A PhD in Nursing Expands Your Career Possibilities

As demand on the U.S. healthcare system continues to grow, the need for more experienced nurse leaders is becoming increasingly evident. The rising age of the baby boomer population, emerging new diseases such as coronavirus and Ebola, and a shortage of nurses and other healthcare professionals is putting an increasing strain on the system’s ability to deliver high-quality care.

For nurses who want to continue their education, or those looking for a fulfilling career as a leader in the nursing profession, a PhD in nursing or DNP degree are potentially exciting options.

Nurses with a doctorate in nursing are generally higher paid than those with only a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing. Nurses with doctoral degrees are able to teach and conduct research at institutions of higher education, have more opportunities to advance in leadership positions at hospitals and other healthcare facilities, and can become advanced practice nurses.

Here are some of the reasons to consider a doctorate in nursing, potential roles and professions with the greatest need for nurses with advanced degrees, and some of the different degree programs that are available.

Types of doctoral degrees in nursing

Doctoral nursing degrees generally fall into two major categories: practice-focused and research-focused. The two most common types of doctoral nursing degrees are the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, or PhD in Nursing, and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The PhD in Nursing degree is a researched-focused degree designed for nurse researchers and educators. In addition to classroom work, it requires completion of an original research project, such as a dissertation or linked research papers.

The DNP is a practice-focused degree with more of a clinical focus for nurses specializing in the advanced practice of nursing. DNPs typically involve a combination of classroom work and clinical work in a healthcare environment, as well as clinical research.

While these degrees might have a different focus and program requirements, many career options are available to nurses with doctoral degrees.

Nursing education and potential careers

Obtaining a doctorate in nursing education can pave the way for a career as a nursing educator, a position that is in high demand because of the current nursing faculty shortage.

Faculty shortages are creating a growing need for nurses with a PhD in nursing degree to teach and conduct research at higher education institutions.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing noted that “although the number of doctorate programs has continued to increase, the total enrollment of students in these programs has remained fairly constant, resulting in a shortage of newly minted PhDs to renew faculty ranks.”

Many nursing schools have even had to reject qualified applicants because of the lack of qualified nursing faculty. U.S. nursing schools turned away more than 75,000 applicants from baccalaureate and graduate programs in 2018 because of an insufficient number of qualified faculty and other factors.

The average annual salary for nursing educators was $81,350 in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but some nursing educators earn up to $130,000 or more.

A career in higher education is hardly the only job option available to nurses with a doctorate in nursing, however. Nurses with doctoral degrees also hold positions in healthcare administration, nursing research and private practice.

PhD in Nursing or DNP degrees can pave the way for leadership and administrative roles at hospitals, healthcare systems and long-term care facilities. Some of those positions include director or nursing, CNO, chief nursing executive (CNE), nurse manager or administrator, or health system president and CEO. Salaries for those positions can range from $90,000 to upwards of $250,000, depending upon the position, level of experience and geographic region.

Nurses who seek to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) also can benefit from a doctoral degree in nursing. Potential roles for APRNs include nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives. The median salary for APRNs was $113,930 in 2018, with nurse anesthetists making on average about $175,000 a year.

While master’s programs are still available for some of these roles, the “doctoral degree is quickly becoming the standard for preparing APRNs for contemporary nursing practice,” according to the AACN.

Demand is high for doctorally trained nurses

Employment opportunities for nurses with DNP degrees or a PhD in nursing are in high demand, particularly in areas of the country where nursing shortages exist.

Many states are projecting to have significant shortages of qualified nurses in the coming decade. Seven states are projected to have shortages of registered nurses by 2030, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Health and Resources Services Administration. Four of those states — California, Texas, New Jersey and South Carolina — are expected to have shortages of more than 10,000 full-time equivalent RNs, with California projected to have a shortage of more than 44,000 FTEs.

The need for advanced practice nurses with a doctorate in nursing education continues to grow. According to the BLS, the need for APRNs, including nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, was projected to grow by 26% from 2018-2028, much faster than the national average for all occupations.

The demand for more nursing faculty with a PhD in nursing or DNP degrees also is expected to continue to increase because of aging faculty and impending retirements.

“Given the growing shortage of nursing faculty, the job outlook for those seeking careers in nursing education is bright with the growing demand for individuals to teach in schools of nursing, hospitals, public health agencies and other settings,” the AACN said on its website.

Choosing the right doctoral program

Several factors should be considered when choosing a program for your doctorate in nursing education, including cost, length of time to complete the program, program flexibility and other factors.

There are several different options for nursing students pursuing doctoral degrees. They include online DNP programs and online PhD in nursing programs as well as traditional on-campus programs.

Online DNP programs are becoming increasingly popular among nurses because of their flexibility and the ability of students to continue working while pursuing degrees on their own schedule. Some of these DNP programs are 100% online, but most require a combination of online coursework and clinical rotations at a hospital or healthcare facility.

Many universities offer BSN to DNP programs and MSN to DNP programs for nurses who are currently working in the field and are looking to expand their career options or move up into leadership and management positions. There are also BSN to PhD and MSN to PhD programs for nurses who want to pursue a career in nursing education or research.

It can generally take nurses with bachelor’s degrees between four to six years to get a doctoral degree, and two to four years for nurses with master’s degrees to complete a doctoral program. Some nursing schools offer accelerated or “fast track” baccalaureate to doctoral programs that can be completed in as little as three to four years, but these programs are generally best suited for full-time students because of the intensive nature of these programs.

A common question employers ask recent graduates of online DNP programs is whether the program they attended is accredited. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing are the two major accrediting bodies for DNP programs in the U.S., so it’s important for students to consider if the program is accredited in choosing an online DNP program.

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