1. McMahon, Janet Tompkins MSN, RN

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The PhD-prepared nurse is a necessity to serve as the principal scientist within a healthcare system and the community at large. As healthcare becomes increasingly complex, our profession will depend on these scientific professionals to guide the improvement of nursing practice. Medicine, including nursing, is dependent on the discovery of facts and data as a result of research to support improved patient outcomes and safety. That's why the Institute of Medicine's Future of Nursing report identified the need to double the number of doctorally-prepared nurses by 2020.


PhD vs. DNP

The difference between these two doctoral degree options is quite simple. The doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is the degree of choice if you're interested in the application of nursing clinical practice. If you're motivated to prepare and conduct independent primary research, to include the dissemination of the findings, then the doctor of philosophy (PhD) is the degree for you. The PhD-prepared nurse conducts research at the uppermost level to improve the science of nursing, whereas the DNP-prepared nurse assesses the evidence achieved through research to determine its impact on nursing practice.


The reasons to return to school for a PhD degree may be to achieve a personal goal or you may be driven by the passion to conduct research to provide valuable data for practice improvements. The information discovered can be used not only in nursing, but also by a multitude of other associated professions to effect change. The power of research and knowledge can't be overstated; our profession has developed into a state-of-the-art science.


The journey

Students can choose online or traditional PhD degree programs. Some programs offer a staircase approach, such as BSN-to-PhD and MSN-to-PhD. NP-to-PhD is also gaining in popularity because many NPs wish to teach in academia or perform research in clinical practice or education. There are advantages to the staircase option, such as career mobility as you increase your degrees and credentials along the way.


Requirements for admission to a PhD degree program vary depending on the institution selected. Programs typically require a high grade point average of at least 3.0, proof of graduate-level statistics, and Graduate Record Examination scores that reach the program's benchmark. A personal interview may be required by the school to determine if you're a good fit for the program, and two to three professional reference letters and official transcripts are expected.


The credit load for the PhD degree varies. Some institutions require 60 to 100 credits for terminal completion, which can take approximately 4 to 7 years.


Of course, we can't discuss the PhD degree journey without including the culmination of your work-the dissertation. At the apex of your studies, you will "defend" your research project to the dissertation committee. The dissertation defense is your opportunity to professionally-and with authority-discuss your thesis, research project construction and conduction, and your findings. The committee confronts the candidate and challenges the information being presented. If you're successful, the title of doctor will be used for the first time at the conclusion of your defense.


As you can imagine, your entire effort is hinged on the successful completion of the dissertation, which can obviously be extremely stressful. But with success, it can also be considered the most rewarding point of the educational process.

Figure. As an educat... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. As an educator, you'll teach the future nursing workforce. As a researcher, you'll tackle some of the most challenging problems in today's healthcare environment.

The cost of the PhD degree also varies by institution. The expense range is approximately $35,000 to $100,000 plus. Federal student loans, scholarships, and grants are available, as are financial opportunities through many national, regional, and nursing organizations. Scholarships within various programs are also available for students who meet the eligibility requirements. You may be eligible for an internship or research assistant position, for which the academic institution may pay you a stipend and cover your tuition cost.


Lastly, as I've noted in previous columns, make sure the programs you're considering have current and valid national accreditation.


Career opportunities

One of the many organizations that empower PhD-prepared nurses to utilize research to advance the profession is the National Institute of Nursing Research. Its goals are promoting and improving the health of individuals, families, and communities by supporting and conducting research to build the scientific foundation for clinical practice, prevent disease and disability, manage and eliminate symptoms caused by illness, and improve palliative and end-of-life care.


The role of the PhD-prepared nurse is also well known within academia. The desire to educate students who wish to improve their own respective knowledge-base can be a potent motivator to pursue the PhD degree. The quest for scholarship is expected as a PhD scholar in academia. Although a PhD degree may not be a requirement to teach nursing in entry-level programs, it's certainly a requirement if you want to teach at the graduate level.


Often, academic institutions make achieving the PhD degree a requirement for continued employment or tenure-track positions, which offer higher pay scales, less workloads (in order to conduct research), enhanced employment benefits, and longevity of employment. However, the American Association of University Professors reported that 68% of faculty positions are nontenured.


There's some debate that the pursuit of the PhD degree is a "dead-end" endeavor, with the statement "you're over qualified for this position" being heard at job interviews. However, the long-term advantages of being PhD-prepared include a potentially higher income over your entire career compared with other degrees. The PhD degree is considered to have an increased value of $1.3 million more than the bachelor's degree.


Also, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with a PhD degree are more likely to be employed than those with other degrees. The Bureau reported that the unemployment rate for PhDs was 2.5%, compared with 3.6% for individuals holding a master's degree and 4.9% for those with bachelor's degrees. Moreover, for those just entering the search for a PhD program, the Bureau also reported that there will be an increased need for college instructors (17%) and college administrators (19%).


Noteworthy paybacks

The path to the PhD degree involves a significant amount of work and substantial aptitude in critical-thinking skills and scholarship, as well as an extensive amount of time, money, and research to successfully complete the journey. However, this hard work and sacrifice isn't without its rewards. The benefits of choosing the PhD degree include attaining the highest education level, mentoring others, and paving the way for nursing scholarship. As an educator, you'll teach the future nursing workforce. As a researcher, you'll tackle some of the most challenging problems in today's healthcare environment.


As you consider the PhD degree journey, ensure that you have an understanding of what your motivation is for continued education. Is it your goal to become one of our profession's future scholars? Welcome aboard!




American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The essentials of doctoral education for advanced nursing practice.


Congressional Research Service. The increase in unemployment since 2007: is it cyclical or structural?


Institute of Medicine. The future of nursing: leading change, advancing health.


O'Shaughnessy L. 12 reasons not to get a PhD.


Patton S. The Ph.D. now comes with food stamps.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Recent college graduates in the U.S. labor force: data from the Current Population Survey.


U.S News & World Report. Explore the pros and cons of earning a PhD or doctoral degree.