Most nurses don’t hold doctoral degrees — in fact, according to Nurse Journal, only about 1% of them do. However, a doctorate in nursing can help propel your career into managerial or executive roles, with more advanced clinical responsibilities. Nursing doctorates are available with emphases on nursing practice (DNP), general nursing (ND), nursing science (DNSc), and philosophy (Ph.D.). Prospective doctorate students should choose a program based on whether they want a more practice- or research-based degree. Online Ph.D. nursing programs offer more flexible study formats, allowing students to work and manage extracurricular responsibilities while completing their degree. Doctoral degrees in nursing typically take between three and five years to complete, and you may also find accelerated joint programs that combine either a master’s degree and Ph.D. or a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. Nurses with doctorate degrees are projected to experience high demand through the rest of the decade, plus an increased earning potential.
Ranking the Top PhD Nursing Programs Online
To rank the Top 25 PhD Nursing Programs Online, Top RN to BSN researched regionally accredited colleges and universities offering a nursing PhD program in fully online, hybrid, or low-residency formats. From that initial pool, our editors ranked the 25 best according to three factors:
- Current Tuition (IPEDS data)
- Current Reputation (Niche score)
- Return on Investment (College Scorecard alumni salary)
Top RN to BSN’s ranking features only institutions that have earned regional accreditation, as well as many that have earned AACN or ACEN accreditation for their nursing programs. These are the colleges and universities that combine convenience, affordability, and quality to meet the needs of working nursing professionals, and many of the programs in the ranking are among the most affordable online colleges, and the very best online doctoral universities.
1. University of Colorado Denver
Colorado’s premiere healthcare complex, the Anschutz Medical Campus, is part of the University of Colorado Denver, and leads not only Colorado, but the west as one of the strongest educational institutions for medicine and nursing. While CU Denver was officially founded in 1912, the University of Colorado had been holding the last two years of its medical program in Denver for many years; a larger population meant a larger pool for medical students to care for. Today, CU Denver is the state’s top graduate school, and has become a national leader in online education with CU Online.
CU Denver’s online PhD in Nursing degree program gives working nurses the opportunity to earn a terminal degree that will set them on the course to a career as nurse scientists. Students can choose from three specializations – Health Care Systems Research, Caring Science, and Biobehavioral Sciences – and all coursework is fully online, with just a 1-2 week summer intensive session each year. With a competency-based framework, students learn the skills and knowledge they need at their own pace, with ample support from a world-class faculty that makes CU Denver one of the best PhD nursing programs online. (Denver is also one of the highest-paying cities for nurses in the US, attracting students to the on-campus program.)
2. University of Kansas
In 1863, the Kansas legislature chartered the University of Kansas (KU) two years after Kansas was adopted as the 34th state. The main campus is located in northeast Kansas in the sizeable college town of Lawrence, Kansas. During the Second World War, KU became one of the select schools that offered a naval training program that led to Naval commissions. KU’s School of Nursing (within the KU Medical Center) offers nationally ranked programs on KU’s Salinas campus, including one of the best PhD nursing programs online.
The School of Nursing provides a unique educational backdrop for nurses who want to practice in small communities or rural areas. The University of Kansas PhD in Nursing degree program prepares graduates as: Leaders/interpreters among the various nursing/medical specialties, Researchers, or Advanced faculty members excelling in the academic realm. While full-time students can complete their studies in three years, most students graduate from the PhD program in five to seven years. KU’s College of Nursing PhD program ensures graduates have been trained through intensive research projects, independent research and traditional coursework.
3. University of Nevada Las Vegas
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) is a 332-acre cutting-edge public research educational center located a few miles from downtown Las Vegas in Paradise, NV (one of the highest-paying states for nurses in the US). The school’s humble beginnings began with a few classes in the auditorium of a local high school auditorium. In 2018, the US News & World Report ranked UNLV as the most diverse undergrad campus in the United States for the second time in two years. UNLV’s School of Nursing offers a Doctor of Philosophy – Nursing program. UNLV School of Nursing PhD graduates are nurse-scholars exceptionally trained through detailed research and dynamic educational experiences.
The School of Nursing recognizes the modern student’s need for convenience and flexibility. This is the reason why they offer UNLV’s online PhD in Nursing programs in a fully web-based format for students all over the US. It is noted that certain states do allow access to UNLV’s web-based nursing programs.The PhD in nursing online program requires each student to select from two educational paths: a DNP to PhD course or, the Educational-Nursing path. PhD nursing graduates are anticipated to excel in the medical realms of private healthcare, government healthcare, or academia.
4. West Virginia University
Located in Morgantown, WV, West Virginia University is a research-intensive learning institution. Established in 1867, the university has grown to become a premier institution that offers a wide range of highly-respected programs. Over the years, the university has lived up to its motto “To faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge.” All the distinctive campuses that make up the university are united by a mission to create a diverse and inclusive culture with the aim of advancing education, healthcare and prosperity. The different majors are centered on research, making this a university that many careers are familiar with.
The WVU online PhD in Nursing degree program is an intensive course of study whose content prepares students for various roles in service, teaching and research. The university makes it possible and easy for both prospective students and current working nurses to take a PhD in nursing online part-time during Fall/Spring/Summer. Three years of coursework will see students completing research and defending their dissertation both orally and in writing. Students gain skills to thoroughly test, generate and disseminate knowledge relating to nursing science. Upon graduation, students can practice, engage in policy creation and assume leadership roles in different healthcare activities and organizations. With reasonable tuition fees, graduates will contribute to the development of knowledge and improvement of healthcare.
5. Medical University of South Carolina
Since it was opened in 1824, the Medical University of South Carolina has sought to build and continue a tradition of excellence in research, education and patient care. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the university runs a 700-bed medical center. US News and World Report has consistently ranked the MUSC College of Nursing among the best online graduate programs. The academic support services, faculty and peer mentoring and flexibility of distance learning have contributed to academic success, excellent retention, and impressive graduation rates. The motto that goes “She (the college) enriches by giving generously” is a testament to the numerous academic and life skills that learners acquire here.
The MUSC online PhD in Nursing Science degree program is an accelerated course that prepares the graduate for careers in research, scholarly publication and leadership. Students who take up the program will cover symptom science/ self-management, health services research, behavioral health, technology-enhanced interventions and/ or community/ patient engagement. Students who successfully complete the PhD program will have better socialization and peer engagement skills and play their nurse scientist role effectively. The online/distance learning PhD nursing programs have lower tuition fees, assuring learners of both affordability and the flexibility that allows them to maintain their current career while preparing for the next.