and a Ph.D. in Nursing?

While there is some overlap between the two degrees, a Ph.D. in nursing is primarily a research driven degree for future scholars and nurse administrators. A D.N.P. is primarily a terminal nursing degree in nursing practice for nurses seeking evidence-based clinical practice. The D.N.P. is more likely to offer a specialization in clinical areas to train advanced practitioners, such as anesthesia, pediatrics or family care. A typical D.N.P. curriculum is a highly scientific practice-based set of classes in clinical subjects, usually with a lengthy practicum to train graduates to return to the workplace as specialized practitioners in their respective fields.

Admissions Requirements for Online Nursing PhD Programs

A bachelor's of science in nursing is a typical admission requirement for a Ph.D, but schools also expect that some will have a MSN as well. Expect a grade point average requirement of around 3.3 and typically an active nursing license. You may have to complete the GRE for some schools.

Expect an online application with a fee, education transcripts, a resume, and up to 3 personal references from those who can speak to your professional and/or academic abilities. If English is not your first language, you will likely have to complete and receive a satisfactory score on the TOEFL to demonstrate your second language proficiency. Most schools require an in-person or remote interview for doctoral candidates. Finally you typically have to complete a personal statement explaining your reasons for entering into a doctoral program, your clinical and/or research experience, your expected research focus and nursing philosophy.

What Should I Expect from an Online PhD in Nursing?

Expect at least 3 years of full-time study to complete an online Ph.D. in nursing, with more for part-time study. Programs tend to require at between 60 and 80 credits, including dissertation credits. There may be between 6 and 9 classes for a three-semester year (summer, fall, spring) or less for a 2 semester structure. Classes typically range between health science research methods and statistics through to philosophy of nursing and leadership courses. A practicum is typically involved, as well as a dissertation at the end.

How Long is an Online PhD Nursing Program?

Within the 3 or more years of full-time study, expect at least 2 years of coursework. This can be 3 years in a 4 year program. A two-semester practicum is a common element of nursing Ph.D. programs, either in a clinical setting or a nursing education one, allowing you to gain in-person experience at new levels or domains of nursing. A dissertation beginning with research and ending in a completed document can take anywhere from 1 year to 3, depending on time allowed by the program and your rate of work.

Common Courses for Online Nursing PhD Programs

A Ph.D. in nursing science has a strong research focus, so expect to take several courses in graduate research and statistical methods. These will strengthen your ability to design and carry out doctoral-level scientific research and successfully analyze the results. You can typically also expect classes in ethics or philosophy to encourage you to reflect on your profession and the research it involves. Some programs may involve classes on healthcare leadership. Depending on the focus of the Ph.D., you may take a course in nursing pedagogy to prepare you for teaching or in practical management classes such as human resources and budgeting.

Philosophy of Nursing

Starting with a general discussion of philosophical ways of understanding knowledge and its development, this class typically moves into a study of different philosophies relevant to nursing science and research. You may also study the philosophy of nursing, as well as general philosophies of science, and how this knowledge can be used as a clinical researcher.

Quantitative Research Methods

How does one design a research study using quantitative methods? Ranging from observational to experimental methods, the class will likely be a detailed overview of how to create and understand quantitative research studies to prepare you for designing your own. You may also cover some statistical methods in the class and relevant software.


Human research is a complex subject with many questions and limitations around what one can do in a study. This class approaches the ethics of research and asks you to consider your responsibilities in carrying out a health science study. You will likely discuss regulations, laws, institutional review boards and any potential conflicts of interest to be considered as you design and carry out your studies.

Statistical Methods

Once you have completed a study, you will have to use statistical analysis methods to make sense of your data. Typically this class covers descriptive and inferential statistics, including technical methods such as variance and covariance analysis, linear models and chi-squared tests. You will likely use statistical software to analyze your numbers and gain appropriate experience for carrying out your own advanced analysis.

Online Nursing Doctorate Degree Specializations

Specialization in a nursing Ph.D. program is typically during the research stage, allowing you to work with a faculty member and develop your own research study that will form the basis of your dissertation. These could include interventions to reduce risk and improve health such as:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Elder health concerns
  • Mental health issues

They could also include desired outcomes such as:

  • Reducing healthcare disparities and costs
  • Improving mental health outcomes in a community

Some programs may also distinguish between career outcomes for their specializations:

  • Nursing Education - expect a teaching practicum and more methods and pedagogy classes to train yo to become a nursing educator in a nursing school or advanced institution, as well as more research methods.
  • Nursing Leadership - expect more clinical and management classes to train you to become a nurse manager, as well as policy and legal considerations you may use in advanced nursing positions in clinical roles.

Doctoral Dissertation for Nursing

You should choose a school based on a number of reasons, one of which is the presence of faculty members whose research interests match your own. Once you have completed your coursework, you will finish your comprehensive exams and begin your doctoral research credits. This typically involves a year or so of consultation with your faculty advisors while you research your topic and develop and design a study. This research study draws on your previous years of research methods and design.

This will likely involve a literature review, a lengthy document describing and analyzing the existing research you will use as the basis of your own study. You will also have to create a written research proposal that will have to verbally defend your research in front of a faculty committee. Once this is completed you will go on to carry out your chosen study. You typically statistically analyze your results and write the rest of your dissertation, describing the purpose, methods and findings in a length document that you will revise, through consultation with your advisors, until it is finally accepted. This is typically the end of a doctorate degree.

How to Choose the Right Online Nursing Doctorate Program

When considering how appropriate a Ph.D. program is for you, a good start is to look at the outcomes for previous students. The department website should have information about employment and salary outcomes for their previous graduates, and if not, you can request that information and ask yourself questions. How many graduates have pertinent jobs that pay well? What is the graduation rate? Also ask if they have enough of a history teaching online, or have just begun the program.

Be sure to review the required coursework and electives for the program and ask yourself if they fit your professional and educational goals. While there are common elements to most nursing Ph.D. programs there will be some variation between schools. Try to compare the course descriptions to find the best for your ambitions.

Some schools have low standards for entry and some are very selective. Consider how a future employer may look at a Ph.D. from that school and ask yourself which one you would rather attend based your goals and educational history.

Lastly, consider the cost. In-state tuition at a public university could be far less than a private school. Ask yourself how much of a financial burden you may be willing to assume, whether you can work while studying and how much you may need to borrow to afford the program.

Accreditation for Schools with a Nursing PhD Program

Accreditation is how you can be confident that the nursing Ph.D. program of your choice will be looked upon favorably by your future employers. It involves organizations with an agreed set of standards studying and reviewing at the school or program to make sure it meets those standards for their students. An accredited college will be a higher quality than an unaccredited one.

Universities are accredited by the Department of Education through six regional accreditation bodies in the United States. Each one requests information from colleges in their region and closely reviews the results to ensure that they are fit to be accredited at degree granting institution. Find the accreditation information on the university website.

Nursing programs will have an additional accreditation requirement. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is a national accrediting agency that accredits nursing departments and programs to ensure adequate nursing education. They ensure that state nursing boards have approved the program and that it can provide appropriate curriculum and expertise. Be sure to review the department's website for accreditation information before applying.

Job Outlook for Nursing

Nursing is set to grow 7% from 2019-2019. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nursing educators have a projected job growth from 2019-2029 of 18% to keep pace with this need, and Ph.D.s train many educators into this position. Graduates can also return to the medical workplace with leadership positions to manage fellow nurses in healthcare facilities. They can also emphasize the research aspect of the doctorate with a position managing other nurse researchers, combining administration with research requirements.

Nursing Faculty

A nursing Ph.D. can be used to reenter academia as a nursing professor rather than a student. Full-time faculty teach a full load of classes to undergraduate and/or graduate students, acting as mentors for future nurses and nursing scholars. They typically crate their own curriculum for their classes every year. They may also carry out their own research while in this position and publish the results in scholarly journals. According to the BLS, nursing post-secondary teachers have a median salary of $75,470 and a projected growth rate of 18% from 2019-2029.

Director of Nursing Research

A director of nursing research heads a research program at a nursing education institution or health care facility. They manage and mentor nursing research staff, as well as fundraising and overseeing grant application for ongoing scholarship. Directors of nursing research also ensure that all nursing scholarship is in line with appropriate regulations for research and appropriately funded. shows an average salary of $128,031 per year. Expect a position involving detailed planning and management with training elements and a passion for scientific research and improving health outcomes.

Chief Nursing Officer (CNO)

A CNO manages the nursing staff at a healthcare facility, using personnel management skills to manage nursing shifts and ensure a high level of quality care and ensure communication between higher management and nursing staff. They will likely be responsible for budgeting and planning for nursing staff, as well as further training. A CNO has to be aware of legal regulations and know how to implement awareness on a facility-wide scale. A CNO is considered a top executive, and the BLS predicts a job growth rate of 4% from 2019-2029, with a median salary of $107,680.

Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Nursing PhD Programs

The first step for all financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which allows you to apply for a number of student aid options such as grants, work-study, scholarships and fellowships, as well as federal student loans. Some of this funding is need-based and others are merit-based.

The second thing to look at is departmental funding. Does the university have funding available for doctoral students? Are there any scholarships available for graduate students? Review the nursing department's website thoroughly.

There are other organizational financial aid opportunities. The American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) has a foundation that funds research opportunities for nurses and nurse researchers, although membership in the AONL is required for application. The Nurses Educational Fund (NEF) is an organization that provides awards to master's and doctoral level nurses. There are many available awards every year of varying amounts. Finally the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) offers several graduate level scholarships for members.

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