Earning Your DNP Degree: Balancing Work, School and Life

May 25, 2022

A nurse wearing scrubs before work watches her daughter ride a bicycle with training wheels.
A nurse wearing scrubs before work watches her daughter ride a bicycle with training wheels.

No one is more aware of how complex and demanding the U.S. health care system is than nurses. Not only are they delivering direct patient care, but they're also the ones who are front and center listening to the concerns of patients and their loved ones, helping them navigate treatment regimens, and bringing a sense of empathy and compassion into environments that can often feel cold and sterile. Being on the front lines of patient care, nurses are also acutely aware of changes that need to be made to improve patient experiences and outcomes.

If you're in the nursing profession and are wondering how to become a more effective changemaker, earning a doctor of nursing practice degree might be the answer. And doing it virtually through the DNP online program offered by the University of Arkansas ONLINE makes it possible regardless of how busy your schedule is.


Why Get a DNP?

When remembering how his mother would comfort him when he heard and saw frightening things in the news, Fred Rogers (a.k.a., Mister Rogers) recounted that she would say, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

As a nurse, you help patients every single day in ways both seen and unseen. And you're always looking for ways to do even more. By earning a DNP, you can gain the insights and skills needed to do just that.

"Our students are trying to uncover better ways to do things," says Allison Scott, an assistant professor in the Doctor of Nursing Practice online degree program offered through the University of Arkansas ONLINE. "They're looking at the barriers to care that exist and finding ways to remove them. And they're exploring ways to achieve better patient outcomes and to make health care more accessible to everyone."

For students in the U of A DNP program, a major focus is on solving health care disparities.

Photo of Allison Scott

"Through what they learn and experience in the DNP program, our students are better able to see the big picture when it comes to the structure and operation of health care systems in the United States and around the world. It provides them an opportunity to find out how they can influence systemwide disparities and help create better patient outcomes beyond delivering direct patient care. By coming to a better understanding of population and global health and taking a more in-depth look at health care inequities, their ability to create meaningful and lasting impact is greatly increased."

Allison Scott, Assistant professor in the Doctor of Nursing Practice online degree program

DNP degree programs also offer a more practice-focused approach than a traditional Ph.D. program. Both a DNP and Ph.D. are terminal degrees. However, Ph.D. programs focus more on scholarly research, and some also require students to teach as part of their curriculum. So, for those who have more interest in improving clinical practice or obtaining new skills, a DNP program is often a better fit.

So, what can you do with a doctorate in nursing? There are quite a few potential career benefits to be realized from earning a DNP. According to NurseJournal.org, those who hold a DNP often receive higher salaries than those with BSNs or MSNs and have more career options available to them. Additionally, as the complexity of the health care system increases, the level of medical knowledge possessed by nurses will be expected to increase. Earning a DNP degree can play a critical role in helping you prepare for that.

Additionally, in 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing endorsed the Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing. According to the organization's website, "the decision called for moving the current level of preparation necessary for advanced nursing practice from the master's degree to the doctorate level."

While this has yet to take place, it is being discussed, and it is something to keep in mind if you are thinking about pursuing a career in advanced nursing practice.


The DNP Online Experience

Many students in the University of Arkansas ONLINE DNP program are working professionals – serving as RNs and family nurse practitioners in a variety of settings. Additionally, many have responsibilities beyond work – including those related to family and community. So, the flexibility the DNP online program provides is essential.

"Other than clinical work, there's no significant reason for face-to-face coursework," says Scott. "Having the ability to earn their degree online allows our students to continue working full time if they choose. And it also helps them manage all of the other responsibilities they have in their daily lives."

Having a BSN or MSN is required to apply for the DNP program offered by the U of A. The BSN to DNP program is strictly for individuals who are licensed registered nurses and have worked in the profession for at least one or two years. The MSN to DNP program is for nurses who are already nationally certified as advanced practice nurses and who are looking to advance their skills and competencies.

"We accept up to 25 students per cohort," says Callie Bradley, DNP program coordinator and clinical assistant professor in the University of Arkansas ONLINE DNP program. "For the first two years, they remain grouped together for their classes. After that, students choose one of two tracks to follow – either Family Nurse Practitioner or Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. Those on the FNP track are trained as general practitioners who will work in outpatient primary care and internal medicine clinics. They'll be treating both acute and chronic conditions in patients of all ages. Students on the AGACNP track are trained to practice acute and critical care in hospital settings for those 18 and older."

Both tracks require the completion of 79 credit hours to graduate. Students typically take two to three courses per semester, which equals six to nine credit hours. The BSN to DNP program is designed to be completed in four years – but students have up to seven years if needed. However, in Arkansas, pathophysiology, pharmacology and physical assessment courses have to be taken within five years of sitting for licensing. This requirement might differ from state to state and country to country.

The MSN to DNP program is designed to be completed in two years, but students have up to seven years if needed.

Both programs are considered part time, with classes being held during the 16-week fall and spring semesters, as well as the 10-week summer semester.

"All of the coursework is online," says Bradley. "Most of it is asynchronous, which makes it easier for students to fit school into their schedules. However, there are some events – such as clinical conferences – that are held synchronously."

Additionally, there are two to three days over the span of the entire program that students must come to the University of Arkansas campus for orientation, clinical assessments and skill rotations.

Core courses that all students must take in the U of A DNP program include those related to health care policy, health care economics, leadership and evidence-based practice research. For those on the FNP track, their didactic and clinical courses focus on issues such as primary care of children and both common and complex problems in primary care. Students on the AGACNP track focus on topics that include acute and critical care in adult and gerontology populations and chronic health problems in adult and gerontology populations.

Practicums are also required for both tracks and require students to work with an approved preceptor.

Photo of Callie Bradley

"Students are required to find their own preceptors – which can include health care professionals such as licensed physicians or licensed APRNs. This makes it possible for students to remain in their own communities while completing their clinical hours."

Callie Bradley, Doctor of Nursing Practice program coordinator

In addition to preceptor supervision, clinical work is also overseen by a U of A DNP faculty member. For students on the AGACNP track, 1,035 clinical hours are required, and 1,124 clinical hours must be completed for those on the FNP track.

Students who complete the BSN to DNP program will be eligible to sit for either the AGACNP certification examination or the FNP certification examination.


The DNP Project

As part of their studies, all students are required to complete a DNP project. According to Scott, "This is one of the beauties of our program because students can do this project on anything they're interested in as long as it relates to clinical research."

Students work on their DNP project for approximately two years, with various aspects of it threaded throughout their courses.

"They spend a significant amount of time learning how to do clinical-based research – including how to conduct surveys and quality improvement studies," explains Scott. "The goal is to identify a problem or challenge and then conduct research that will uncover better ways to do things."

An example Scott provided of a recent DNP project involved the creation of a new protocol for the administration of an osteoporosis medication.

"The student saw that there was no standard practice in how to administer this infusion-based therapy," says Scott. "The goal of the research project was to increase patient adherence to the medication and to decrease errors in its administration. That was achieved and now the protocol developed by that student is being used in the study site clinic and can serve as a model for other health care facilities. Additionally, that same process is now a template for developing similar protocols for other medications."

Other recent DNP projects have focused on suicide prevention, chronic liver disease, post-partum hemorrhaging and other issues and conditions. Once students complete their research, they're required to put their findings into practice.


A Balancing Act

Scott, who is a board-certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, earned her BSN, MSN and DNP. So, she fully understands the challenges of balancing the responsibilities of a career, family and community.

"It's not easy," she says. "But if you have the drive, getting your DNP online is very doable. Our faculty are very supportive – but it's also extremely important to have the support of your network, including family members, friends, community members and others."

Bradley, who also holds a DNP, echoed this advice.

"We provide resources to help students manage this balance," she says. "However, it's important for students to know that online learning isn't synonymous with easy. We're credentialed to prepare you for a doctorate-level education and to teach you how to successfully navigate a complex health system. So, it's crucial that incoming students don't underestimate the rigor of our program."

Additionally, the independent nature of online learning can be a different experience for many students.

"It requires them to take a more interactive role in their learning than they might take if they were attending class in person," says Bradley. "So, it might take a little bit of time to adapt to this way of learning – but you can certainly get there."


Why Get a Doctor of Nursing Practice with the University of Arkansas ONLINE?

While continuing education for nursing does require balancing priorities, the rewards are new career options and advancement opportunities that come with completing a high-quality DNP program. Flexibility and quality are equally important in choosing the right program. In the U of A's DNP program, nursing students benefit from the program's connection to a top-ranked university with a long-established tradition of academic excellence.

"Our program is associated with a flagship brick-and-mortar university," says Bradley. "We're not a virtual institution. Our online students can actually come to our physical campus to do things like access on-campus resources or meet with their faculty members."

The DNP faculty is another advantage that draws students to the program.

"We have highly qualified, full-time faculty," says Scott.

These are individuals who have excelled in both their professional and academic work and who are eager to share their experience and knowledge with students.

"We work hard to ensure that our students have all the tools they need to succeed when they graduate," says Scott.

The University of Arkansas ONLINE DNP program also places a significant focus on using the latest technologies to make the learning experience more interactive and, as a result, more effective.

"The technologies we incorporate into our courses increase our ability to fully engage students," says Scott. "We use tools like VoiceThread, Blackboard and others that enable students to be active participants in their learning."

Also, because the University of Arkansas is a brick-and-mortar campus, DNP online students have full access to all resources available to on-campus students – including libraries, labs, support services and others.

Earning a DNP online through University of Arkansas ONLINE is not only a matter of convenience and flexibility, it's also about becoming a member of a community of nursing leaders who want to make a meaningful impact in the lives of others and in their profession.

You can learn more about earning a doctor of nursing practice online degree by visiting the University of Arkansas ONLINE DNP program page.

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