by Amy Vaerewyck
QUESTION: What do thousands of nurses across the country want?
ANSWER: The letters “PhD” after their name.
In 2004, 170 nurses earned a PhD; in 2011, more than 7,000 nurses earned a PhD*—an increase of more than 4,000 percent!
Established in 1978, our nursing PhD program was one of the first in the western United States—and it continues to be one of the best. The College of Nursing at the University of Colorado Denver and the Anschutz Medical Campus has awarded more than 225 nursing PhDs.
“We rank among the top PhD programs in the country,” said Roxie Foster, PhD, RN, FAAN, director of the university’s nursing PhD program. “We have incredible strength in research, clinical practice, national and international leadership and policy development—which distinguishes us among programs nationally.”
QUESTION: What kind of PhD program works for working nurses?
ANSWER: One like ours, which combines traditional education with distance learning.
A lot of online degree programs incorporate high-tech communications tools and online networking platforms. The university’s nursing PhD includes all of that, plus three weeks a year of intensive, on-site training at the Anschutz Medical Campus
“[The on-site training] was a lot of fun,” said Nicole Carlson, a first-year nursing PhD student in the program. “We were all there long hours for five days, so we were able to focus on subject matter and also bond, in a way.”
The flexibility allows Carlson, an Atlanta-based advanced practice nurse and nurse midwife, to continue to practice while earning her terminal degree. Doug Larner, another first-year nursing PhD student in the program, also maintains his work as a nurse practitioner in Franklin, Tenn.
“In other programs, I had professors and mentors, but it was more self-instructed,” Larner said. “[At the University of Colorado], I have people I feel like I can learn from and talk to. I like the focus and direction of the learning, the relationships with the other people in the cohort and the scholarly attitude.”
QUESTION: How many years does it take to finish a dissertation?
ANSWER: Fewer than usual with the College of Nursing mentorship process.
Carlson, who is studying pregnancy and the prevention of c-sections, expects to have “PhD” after her name in about four years—which is fewer than the national average
What makes the university’s nursing PhD program so expeditious?
“We match [students] with a faculty researcher who mentors them closely through their doctoral program,” Foster said. “It’s not just about taking classes, but about that one-to-one relationship between ‘master’ and ‘apprentice.’ That link with the faculty mentor is huge.”
Once the mentor-mentee link is established, students are encouraged to identify and begin focusing on their specialized research area as soon as possible. Larner, for example, said he has already, in his very first semester, started hashing out the research for his dissertation on the objective quantification of pain.
QUESTION: If nurses get PhDs, does that change the role of medical doctors?
ANSWER: Nope, the field of medicine is fundamentally different from the field of nursing.
The nurses who earn PhDs aren’t becoming physicians or “MDs.” Rather, they’re becoming scholars of nursing—teaching at universities, researching in labs and publishing in journals.
“The distinction is they’re becoming a ‘nurse scientist,’” Foster said. “More than merely using science that’s already developed, the nurse with the PhD is tasked with developing new science through research.”
“The more [nurses] who get their terminal degrees, the more we can back up our research,” said Larner. “I want to advance the practice of nursing.”