Finding the Right Nursing PhD Program

There are a multitude of educational paths that an aspiring nurse can take to find steady and gainful employment in the field and because of that, graduate degree programs in nursing as less common than one might expect. In fact, the nursing PhD programs are so uncommon that many nurses don’t even realize that doctoral degrees in the field actually exist. But they do and they are also the end of the road for a nursing education. These programs prepare nurse scientists for successful careers, especially careers in research-heavy environments. These programs are often highly specialized and because of that, the focus of Nursing PhD programs varies wildly from school to school. Finding the right Nursing PhD program is often a matter of personal preference, as some programs will focus specifically on the science and research aspects of nursing, while other programs offer more collaboration with programs in other fields. Nurse scientists who earn a PhD go on to hold leadership and research positions in all sorts of fields, including academic, healthcare, and government. In some cases, they are considered thought leaders in the field who look at nursing at a macro-level and work to solve or tweak some of the broader issues in the industry.

Education Prerequisites

Obtaining a doctoral degree in nursing is no less rigorous than obtaining a doctoral degree in another field. So, for the most part, nursing PhD programs have a long list of academic and extracurricular prerequisites that applicants must complete before they will be considered seriously for admission. The most obvious prerequisite is that all nursing PhD programs require that their applicants have a Master’s degree in nursing or an equivalent degree. The “equivalent degree” phrasing is intentionally vague, because most programs will consider students with non-nursing degrees on an individual basis. The safest way to ensure your application is considered is to have obtained a Master’s degree in nursing.

Also, remember, graduates from a nursing PhD program are expected to contribute meaningful research to the field and so almost all nursing PhD programs require an essay response to a question of the school’s choosing. Generally speaking, the schools want to know how you intend to focus your research and so the question usually asks applicants to discuss their research focus and its potential impact on the field of nursing. These programs also expect you to already have plenty of professional and academic experience and so a lot of these programs ask for letters of recommendation from academic sources, former employers, and other professional sources. Obviously, the programs also expect that you have taken the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) within the last five years. Competitive scores will depend on the expectations of the program, but most competitive applicants are expected to score in the 50th percentile on both the verbal and quantitative sections of the exam as well as a 4.0 on the analytical writing section.

Finally, to ensure that all applicants are proficient in English, non-native English speakers are expected to produce their official results from the TOEFL or IELTS exam that was taken within the last two years.

Program Coursework

As mentioned above, the coursework in a Nursing PhD program can depend not only on the focus of the program but also on the research focus of the student. Nursing schools like the one at the University of Pennsylvania allow their students to take classes in other fields such as criminal justice or psychology if the student’s research overlaps with those fields.
That said, there are also a number of required courses and projects that, if not the exact same, are very similar from program to program. These required courses include seven core courses in subjects like Inquiry and Nursing, Empirical Nursing Research, and Quantitative Research Designs. Students are also required to take two statistics sequence courses as well as a dissertation seminar.
Those are most programs refer to as the general courses, but most programs also include five concentration courses whose focuses depend on the direction of the student’s dissertation. Students will also be expected to complete a teaching residency and a research residency before their final project, which are a dissertation and a defense of the final dissertation.

Factors to Consider

  • Prospective students should consider the following issues and factors when they are choosing the program that fits their needs:
  • Length of the program
  • Faculty credentials and experience
  • Facilities and resources available to students
  • State requirements for licensed practical nursing programs
  • Tuition fees and the availability of financial aid
  • Connections with potential employers