PhD in nursing?
July 9, 2012 2:53 PM   Subscribe

What do you do with a PhD in nursing? Is getting one a good idea?

I am considering entering a nursing PhD program, and I'm trying to weigh the pros and cons. I'm interested in researching and developing solutions for complex health problems, particularly those affecting poor and otherwise underserved populations. I have an opportunity to pursue a PhD at a well-regarded nursing school, doing pretty much that.

However, I have a lot of hesitance about doing a PhD. The idea of a purely academic career doesn't do much for me. I'm interested in nursing in large part because it has a major element of practical, compassionate, patient interaction. I don't want to end up too isolated from that. And I'm not totally sure what I could do, other than try to become a nursing prof, with a nursing PhD.

I guess in my ideal future, I'm working with government or nongovernmental organizations to create and implement nursing programs designed to reach the poor, addicts and alcoholics, minorities and immigrants, etc. Is that something nursing PhDs do? What exactly do nursing PhDs do? What kind of jobs are out there, and what is the likelihood of me getting any of them? Keep in mind that I'm talking about a research-based PhD, not a clinical-based Doctor of Nursing Practice.

I've heard an awful lot lately about the impracticality of PhDs and the cadres of unemployed and overeducated, especially in the sciences. I don't want to end up there. Is it absurd to think about going in this direction when I could just be an RN and work in a hospital somewhere and make decent money? Or maybe that would be selling myself short?
posted by bookish to Education (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My stepmother has a PhD in nursing. (I think? Could be MA.) She's the dean of a community college nursing department. She seems to really enjoy her work, though, yes, it is in academia, and no, she doesn't practice nursing in the sense of seeing patients. Nor is she directly involved in research.

From what I can tell she had no problem getting the job she has now, though I don't know that much about the field.

From what you say your interest is, it sounds like it might be a better idea to get an advanced degree in public health, or maybe to become a nurse practitioner.
posted by Sara C. at 3:00 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guess in my ideal future, I'm working with government or nongovernmental organizations to create and implement nursing programs designed to reach the poor, addicts and alcoholics, minorities and immigrants, etc.

This long-term goal sounds like it would be more likely accomplished with a MSN/MPH combination program or specializing in Public Health Nursing. Either assisting to create programs that serve those populations and/or actually working with those populations directly in underserved communities.

Sounds like based on your previous questions that you have perhaps just started on your AA or BSN, there will be plenty of time to learn about types of careers Doctoral nursing programs provide for you down the line. My recommendation is to see a bit of everything while you're in the middle of your didactic/clinical training and then see what sparks your interest.
posted by Asherah at 3:01 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you can not clearly see a direct return on the investment, then the degree is not worth it.
Full stop.

The era when universities were steadfastly producing an educated work-force has past - today, universities are signing up people without any concern for their future employment, and heaping massive debt upon them. Do not trust what the university is saying about the program.

You need to view the degree as an economic investment.
posted by Flood at 3:08 PM on July 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would only do it if you're extremely passionate about research - PhDs are intense enough for those who are passionate about doing them - hell for people who aren't.
posted by heyjude at 3:15 PM on July 9, 2012

What can you do with a PhD in nursing--develop/manage/execute public policy, teach, clinical practice (if you have a clinical background), research, nursing administration, executive role in hospital or other healthcare organization, private practice if also independently licensed. If you are interested in some direct clinical practice just make sure you have sufficient clinical education/course work/experience as part of the PhD program. Your school will work with you on this and it should not be a problem. It is possible you might be occasionally underemployed but I am hard pressed to imagine there will not be ample financial rewards if you have some clinical grounding and professional flexibility. Good Luck There are excellent career opportunities--this is not a PhD in history, education, political science etc. It is a terminal degree in a constantly changing professional environment.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:19 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

What rmhsinc said x10. The PhD in nursing is precisely what you need to do what you want to do, particularly if it's a PhD from a well-regarded program. Colleges of Nursing receive major, major funding to recruit and hire PhDs in nursing, as do government and public sector programs. I am adjunct faculty at a huge College of Nursing (and in clinical private practice), and our dean worked at the national level developing pediatric healthcare policy for the underserved, in addition to working as a consultant to President Obama and his cabinet in matters of national healthcare policy. If your research opportunity is in the field that you want to work, you will work in that field, and you will do so at significant levels of influence. What's more, in our professional industry, because so few receive graduate education, the demand and salaries are high.

If you want to consult with colleges of nursing to implement programing in your research area, you would be required to have a PhD in nursing, as well as experience in this area, which is what your opportunity sounds like it can do for you. What's more, consultants in program development like you describe are in ridiculous high demand--at my R1 college of nursing, we regularly bring in consultants like this for impressive compensation packages with really amazing results (for the college and community).

My graduate work and research is in clinical practice and I have had pure research offers, clinical consulting offers, program development offers, teaching offers, and pure clinical offers from academic, public, and private sectors, and this started happening for me a full term before my graduation. I meet a lot of exciting peers, get a lot of opportunities, and there is work in many professional sectors.

The model of nursing is all about the development of the delivery of healthcare--by definition, that is what nursing is. So research prepared, doctorate-level prepared professionals in the industry of healthcare delivery really do have a dizzying array of work entree. It's really a unique kind of preparation--you understand healthcare from a scientific, research, delivery, clinical, and policy perspective and there hasn't been a time in our lives where this hasn't been important, now more than ever. Your question might have been "what can't I do as a PhD prepared nurse?" and the answer would be much shorter.
posted by rumposinc at 3:54 PM on July 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

You might check with an advisor: my understanding is that in the near future fairly large swaths of the nursing profession will be required to have PhDs. You might be able to be grandfathered in, but it could make you less competitive if PhDs are the norm.

I know about this via family, so the information could be inaccurate or out of date.
posted by gerryblog at 4:04 PM on July 9, 2012

my understanding is that in the near future fairly large swaths of the nursing profession will be required to have PhDs

Nope, that article is about the DNP, which bookish explicitly said she wasn't asking about.
posted by grouse at 4:08 PM on July 9, 2012

But won't she still be less competitive for work if much/most of future nursing cohorts have a DNP?
posted by gerryblog at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2012

I know that you said that you aren't particularly interested in teaching, but I just wanted to point out that unlike many other fields, nursing professors are still in very high demand. As a biology professor, I'm a little jealous.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:26 PM on July 9, 2012

Response by poster: I want to particularly thank the Mefites with experience in the nursing field for weighing in here. Another aspect of my question is that I would be going into the PhD directly from my BSN, without a pause to accumulate some clinical experience. Perhaps someone can speak to whether that's likely to be a problem for me.

As far as Flood's point, I am well aware than PhD =/= job, and that there are reasons to be very wary about PhD programs. However, I know there are considerable differences from one discipline to another, and I'm trying to get a feel for how things are in nursing. I'm also not going to be going into major debt if I go forward with the PhD at this point. The offer I have comes with funding.

And Asherah, I really would like to take the time to figure things out while I learn more about the field. However, I've been offered a special fellowship that puts a time limit on my decision.
posted by bookish at 4:46 PM on July 9, 2012

I work at a university with a small nursing program. The nursing faculty here say that there is an extreme shortage of nursing faculty at programs around the country. All of the faculty here have several years of handson nursing experience.
posted by mareli at 4:51 PM on July 9, 2012

The question you're asking about going directly from BSN to PhD is a relevant one. There is something of a distrust or devaluing of nurses who never do bedside practice in the field. There is a belief that you don't really understand nursing unless you've worked at the bedside.

This may be less true in academia or government work. I encourage you to talk this over with people in the PhD program and instructors in your BSN program to assess how much of a problem that will be in the future.

It sounds like you've got a great opportunity here; it is worth a little quick footwork to make sure you're making the best of it.
posted by jeoc at 5:11 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like there are many PhD nursing jobs, but they are still in academia. If you are pretty sure academia is not for you, a public health MS program, for instance in health policy, would be ideal.
posted by Ausamor at 5:29 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a SLP, and while not nursing by any stretch, our field faces similar challenges to the ones you've described here.

There is a huge need for PhDs in speech-language pathology, much like nursing. The opportunities for PhD degree holders in clinical fields are greater than for those in purely academic field by the nature of the clinical emphasis. You are not only trained to treat, but to research as well. That is a potent combination in the current world of "accountability" and "evidence-based practice" (presuming those buzzwords are as prevalent in your field as they are in mine :) There is also a shift in funding towards providing outcomes to funded research. As a clinician and a PhD you'll be in a unique position to fill that gap. You can always work clinically; perhaps you can work while getting your PhD? (Do you have to complete some sort of clinical residency/training/fellowship before you're fully licensed?)

All that to say that it sounds like you have a firm grasp of what you want, but you're afraid that not having the clinical chops will look poorly on your c.v. If you wanted to work in a hospital full time doing nursing, perhaps that would be true, but it sounds like you have different goals.

The clinical doctorate has also been discussed in my field, and it's a reason why I went back now to get the PhD, because chances are SLPs would not be grandfathered in, or even if they are insurance regulations would require SLP-Ds to provide care. I took a hard look at what I wanted and I don't want to do clinical work exclusively. The PhD gives me the flexibility of treatment and research _and_ a terminal degree, so I won't have to go back for a clinical doctorate.

Get the PhD and see if you can work part time somehow to get some clinical experience. Good luck! :)
posted by absquatulate at 6:25 PM on July 9, 2012

In most cases, a PhD is an academic apprenticeship, so I think your comment about not wanting to be an academic is very telling, because you are considering getting a degree where the majority of graduates have academic roles. I'm not a Nursing PhD (actually Computer Science), but nothing I've read in this thread suggests that this isn't the case with nursing.

I'd suggest that if you want to be a nurse actually working with patients, then you should get the degree you need to do THAT job. If a Doctorate of Nursing is going to be required for that job eventually, then get that eventually, but don't do a PhD as a substitute because it's really a totally different degree entirely.
posted by ranglin at 9:09 PM on July 9, 2012

I really would like to take the time to figure things out while I learn more about the field. However, I've been offered a special fellowship that puts a time limit on my decision.

As an alumna of an institution with strong graduate programs, I recognize there can be significant pressure applied to undergraduates of their programs to continue straight to a Nursing PhD, with financial incentives doled out definitely. However, two things come to mind here: I don't feel that anyone should pursue an extended graduate program without knowing what they will even be eligible to pursue once they've completed said program, and two, if you're an awesome candidate now and they want to fund you, they'll want to fund you down the line when you've shored up your decision about pursuing this. Even if it's a fully funded graduate program, there is a huge time commitment involved here.

There should be advisors at your school that you can speak to, specifically those involved in evidenced-based practice research efforts at the Doctoral level. You need to pursue this decision with your eyes open and questions answered by those who are the other end of this terminal degree.
posted by Asherah at 3:14 AM on July 10, 2012

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