Know How to Go from an MSN to a PhD

With many nursing schools nationwide facing a faculty shortage, the demand for qualified nursing educators continues to grow.

In addition to the personal satisfaction of educating a new generation of nurses, nursing educators and scholars play a vital role in groundbreaking scientific research to fight disease and improve patient outcomes.

While the master’s degree in nursing is typically the minimum education required for a nursing educator, the PhD in nursing is gaining momentum as the preferred standard for nurses looking to advance their career in higher education and research. Moving from an MSN to PhD in nursing can have several benefits for nurses who want to make the transition from the bedside to the classroom.

Why get a PhD in Nursing?

If you already have a master’s degree in nursing, you may wonder, “Why do I need a PhD?” The answer is: If you’re looking to become a nurse educator or researcher, your chances of landing one of those coveted roles greatly improves with a doctorate in nursing education.

One reason to choose the MSN to PhD path is that most nursing schools are looking for PhD-trained nurses when hiring faculty.

A survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing found a nursing faculty vacancy rate of almost 8% at nursing schools nationwide. But even with the current faculty shortage, the AACN survey found 56% of the vacancies were for faculty positions requiring a doctoral degree, and another 34% were for positions that preferred PhD candidates. A PhD in nursing certainly gives faculty candidates a leg up over the competition when applying for nursing faculty positions.


Transitioning from an MSN to PhD in nursing also can bolster one’s research credentials. Nursing graduates with a PhD in nursing are better prepared to conduct important nursing and other healthcare research related to disease prevention and treatment and methods for improving patient care.

“When nurses do research on their doctorate, many people tend to think that it primarily focuses on nurses and nursing care,” according to the AACN. “In reality, nurses carry out clinical research in a variety of areas, such as diabetes care, cancer care and eating disorders.”

Nursing educators with doctoral degrees have opportunities to publish the findings of their research in scholarly journals, write grant proposals and might be asked to speak as experts at healthcare meetings or conferences.

And while a career in higher education might be the most common career path for those with a PhD in nursing, it’s not the only option. A research-focused doctoral degree in nursing can pave the way for nurses to conduct clinical research in hospitals, research laboratories or in public health and public policy, as well as to move up into executive and leadership positions in hospitals and healthcare facilities.

Other benefits of a PhD in Nursing

Getting a doctorate in nursing education can have other less tangible but equally important benefits for those looking to pursue careers as nurse educators. The National League for Nursing listed some of the top reasons to consider a career as a nurse educator, including:

  • Working in an intellectually stimulating environment.
  • Having greater autonomy and flexibility.
  • Being able to teach from virtually anywhere, using technology.
  • Conducting important research that advances the field.
  • Shaping the future of healthcare.
  • Educating and mentoring a new generation of nursing professionals.
  • Teaching a love of nursing to others.

And while a career in academia can be challenging, the working conditions may be appealing for nurses who are looking for a change of pace from their roles in direct patient care settings. Many nursing faculty work nine months a year with summers off, and nurse educators typically do not have to work long 12-hour shifts or overnight hours like clinical nurses often do.

Finding the right PhD program

Many MSN to PhD programs are available for master’s educated nurses, and there are several factors to consider in choosing the right program.

Selecting a doctoral program comes down to personal choice, but important things to consider include the quality and accessibility of faculty and the program’s commitment to research.

In choosing a PhD program, students can consider several questions that could tip the balance toward the perfect program. For instance, students may want to consider whether they have opportunities to work one-on-one with a faculty member on an independent study or individually designed project and whether they can publish alongside faculty. Also, can students participate in research projects or other professional initiatives.

Students also need to decide whether they want to pursue their degree in a traditional on-campus environment or online.

Online MSN to PhD programs can be an attractive option for master’s trained nurses who want to continue working while pursuing their doctoral studies. Many MSN to PhD programs can be completed in as little as two to three years of coursework, but a dissertation or research project also is required, which usually takes at least another year. Students should carefully review the requirements of the programs they’re considering — including number of required credit hours and cost — when making a decision about a doctoral program.

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