The DNP as a Path to Nursing Leadership


Jo Ann Otts dnp student experience

The most common terminal degree pathways for nursing are the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy of Nursing), and the DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice). Generally the PhD is a research-focused degree, while the DNP is practice-focused. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “DNP-prepared nurses are well-equipped to fully implement the science developed by nurse researchers prepared in PhD, DNS, and other research-focused nursing doctorates”.

To glean insight into the DNP student experience, we interviewed Jo Ann Otts, a DNP student at Loyola University New Orleans, who also serves on the Leadership Council of the Graduate Nursing Student Association (GNSA). Here’s what she had to say about her time in a DNP program.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I entered the profession of nursing with an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) from Louisiana Tech University. My path of academic progression led to a Bachelor of Arts (BA) – Health Care Administration from Graceland University. Then I completed a BA to master’s bridge program that led to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – Health Care Systems Management degree from Loyola University New Orleans. Currently, I am completing a DNP – Executive Leader program at Loyola University New Orleans.

What advice would you give to aspiring nurses?

It is important to understand your motivation for becoming a nurse and whether the profession of nursing is your first choice. I find informational interviews to be very effective for those considering nursing as a career and recommend interviewing nurses and nursing leaders in various areas of practice to gain a broader understanding of the nursing profession.

What did you wish you would have known before attending nursing school?

There are various levels of entry into nursing, and it would have been helpful to better understand the differences in curriculum and educational preparation for each type of nursing program: the Nursing Diploma, Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). As a prospective nursing student, there was some confusion surrounding the different nursing programs, as graduates of each program were eligible to sit for the same national licensure exam for registered nurses (NCLEX). Understanding the levels of entry into nursing would have been valuable as I considered options for academic progression that were aligned with my professional goals.

Do you have any tips for applying to nursing school?

An important consideration in applying to a nursing school is that the program is accredited. Accreditation provides the best assurance that the nursing program you select will prepare you for the challenges of nursing practice, and eligibility to sit for the NCLEX. Consider visiting the websites of multiple nursing programs to determine the accrediting body, and to review the progression of courses and credentials of the faculty.

The mission or identity statement of the school of nursing is another important consideration, as it serves as a guide for faculty, and influences the student experience. The mission statement of the university may be broad, where the mission statement of the school of nursing may be more narrowly focused. Identify your goals and expectations before applying to a nursing program, and compare your values to the identity statement of the university and school of nursing.

What is the most challenging part of nursing school?

The greatest challenge of nursing school is the time required for study and practicum experiences. Nursing school is an immersion experience, and success requires a considerable investment of time and effort. As nursing students, we learn through cognitive interaction with the course material, and active engagement in the practicum experience. There is a progression of coursework in which each course and experience builds a foundation for the next course and experience.

What is the most enjoyable part of nursing school?

The most enjoyable aspect of nursing school is the acquisition of new knowledge and competencies, as the coursework builds from prior knowledge and experiences. As nursing students, we have an opportunity for learning with the safety net of nursing faculty to guide and facilitate the process. Learning is exciting, and the possibilities for nurses are extensive.

What is a typical week like at nursing school for you?

In a typical week, 3 to 5 hours are dedicated to coursework and studies each weekday, and 10 to 18 hours each weekend. A single practicum course typically includes 180 practicum hours in a semester which requires the support of an employer to allow a flexible work schedule or reduced hours. Semester breaks and holidays are dedicated to reviewing literature, exploring bibliographic reference software features, and improving statistical software competencies.

Why did you decide to pursue a DNP degree?

I understood the intrinsic value of a terminal degree in nursing, and the DNP – Executive Leader program was aligned with my academic progression in nursing leadership. The knowledge gained in the MSN program prepared me for DNP studies, and mastery of the coursework provided competencies and instilled confidence.

The encouragement of nursing faculty who provided the right words at the right time to support my decision to pursue a DNP. In the MSN program, I was encouraged to pursue a DNP by my faculty advisor and mentor. In interviewing with the Director of the DNP program, she recognized my potential and later became my mentor and Scholarly Project Co-Chair.

What skills or characteristics do you think are important for a nursing student to be successful?

A nursing student is on the path to becoming a nursing graduate, and registered nurses are expected to be emotionally intelligent. Emotionally intelligent individuals demonstrate self-awareness, empathy, and have the ability to manage emotions. Intellectual curiosity is important for nursing students since inquiry supports the acquisition of new information that is translated into knowledge. Adaptability and resilience are important, especially for graduate nursing students.

Do you have any strategies for stress relief?

It is important to recognize conditions that create and alleviate stress.  I find that stress is a result of feeling overwhelmed, usually due to time constraints.  Organizational skills are very helpful in preventing stress, and electronic tools and software applications allow for management of multiple priorities, schedules, and projects from different locations.

I find a 30-minute nature walk is calming and improves concentration. A support network of family, friends, and student colleagues provides balance and serves as an antidote for stress. Sufficient sleep is essential in preventing and alleviating stress, yet we often sacrifice sleep to meet deadlines and commitments, becoming less productive in the process.

What do you plan to do with your degree when you graduate?

There are many exciting opportunities for DNP-prepared nurses. I hope to teach nursing students in an academic setting, become involved with health policy decisions at the state and national level, and volunteer with professional organizations and work groups to advance the profession of nursing.

Please feel free to share any other thoughts.

A final word of encouragement to prospective nursing students would be to involve yourself with nursing and student nurse organizations at your school of nursing, as well as at the local, state, and national level. You will find that many professional organizations offer discounted membership rates to nursing students, and it is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the issues that are facing the profession of nursing and our health care system.

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