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Tackling the DNP project in 8 Steps

Posted on March 10, 2020   |   by   |   Advanced Practice Structure, Job Seekers, New Grads, Professional Development

Tackling the DNP Project in 8 Steps

Author Alecia Karr, BSN, RN, DNP Candidate
Editor Elizabeth Moran, MSN, RN, CPNP-PC

Since the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) released its Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing in 2004, nursing schools across the country have begun the process of expanding traditionally masters-level advanced-practice programs to the doctorate level [5]. Advanced practice nurses who choose to pursue their Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) will take courses focused on evidence-based practice, clinical leadership, health informatics, quality improvement, and health policy and advocacy, among others. In addition, as a graduation requirement, students are required to complete a final DNP project which synthesizes their didactical coursework into application within clinical practice. In fact, a lot of emphases is placed on the final project as a marker of the ability to be a force for clinical nursing leadership. Students are even encouraged to begin brainstorming a research question that will shape the basis of their project from the very start of the program. Though at first, this may feel daunting, we’ve come up with eight simple steps to help you seamlessly tackle the task while finding joy in the process. Before you know it, you’ll be crossing the stage and adding the initials “DNP” after your name! 

  1. Find Your Passion 

The key to success in any field lies within a genuine passion for what you do—and the same is true for your Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) final project. The DNP project requires a tremendous amount of effort and energy, and so without a topic that you care about and truly want to see succeed, the journey to graduation may be a long one. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2020), the DNP project should begin with a system or population focus. Identifying a topic with an impact on health outcomes provides a strong foundation to influence best practices [1].

Feeling unsure of where to start? Start by brainstorming a list of topics that you think might work for you and then discuss your ideas with your project team. Your team may be formal or informal, but members of your team should be people who have a vested interest in you, your project, and your will to succeed. To help put together this team of support, consider reaching out to an advisor, program director, and/or academic mentor at your university and request to schedule a one-on-one meeting.  Next, consider: is it most beneficial to request a meeting with the organization’s Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), Chief Medical Officer (CMO), department manager, educator, or others, such as possibly a research committee, at the facility where you will execute your project? Large academic teaching hospitals may already have a formal research structure in place that you can work off of, whereas smaller community hospitals or clinics may be less familiar with formal project planning. If so, that’s okaythat is where having a passion for your project is really going to be important! 

Once you have identified your project team, aim to meet regularly with each member to keep you organized and on track towards your goals. New members may even come to mind as you pursue your quest! In these meetings, review your topic list and ask for feedback. What topics do others find most important and what area within that topic do they recommend you hone in on?.  Next, talk with your academic mentor about your goals for the project and how you envision clinical support at your place of work. Your goal is to find a topic that aligns with the goals of your organization, your passion, and the recommendations of your project team. Doing so will provide optimal support from all. 

Once you’ve identified what subject sparks your interest most and has the potential to create positive change in healthcare, the next piece to consider is whether the idea is even feasible as a project. While it is important to dream big, you also need to stay realistic. Perhaps your ultimate goal is to expand your unit or use some new cutting-edge technology to treat patients. Although both of these ideas are important and probably much needed, they will not be feasible projects to accomplish during your program. Instead,  choose a smaller, measurable idea to most likely ensure success.

  1. Perform a Literature Review and Do Your Research

All great DNP projects start with a strong literature review. Knowing what data currently exists on the topic will help guide you in the best direction for the project you will create. Your goal should be to build off of studies and findings already established in order to contribute something new to the field. By looking for gaps in the literature, you can find evidence that your project is needed and necessary. 

The literature review sets the background for your entire project, so it really is a crucial first step! Don’t shy away from utilizing the resources available to you. For example, consider reaching out to your hospital’s or school’s library to help with your literature review. University or hospital libraries typically have someone whose job is to assist researchers in literature reviews. These individuals have the expertise in choosing which words will aid in your search, the most useful databases to explore, and the ins and outs of finding all the best data on your topic.

  1. Create a Proposal for Your DNP Project

The overall purpose of a research proposal is to formally present and substantiate your project to research or ethics committees, and/or to apply for grant funding to fund your research (Attar, 2018)[2]. A proposal should include a title, background, synthesis of evidence, setting and target population, stakeholders, facilitators and barriers to implementation, project design and methods, sample and data collection, resources and budget, and feasibility and sustainability[3]. 

As part of the DNP curriculum, many programs require students to create a research proposal as part of one of the courses. Not only does this help you to synthesize and cohesively present your project idea in a standardized format for board approval through your academic institution, but it also provides a great opportunity to have a professor read through your project and provide feedback. Since the IRB application ultimately will include many of the same sections as your proposal, a strong proposal will also help you get your IRB application approved.

  1. Schedule Meetings and Ask Questions 

Once you have decided what it is you are passionate about, spent time brainstorming an implementation plan and write your proposal, it’s time to reach back out to mentors who can help you put your idea into action! If you haven’t already, identify individuals at your university or place of work whom you admire and respect and would be willing to guide you in the next appropriate steps to bring your idea to fruition. Ideally, you will have one main mentor and two to three other individuals willing to provide additional support.

Try to remain open-minded and easygoing with the inevitable challenges that are sure to occur on the road to success. There may be hurdles to jump through or even individuals who say “no” simply because they do not understand the process of work that you are doing. When challenged, remain patient, calm, and confident as you reiterate your plan and why the field of nursing needs your research. Having already written a strong proposal can help you to navigate these difficult conversations while reinforcing the objectives of your project and what it will contribute to the healthcare field.  

Lastly, don’t shy away from utilizing your resources! If you have people that you know at the leadership level of your hospital, reach out to them for support. It is possible that their influence could help garner support for your project and even get things moving along faster. Though you may be chartering new research territory for your organization, your project may end up being a teaching point for others to learn to perform their own research in the future, too. 

  1. Submit an Institutional Review Board

(IRB) Application 

Perhaps the most intimidating step of the DNP project is the process of approval through the Institutional Review Board (IRB)][4]. The IRB is a group designated to oversee research proposals and the process of approval is required for all research projects. The application is lengthy, including detailed information such as the title, the number of subjects, study population, background, objectives, procedures, consent process, risks and benefits, plans for data storage and collection, as well as other study information. Although DNP curriculums are expected to include research courses that review IRB submission, not all students feel confident in their abilities and all the paperwork can feel confusing. One of the reasons this step tends to bring on feelings of anxiety is simply because few people understand the tedious process unless they have backgrounds in clinical research. Again, the key to navigating this step is to utilize your resources. 

One of your best resources is going to be reaching out and talking with the actual IRB in which you are applying through. This maybe your university or hospital’s IRB.  Smaller, community hospitals or clinics most likely use another organization’s IRB instead of having their own. First, clarify with a mentor or leader at your organization of which IRB you should submit your application through. Next, accessing the organization’s IRB website should point you in the direction of a contact person with whom you can reach out to with questions and navigate how to begin the process. These people are experts in IRB applications and will likely be the most helpful. 

Once you have written up your IRB with all of the necessary application components, it’s time to proofread! If submitting through your university, consider having your advisor, program director, or other identified mentor read through and edit/critique your application before you send it for IRB review. If you are using your hospital or another organization’s IRB, identify a mentorideally someone with research and IRB submission experiencewho is willing to read through your application, provide feedback, and help you work through the tweaks in order to get your project approved. Each IRB is different, so having someone that you can ask questions to and review your application will be important in knowing how to fix any issues that could cause your application to get rejected.

  1. Collect Data 

Once you have received IRB approval, it’s time to start your data collection. Alas, the part where you actually implement your project! Doing so may require help from others to train staff, order necessary supplies, run an IT report on the medical record numbers needed, etc. We can’t say it enoughdon’t forget to utilize your resources! Reach out to your leadership team, educator, IT department, or others who you need to make your project successful. 

The actual implementation of your project and collection of the data will take the most time out of all the steps so be sure to plan your time wisely. Once you’ve collected all of the necessary data, consider meeting with a statistician to help you run your analysis. Your university should have a statistician available to help you run the numbers and assist you in choosing statistical software or setting up your spreadsheets. Part of the DNP curriculum includes a biostatistics course and as such, the professor who teaches this course would likely be a great person to reach out to for guidance. The data you collected will be used to write about your findings, results, limitations, and implications for future research, so this is an important part of your final project. 

  1. Present Data 

The final step of the DNP project is to synthesize your findings into a formal paper or article for presentation to a committee. Now is your time to shine! You’ve spent months, or even years, working towards answering one questionand alas, you get to present your hard work and findings. Whether through a poster or PowerPoint, the idea is to defend your research and show everyone what you have spent your DNP program working on. 

  1. Graduate as a DNP! Next Steps

Congratulations, you made it! This is the moment to reflect on your hard work and feel proud of what you have accomplishedbut don’t stop there! As icing on the cake, you may also want to consider submitting your research to a nursing journal for publication. We strongly suggest that you create foundations to write a research article for publication throughout the process. If you know you will need time to relax after graduation, work it into your timeline to chip away at the submission before graduation. Your research is valuable and the healthcare community can benefit from your findings! As you move into your new practice role as a DNP, you will take this experience and continue to make a difference as both a clinician and researcher. 

As you consider professional development and what you want next from your career, talk to Melnic! And, review Melnic Jobs! We look forward to talking to you, Jill Gilliland, President, Melnic


    1. American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2020). Doctor of nursing practice (DNP) tool kit. Retrieved from https://www.aacnnursing.org/DNP/Tool-Kit
    2. Attard, N. (2018). WASP (write a scientific paper): writing an academic research proposal. Early Human Development, 123, 39-41.
    3. https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/proposal.html
    4. IRB-FAQs Office Commissioner – https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/institutional-review-boards-frequently-asked-questions#IRBOrg

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1 thought on “Tackling the DNP project in 8 Steps”

  1. The difference between a research doctorate (PhD) and a practice doctorate (DNP) is that a PhD student does a research study whereas a DNP student is supposed to do a project that translates evidence to improve outcomes- both equally important but different. This has been a source of confusion for many, including educators.

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