Why a PhD in nursing may be the perfect goal for you

The Institute of Medicine’s Report, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health” states nurses should be encouraged to pursue doctoral degrees early in their careers to maximize the potential value of their additional education. I finished my PhD in nursing when I was 30 years old. Several people told me I didn’t have enough clinical nursing experience to continue with my education. Why some nurses feel the need to hold others back from continuing their education is beyond me.

The fact is, some of the most respected contributors to our profession obtained their PhDs early in their careers. Here is only a partial list of these amazing nurses: Jacqueline Fawcett, PhD, RN, FAAN, of the University of Massachusetts, received her PhD 12 years after completing her BSN. She is internationally known for her metatheoretical work in nursing.

• Jean Watson, PHD, RN, AHN-BC, FAAN, earned her PhD 12 years after earning her initial nursing degree. She is the founder of the Watson Caring Science Institute and is an American Academy of Nursing Living Legend.

• Afaf I. Meleis, PhD, RN, FAAN, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, earned her PhD seven years after obtaining her BS in 1961. She is an internationally renowned nurse-researcher and an AAN Living Legend.

• Margaret Newman, PhD, RN, FAAN, obtained her BSN in 1962 and her PhD in 1971. She is the creator of the Theory of Health as Expanding Consciousness and an AAN Living Legend.

Are you thinking about going back to school? Has someone encouraged you to consider it? The Future of Nursing report notes that major changes in the U.S. healthcare system and practice environment will require profound changes in the education of nurses. But the report also notes that the primary goal of nursing education remains the same, which is to educate nurses to meet diverse patient needs, function as leaders and advance science from the associate’s degree to the doctorate degree.

One of the recommendations of the Future of Nursing report was to double the number of nurses with doctoral degrees by 2020, and by 2016 that recommendation had been met mainly due to the creation of the DNP or doctor of nursing practice degree. Knowing this, the IOM’s Assessing Progress on the IOM Report the Future of Nursing updated their recommendations in 2015 stating that more emphasis should be placed on increasing the number of PhD-prepared nurses. The DNP has been regarded as the degree for those who want to get a terminal degree in nursing practice while the PhD has been regarded as the degree for those wanting to do research. But the difference is not that simple.

Several people told me I didn’t have enough clinical nursing experience to continue with my education. Why some nurses feel the need to hold others back from continuing their education is beyond me.”

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “rather than a knowledge-generating research effort, the student in a practice-focused program generally carries out a practice application-oriented final DNP project.” The AACN further notes key differences between the DNP and PhD programs. PhD programs prepare RNs to contribute to healthcare improvements via the development of new knowledge and scholarly products that provide a foundation for the advancement of nursing science. A richer more reflective understanding of the PhD in nursing is that it is heavily grounded in the science and philosophy of knowledge. DNP programs, on the other hand, prepare nurses at the highest level of nursing practice to improve patient outcomes and translate research into practice. A PhD-prepared nurse can contribute to the profession through research, creating new nursing theories or through a focus on national, global system level change and public policy.

I have had many conversations with nurses looking to go back to school who say they don’t want to do research. However, in further discussion on what they really want to do and the problems they want to solve, it becomes clear that the PhD is the best track for them. Also, you don’t need to be a nurse practitioner to get a PhD; there are many PhD-prepared RNs like myself. For those who want to become a nurse practitioner or other advance practice registered nurse, there are dual DNP/PhD programs just as there are MD/PhD programs for individuals looking for both the practice and research education.

As you can guess, I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I knew as a nurse I could make the largest impact for patients and nurses by getting my PhD in nursing (majoring in health systems and minoring in public administration). Does having a PhD make me a better nurse than anyone else? No. I am a different type of a nurse who knew what I needed to do to make my unique contribution to our profession. I started as an LPN and then became an associate’s degree RN. I worked full time while going to school full time. I also completed a BSN-PhD program, which I started at age 25, four years after I became an RN. I have been an RN for 20 years — PhD-prepared for almost 11 years. Earning my PhD was the best decision in my professional career.

What will your next educational goal be? Share in the comments section below. 


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About the Author:

Jennifer Mensik, PhD, RN, FAAN
Jennifer Mensik, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, is President of the American Nurses Association. Mensik is a former division director of care management at Oregon Health and Science University and instructor for Arizona State University College of Nursing and Health Innovation DNP program. Mensik also is a former Vice President of CE programming for Nurse.com. Mensik does not endorse, recommend, or favor any program, product, or service advertised or referenced on this website, or that appears on any links to or from this website.


  1. Avatar
    silas lugembe January 14, 2017 at 11:22 am - Reply

    I am a registered nurse (a graduate Diploma in nursing midwife at muhimbili university of health and allied science, August 2016 in Dar es salaam-Tanzania. I would like to be involved in health research in different parts of the world and all nursing matters so us to rise our professional and health, so to ensure community free from avoidable disease.

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    Cynthia January 18, 2017 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    Very insightful & inspiring Jennifer (PHD). I now see the need to enrol soon onto a PHD program, possibly an online program as am actively practicing.

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    Caitlin January 18, 2017 at 10:40 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this!! I struggle with the decision due to time, money and life constraints. I agree we should educate ourselves to the terminal degree! Healthcare needs us!

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    Blanca January 18, 2017 at 10:58 pm - Reply

    I graduated from nursing and I had the opportunity to do my PHD in nursing. In my classes my classmates were experienced nurses with high positions in nursing. There were times that I feel that I did not belong to that group of nurses. Unfortunately, I had to stop and go back to my country. Now, I feel the call to go back and continue where I left my program. I am hoping to continue because I feel there is a lot of need to improve and help the nurses and my patients.

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    Shannon McCarthy-Leone MS, RN January 19, 2017 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    It may be important to note that there are other doctoral options to consider such as a DNP and Ed.D that are just as valuable to the profession depending on your practice focus. We as nurses need to remind ourselves that all these add to the growth and deep knowledge base to our profession, and treat these with the same respect we give those with a Ph.D.

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    Maya Gladys January 20, 2017 at 5:33 am - Reply

    Thanks for the insight. Am an rn working in a teaching hospital in Nigeria.. Am really interested in research work

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    Kristine June 17, 2018 at 2:28 am - Reply

    I am looking to achieve my PhD to become a professor and researcher at a Nursing College. Are there many opportunities for PhD prepared nursing professors in academia? My hesitation with obtaining my PhD is the time and expense, especially if there are little to no job opportunities when I finish the degree.

    • Avatar
      Kay Pitts June 6, 2019 at 9:50 pm - Reply

      Yes University of Notre Dame of Maryland has an Endowed Chair in Nursing for a PHD prepared
      Nurse with maternal child health nurse to do research.
      Email me [email protected]

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    Courtney August 28, 2018 at 2:19 am - Reply

    I am looking at going back to school to get my PhD. I have a msn in nursing education. I have been looking into schools, but am looking for some recommendations?

    • Sallie Jimenez
      Sallie Jimenez August 28, 2018 at 1:35 pm - Reply

      Hello Courtney,
      Consider conducting your search for school on https://www.nurse.com/school.

      Thank you for your question and good luck with your educational pursuits.

      Sallie Jimenez

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    Rebecca December 12, 2018 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    Thank you Jennifer for sharing your story, very inspirational!?

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    Collette May 4, 2019 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your story Jennifer! An amazing instructor of mine told me in my last semester of nursing school that I should pursue this track. His exact words were “Do a couple years of this (bedside) then go back to school.” He was very scholarly-minded, and saw that this is where my strengths to the profession were going to be. Not because I couldn’t do bedside, but because I had/have incredible passion to make change on a larger scale. His impactful recommendation set the course for my career. This was the only time I had heard of this type of recommendation in school, which makes me wonder if there is a lack of early recruitment for fear of this notion that new nurses won’t be experienced enough. I agree that it is nurse specific and goal specific. Thank you for staying true to who you are and inspiring others to do so!

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    Rebecca Bausinger November 12, 2019 at 8:24 am - Reply

    Finding this post at the perfect time, thanks for sharing. Recently applied to a local doctoral level nursing program, still waiting to hear back about funding. Glad I took the leap but nagging in the back of my mind is a lot of doubt due to my lack of experience in the field – only 4 years of nursing experience. I cannot wait to look up these inspirational early-career research women to reaffirm that a Ph.D. is the right route for me given the level of impact I want to make on our nation’s health and the field of nursing overall.

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    Zoe Campos February 25, 2020 at 11:45 am - Reply

    It’s good to know that there are DNP programs that help prepare nurses who practice the highest level of nursing to improve patient outcomes and apply research into practice. I’m planning to choose a nursing program after high school and am wondering what will happen next, since I don’t want to just practice nursing in a clinic or a hospital somewhere. I also wanted to be able to help the medical community through research and improve national healthcare, so I guess I’d be going for the doctor of nursing practice.

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