1. Clark, Sean P. RN, CRNP, PhD, Assistant Professor

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Long ago and far away, I graduated from a special-entry nursing program called a generic master's degree program. My classmates and I had degrees in the life sciences, psychology, anthropology, accounting, and physical education. After our cook's tour of the basic specialties in nursing, we joined a group of nurses, some relatively young in their careers and others with 20 years of experience as managers and instructors. We shared graduate-level courses in research methods, evaluation, advanced practice, management, and education.

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After graduation, nearly all of us worked as staff nurses for a time. And pretty much all of us are still working in nursing, some as case managers, others as advanced practice nurses and managers, and yes, some as professors, too. Our career paths and those of our "traditional" fellow master's alums have proven pretty comparable-we've all gone forth to be productive citizens in nursing.


And yet, a few years after graduation, in a city not far from my alma mater, one of my colleagues spoke in a meeting about a "funny" master's program that took in people who had never been clinicians. "What a meaningless credential," she said. It didn't occur to her that such programs might attract diverse talent into nursing for leadership roles down the line. Neither did it occur to her that potential employers might be trusted to find appropriate paths for graduates of this program that could respect the traditions of the profession while helping create new futures for nursing. Programs different from the ones she was running were, in her opinion, just plain bad. Sound familiar?


We're a diverse profession, and for better or worse, history has led us to the current state of confusion in models of nursing education. Now that we're facing so many challenges in the nursing work-force, and in healthcare organizations in general, it's difficult to defend the stance that current models of master's and doctoral training in nursing are the only ones we need. Sometimes long-held assumptions about who's best suited to undertake various types of education and how this education should be conducted have turned out to be dead wrong. Of course, on occasion new educational models have turned out not to work-all the more reason for healthy skepticism.


There's been a fair amount of discussion about the practice doctorate and clinical nurse leader master's programs, but another innovation that raises just as much passion is the early career research doctorate (allowing selected students to move straight or nearly straight from a BSN into a PhD or similar program). Scratch beneath the surface and some of the complaints and fears about these movements are rooted in chauvinism ("my educational pathway through the profession-or the one I teach students-is the best/only one"), anger about the past (failures of previous roles and programs), or fear of being left out in the cold (even though few are convinced that these newer models should be the only ones-yet). Overall, complaints are about real-and understandable-fear of change and of the future. But we must move past mudslinging and toward dialogue.


Students, educators, and practice leaders breaking new paths need support, not ridicule, and we owe them some confidence that they'll make sure the "worst-case scenarios"-unprepared graduates crashing into poorly developed roles and losses of hard-won progress in nursing research among them-don't come true. We owe each other in the profession confidence that rigorous evaluations and debate will eventually lead us to an optimal mix of programs and leaders. Until we reach that point, which may be many decades from now, the investments of time and rigor that nurses make in their education and their performance in the field should be assessed individually. Across-the-board judgments about specific models of master's or doctoral education probably can and should wait.


Only by trying new approaches in education and evaluating them rigorously can we chart the future of our profession. A little more esteem and a lot less defensiveness, or perhaps a little less heat and a lot more light, will help get us there.