We all know that education is important, and these days more and more people all around the world are choosing to go to college and study for higher degrees. This is true not just for bachelor’s degrees and master’s programs, but also doctoral-level qualifications. The increased popularity of doctorates isn’t surprising. That’s because not only does studying at this level enable you to spend time delving deeply into a subject that interests you, it also boosts your career prospects and a number of useful transferable skills.
What you might not realize is that doctoral study isn’t just for purely academic subjects such as English literature, philosophy and history. These days you can also study for a doctorate in more vocational fields – including nursing. So, if you’re a nurse who is looking to advance their knowledge and skills to the highest level, this could be the perfect choice for you.
In this post we’ll take a closer look at doctoral-level study in the field of nursing, covering the different types of degrees available and what it’s like to take them. This should help you to figure out whether this path is right for you, and choose between online BSN to DNP programs, traditional PhD courses on campus, and everything in between. If you decide that it is, there’s also some information towards the end about how to prepare for studying at this level.
What is a doctoral degree?
Don’t worry if all this talk of PhDs and online BSN to DNP programs is confusing – we’ll start right from the beginning! A doctoral-level degree, also known as a doctorate, is the most advanced degree available in a subject area. They can be broadly divided into research degrees and professional or applied degrees, although the difference between the two isn’t always drastic. Both are equally prestigious and academically challenging, and the right one for you will depend on factors such as your current qualifications, the type of study experience you wish to have, and your future goals.
What are the different types of doctoral degrees in nursing?
Turning to nursing specifically, in line with the distinction mentioned above, there are two main types of doctoral degrees within the field:
- PhD – doctor of philosophy
- DNP – doctor of nursing practice
Beginning with the PhD, this is a research-based doctorate with no requirement for you to complete clinical hours during your studies. It’s more of an academic qualification than the DNP, with a curriculum that focuses on developing your writing and research skills. This is so that you can conduct your own original investigation into a topic of your choice, and then write a lengthy thesis about your research and findings. The subject must be approved by your college, however, within reason you will be free to focus on the exact area of nursing that you are most passionate about.
The degree normally takes between three and eight years to complete depending on whether you study on a full-time or part-time basis. Many students will also write and publish shorter academic papers during their time on the course, as well as give presentations about their research at conferences.
Turning to the DNP, this is an applied doctorate that puts more of an emphasis on clinical skills and practical, hands-on nursing work. The usual requirement is to complete 1,000 hours of placements, which can be carried out at any relevant healthcare setting that aligns with your interests and career goals. For those taking online BSN to DNP programs, they can be arranged at locations close to where you live.
A DNP still requires you to complete a certain number of academic modules, and also an independent research project. This is not as large in scale as a PhD thesis, but involves conducting an investigation into a real clinical or administrative problem in nursing. Again you have the choice of what topic to choose, but it must be approved by your college.
This degree can often be completed in a shorter time than a PhD, with the exact length depending on whether you are a full-time or part-time student and also which specific type of course you take. For example, online BSN to DNP programs take longer than MSN to DNP programs, because they combine the MSN and DNP curriculums into one longer course.
Both the DNP and PhD give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in an area of nursing that you are fascinated by, and to potentially make genuine differences to patient outcomes or healthcare systems in the real world as a result of your research.
How does studying for a doctorate differ from studying for a master’s degree?
A doctoral degree is the next level up from a master’s degree, which means that it is more academically challenging. These degrees also tend to be more specialized, and require you to study fewer and more advanced topics at a deeper level. That gives you the opportunity to create a curriculum that closely matches your personal interests and career aspirations, enabling you to focus on the specific aspects of nursing that you’re passionate about. The final dissertation or project that you complete will also be much longer and more thorough than the equivalent in a master’s degree. Doctoral-level study puts much more of an emphasis on originality, so is ideal for creative thinkers who want to make their mark in the field.
In terms of the daily experience of studying for a doctorate, you can expect to have more independence and freedom compared to taking an MSN. This is especially true with online BSN to DNP programs and other distance-learning courses, which naturally involve you taking more responsibility for your studies. This doesn’t mean you won’t have support from your supervisors and professors, just that you will have more control over the direction of your degree. You will spend fewer hours in lectures and more hours doing your own research in the library or online. This is particularly the case for PhD students, because you won’t be completing any clinical hours either.
Who can take a doctoral-level nursing degree?
Each college and doctoral program will have its own specific entry requirements depending on the difficulty of the course and the type of student the program is intended for. This is especially true in the case of the doctor of nursing practice, because there are both online BSN to DNP programs – which only require you to have a bachelor of science in nursing to enroll – and MSN to DNP programs, for which you will need to have a master of science in nursing. There are even some bridge DNP courses that will accept those who only have an associate degree in nursing. With a PhD, the majority of programs will require you to have a master’s, but some may only ask for a bachelor’s degree.
In addition to having a first degree, most programs will have a list of other entry requirements that you must meet in order to be eligible to apply. For example, you might have to have a current and unencumbered nursing license, complete certain prerequisite short courses, take the GRE or GMAT, have a certain number of hours of clinical experience, or pass an English-language test such as IELTS if English isn’t your first language. Be sure to check the specifics for the programs that you’re interested in to see what you have to do.
How do I know if doctoral study is the right option for me?
Lots of nurses are tempted by doctoral-level study, but are unsure whether it’s the right choice for them. As these degrees require a big commitment in terms of time, effort and money, it’s important to be sure that you’re making the right decision. The best advice is to take some time to carefully consider how you feel about academic study, and whether you want to spend at least two more years – probably more – in that environment. For instance, if you didn’t enjoy your BSN or MSN and struggled with the workload, then a doctorate might not be right for you.
Another aspect to think about is whether or not a doctorate is necessary for you. Have a look at your career goals, and see whether the sort of jobs you’re interested in require a doctoral degree or not. If they do – or if the majority of people who hold those positions have one – then it’s safe to say it would be a good idea for you to get one too.
Finally, consider whether doctoral-level study would fit into your current lifestyle. Thankfully, the availability of online BSN to DNP programs and other distance learning courses makes it much easier to study for a PhD or DNP while still working in your current job and meeting your family obligations.
For those who are still unsure, reach out to some current DNP or PhD students (or those who have recently graduated) to see if you can meet them for a chat about what doctoral study is truly like. Offer to buy them a coffee in exchange for some honest advice and answers to your questions. Don’t feel nervous about doing this, as most people are more than happy to help out their fellow nurses!
How do I choose which type of doctoral degree to take?
If you feel confident that doctoral-level study is the right option for you, next you’ll need to decide exactly which type of degree you want to take. The best way to do this is to look ahead at what you want to get out of the course and what job roles you’re aiming for after graduation. This should give you a good idea of whether a PhD or DNP will suit you best.
As a general overview, a PhD is most fitting for those who wish to progress to a career in academia. Many graduates go on to become college lecturers or researchers, as well as hold positions in medical laboratories and government agencies. These programs also don’t require you to complete any clinical hours, so consider whether or not that appeals to you when making your decision.
If you’re more interested in advanced clinical roles such as becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), however, then online BSN to DNP programs will be more appropriate. The DNP also prepares you for high-level roles in indirect patient care, such as working in nursing informatics, management and other executive positions, or public policy.
How can I prepare myself for doctoral-level study?
Whether you’re thinking of applying for online BSN to DNP programs or a traditional PhD program held on campus, you might be a little apprehensive about returning to college and doing a doctorate. This is especially the case for those who have been out of formal education for a while. Don’t worry, however, as there are plenty of steps you can take to help you prepare for the challenge. Here are some top tips:
- Know what you’re signing up for. Read blogs by other PhD or DNP students, or talk to them in person, to find out exactly what the study experience is like. This will ensure that you know what to expect and will help you to prepare more effectively.
- Remember why you signed up. Any time that you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself of your motivation for doing the course and all the benefits that you’re going to get after graduating. This will help you get through those long study sessions!
- Get started early. Read around the subject in advance to prime your mind for learning and familiarize yourself with the topics you’re going to be studying.
- It’s important for students on online BSN to DNP programs or other virtual learning courses to have a dedicated study space at home. Having good lighting, an ergonomic setup, plus plenty of space for all your books, notes and stationery will help you to focus every time you sit down.
- Work out your ideal study schedule. If you’re planning to take online BSN to DNP programs at the same time as working your day job, blocking off specific times every week for your coursework will help ensure that you don’t miss any deadlines.