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So you want to get a doctorate. . .


You’ve decided to pursue a doctoral degree in nursing. But which one? Do you want to focus on research and scholarship or on clinical practice? Do you want a traditional classroom setting or a virtual (online) one?

Like other nurses, you might feel that learning has been engrained in you since your first nursing education class. Now you’re seeking to learn even more. Early in your career, you probably thought completing the entry-level registered nursing (RN) program and passing the NCLEX-RN examination were milestones. As you’ve discovered, those were just stepping-stones toward the continual education that the nursing profession demands. Nurses need to deepen and expand their knowledge base continually to keep up with ongoing advances in technology, patient care, and evidence-based research.

Obtaining a doctoral degree can open many doors, and nurses with doctorates have many career opportunities. But choosing the specifics can be challenging. You’ll need to investigate your options and consider your educational needs in terms of the particular doctorate to pursue, your educational goal, learning style, financial capabilities, and work and family responsibilities. Which educational path is right for you? You have some homework to do!

Get started

Grab your highlighter, pencil, and paper-or your electronic tablet if you have one. Write across the top of the page: I am going to pursue an advanced degree. Next, create a worksheet to guide your decision making as you follow the steps below. (See Decision worksheet by clicking the PDF icon above.)

To begin, find out if any of your nursing colleagues currently are pursuing doctorates. If they are, they can be great information sources. Ask them about their doctoral programs. Would they recommend their particular program? How responsive are faculty in their program to educational inquiries? Do faculty members act as true professional mentors?

Define your educational goal

If your educational goal of focus is research and scholarship, investigate educational programs that offer doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees, doctor of education (EdD) degrees, or doctor of nursing science (DNSc) degrees. These degrees represent the highest level of formal education you can attain for a career in research and scholarship. Nurses who have them are in great demand as faculty members, policymakers, and global healthcare leaders. They’re essential to advancing the science of nursing, building collaborative partnerships with other sciences, and improving the health of the communities they serve.

If, on the other hand, your educational goal or focus is clinical practice and evidence-based clinical research, look into programs that offer doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degrees. Nurses with DNPs are clinical experts, advancing the nursing profession by using evidence-based research to enhance patient care. They identify issues at the bedside, provide solutions, and translate these into practice to expand the foundation for clinical nursing practice.

Choose the right educational setting

Classroom settings include the traditional setting, the virtual or online setting, and the hybrid setting (which combines traditional and virtual). To determine which one is best for you, identify your preferred learning style. Do you learn more easily in a face-to-face setting? Then a traditional classroom might be best.

If you prefer a more flexible situation, or if the program you want isn’t available at a nearby educational institution, an online program may be the answer. It allows you to take a class and interact with your virtual student cohorts at the best time for you. As a third option, a hybrid setting can offer the best of both worlds.

Other factors to consider

As you do your homework, also consider these factors:

  • Entrance requirements. Does the program you‚Äôre interested in require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)? What courses are required prerequisites?
  • Credit load requirements. Does the program offer both full- and part-time study options?
  • Time frame. What’s the school’s time frame for completing the course of study? Does it fit your needs?
  • Tuition costs. If you’ll need help paying for your education, what financial aid, if any, is available? Aid can take the form of loans, scholarships, or graduate associate positions.
  • Professional and family responsibilities. What are your responsibilities to your job and family? You’ll need plenty of support as you pursue a doctorate. Do you have a support system that will enable you to go to school while fulfilling your work and family responsibilities?

Next steps

If you’ve chosen a traditional setting and have narrowed down the possibilities, attend an open house at the institutions you’re interested in, if possible, and speak to faculty and students.
If you’re considering an online program, send e-mails to faculty and students currently in the program. In either case, you might want to ask such questions as these: What’s the school’s graduation rate? What are the advantages of enrolling in its doctoral program instead of another one? The answers will help you get a feel for the educational environment in which you could be spending the next 3 to 6+ years.

If you need help with tuition, call the financial aid office at the institutions in consideration.
Merit scholarships and loans are available for future nursing researchers, faculty, and clinical experts. Search the Internet for government scholarship programs (such as Department of Education programs), nurse faculty loan programs, and advanced nursing education loan programs. It will be time well spent.

Getting a doctorate is demanding and time-intensive. If you‚Äôre concerned school will cut into your family obligations, create a calendar, plot your responsibilities on it, and make a family plan. Which responsibilities could your spouse or significant other take over so you can pursue your doctoral degree? While earning my EdD, I missed one child’s junior prom, was the primary caregiver for my aging mom, left one child without a ride home from school, and put my husband in charge of most meals. They all survived and attended my graduation ceremony. Without their support, I’m not sure I could have obtained my doctorate.

Although the search for the right doctoral program may seem daunting at first, each step you take toward your final decision will move you closer to your educational goal. Good luck.
You can do this!

Selected references

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. 2011-2012 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing. Washington, DC: Author; 2012.

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Preferred vision of the professoriate in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs. Endorsed March 31, 2008. www.aacn.nche.edu/Publications/positions/preferredvision.htm. Accessed March 16, 2013.

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The research-focused doctoral program in nursing: pathways to excellence. Endorsed November 1, 2010. www.aacn.nche.edu/Education/pdf/PhDPosition.pdf. Accessed March 16, 2013.

Institute of Medicine. The future of nursing: leading change, advancing health. October 5, 2010. http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing-Leading-Change-Advancing-Health.aspx. Accessed March 10, 2013.

Mary E. Fortier is an assistant professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • That is interesting that nurses with doctorates can have many career opportunities. Maybe it ould be good to get a doctorate in nursing so I could have more career opportunities. Soon I will have to look into this so I can have a better career.


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