1. Baker, Kathy A. PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, CGRN, Editor

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As an academician, I spend many of my days in an "institution of higher learning," i.e. a university. I am enthralled by the opportunity to spend many of my days reading scientific and theoretical literature, transferring that knowledge in creative ways to my students, participating in scholarly research, and contributing what I have learned through authorship and presentations. The amazing thing is, I didn't really ever consider this career path until it unfolded before me. In fact, I didn't really understand the options open to me educationally. Gratefully, my life unfolded in ways I could have never dreamed of-despite my ignorance, not because of a well-groomed plan.


Perhaps some of you are like me. I didn't really dream of being a nurse, though in my later high school years I picked nursing over teaching because of the glamour of health care. I had no idea what I was in for!! When I began to prepare for high school graduation, I learned I could get a nursing degree from either a junior college or a university. I was fortunate enough to have the means to choose which educational option to pursue, and decided a 4-year degree was probably the smartest option for me. I didn't really understand as an 18-year-old that I could earn a nursing salary sooner with an associate degree in nursing (ADN), but I somehow believed a university degree would pay off in the long run. In fact, it was the right degree for me and I am grateful I made that choice those many years ago, despite my naivety.


Today, many of you are struggling with the decision of whether to pursue additional education or not. And not only are you trying to decide whether or not to pursue more education, but also what options are the best for you. Some educational decisions are made due to convenience. For instance, I have several friends who state they chose their entry-level degree simply because it was the only choice they had: the closest school was a university or they only had funding for an associate degree. Today's choices are much more flexible, with the Internet making location a less important variable for choosing a certain educational option. In turn, extending your education is really only limited by your determination to be disciplined enough to meet your goal. Tuition assistance exists in many organizations to help defer your educational costs and online course options allow students to take courses from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. So what's to think about, right? Okay, maybe there is more than just cost and location to consider; yet those two hurdles are in fact easily managed in today's world.


I think the biggest decision for a nurse today who wants to pursue additional education is which degree. The choices are amazing: associate's degree to bachelor's or master's in nursing (MSN) degree, bachelor's degree to master's or doctorate. There is also a popular new track which allows someone with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing area to fast track to a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree. Even choices about which master's or doctoral degree to pursue can be confusing. You could pursue a master's degree to become an advanced practice nurse (clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner, or nurse midwife), nurse administrator, staff development or academic educator, and even a new role called the clinical nurse leader. If considering a doctorate, you can choose the traditional doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree, which prepares you to be a scientist in your area of study, or the newer doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree, which is focused on developing nurse leaders in advanced practice, nursing administration, and education.


There are of course pros and cons to all of these options. For instance, if you choose an advanced practice masters, you will be licensed as an advanced practice nurse in your state and must meet the ongoing requirement for maintaining this status. In many states, advanced practice nurses also can have prescriptive authority with all the responsibilities that accompany this privilege. Some advanced practice nurses work in private practice settings while others are employees of an institution, such as a hospital or freestanding center. Some work under the direction of a physician, while others maintain an independent practice. You'll want to see what the parameters for practice are in your state if considering this option.


Staff development or academic educators would not be eligible to work in an advanced practice role because of the licensure requirement, yet advanced practice nurses can work in either educator role. So if you are someone who is not passionate about one particular role or requires frequent changes in your career to stay happy, you might take this into consideration when deciding upon a master's degree. And a very important thing to consider if you think you would like to teach in academia one day. You must have a bachelor's and master's in nursing, not a related field, to meet the faculty requirements mandated by the academic accreditation bodies. If you are teaching in an underserved area, the state board of nursing might make an exception, but better not to take that risk. So pick your degree plan carefully.


Similar options play out when thinking about a doctorate. The PhD degree prepares the student to be a researcher, designing and conducting original research in their field of specialization. The DNP, on the other hand, prepares the student to translate research into the clinical setting, not to develop original research studies.


While all these options abound, your most important first step is making the decision to pursue your next degree. Yes, it will take time from your life, cause you some stress, cost you money. I remember the nights of turning off the television, searching library databases, pouring over the literature, turning down an invitation with friends; however, I can honestly say I would do it all over again to gain all that I've gained from my educational pursuits. I didn't really understand that when I started down the path. But I started, and that is what counts. I set goals for myself that I eventually reached. When I graduated with my BSN, I never had any intention of going back for school. I just vaguely understood what graduate school was. Yet a colleague encouraged me and the university offering the master's degree was right across the street from my hospital, so I gave it a try. I found out, I absolutely loved the courses in my degree plan and my love of nursing tripled, because now I saw nursing in a brand new way. Years later, colleagues in academia pushed me relentlessly to pursue a PhD. I never envisioned myself pursuing these degrees, yet my life has been so enriched by the knowledge I gained and the doors that have opened for me along the way.


If all you need is a word of encouragement to work toward your next degree, then let me be the one to say: now is the time. Research your degree options. Talk to others. Make the phone call or send the e-mail to get the information you need to move forward. You deserve it. Your patients deserve it. You can do this. You should do this. Now is the time.


"Education costs money, but then so does ignorance." - -Sir Claus Moser