The Nurse Ph.D.: The Leaders in A Vital Profession

Nursing PhD

Carole A. Anderson, Ph.D., RN, FAAN Vice Provost for Academic Administration The Ohio State University

Nurses are in high demand with all levels of education and experience, but there is no doubt that the nursing profession needs more nurses educated at the doctoral level—primarily as faculty and researchers. The national shortage of faculty will soon be critical, impacting educational programs and their ability to educate future generations of nurses.

Currently, only about half of nursing faculty possess a doctorate degree. With many advances being made in the treatment of chronic illnesses, there is also a continuing need for research that assists patients in living with their illness. This research requires individual investigators who are prepared on the doctoral level.

One reason there is a lack of nurses prepared at the doctoral level often because nurses have more interruptions in their careers. Many in the profession are women who work as nurses while fulfilling other responsibilities. As a result, many pursue their education on a part-time basis. Also, the nursing profession traditionally has viewed clinical experience as being a prerequisite to graduate education. This career path results in fewer individuals completing the doctorate early stage in their career, thereby decreasing their chances of becoming academics, researchers, and administrators. Happily, to help reverse this trend, many nursing schools have developed programs that admit students into graduate programs directly from undergraduate or master’s programs.

Nursing Research

Nurses carry out clinical research in a variety of areas, such as diabetes care, cancer care, and eating disorders. In the last twenty years advances in medicine have involved, for the most part, advancing treatment, not cures. However, sometimes the treatment itself causes problems for patients, such as the unwelcome side effects of chemotherapy. Nurses have opportunities to devise solutions to problems like these through research, such as studies about managing illness and treatment.

The Curricula

Doctoral programs in nursing prepare students for careers in health administration, education, clinical research, and advanced clinical practice. Doctoral degrees create experts within the profession poised to assume leadership roles in a variety of academic and clinical settings, course work, and research. Program emphasis may vary from a focus on health education to a concentration on policy research. The majority of doctoral programs confer the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree.

Doctoral nursing programs traditionally offer courses on the history and philosophy of nursing and the development and testing of nursing and other health-care techniques, as well as the social, economic, political, and ethical issues important to the field. Data management and research methodology are also areas of instruction. Students are expected to work individually on research projects and complete a dissertation.

Doctoral programs allow study on both a full- or part-time basis.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements for doctoral programs vary. Generally, a master’s degree is necessary, but in some schools a master’s degree is completed in conjunction with the doctoral degree. Standard requirements include an RN license, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores, college transcripts, letters of recommendation, and an essay. Students applying for doctoral-level study should have a solid foundation in nursing and an interest in research. Programs are usually the equivalent of three to five years of full-time study.

Selecting a Doctoral Program

Selecting a doctoral program comes down to personal choice. Students work closely with professors, and, thus, the support and mentoring you receive while pursuing your degree is as vital as the quality of the facilities. The most important question is whether there is a ‘match’ between your research interest and faculty research. Many of the same questions you would ask about baccalaureate and master’s degree programs apply to doctoral programs. However, in a doctoral program, the contact with professors, the use of research equipment and facilities, and the program’s flexibility in allowing you to choose your course of study are critical.

Other important questions to consider include:

  • Does the university consider research a priority?
  • Does the university have adequate funding for student research?
  • Are there opportunities to present research findings at professional meetings?
  • Is scholarship of faculty, alumni, and students presented at regional and national nursing meetings and subsequently published?
  • Has the body of research done at a university enhanced the knowledge of nursing and health care?

Career Options with a Nursing Doctorate

Many nurses with doctoral degrees make the natural transition into an academic career, but there are many other career options available. For example, nurses with a doctorate are often hired by large consulting firms to work with others in designing solutions to health-care delivery problems. Large hospital chains hire nurse P.hD.s to manage various divisions, and to manage complex health-care systems at the executive level. On another front, they conduct research and formulate national and international health-care policy. There are a number of options.

Salaries for the Nurse Ph.D.

Faculty salaries vary by institution and rank, typically ranging from $50,000 at the assistant professor level to over $100,000 at the professor level. Salaries of nurse executives also vary, with the lowest salaries being in small rural hospitals and the highest being in complex university medical centers, but average salaries are well over $100,000 and often reach close to $200,000. Consultant salaries are wide-ranging but often consist of a base plus some percentage of work contracted. Clinical and research positions vary considerably by the type of institution and the nature of the work. Needless to say, a doctoral education does provide individuals with a wide range of opportunities, with salaries commensurate with the type and level of responsibilities.