DNP & Me: Five Reasons to Pursue a Nursing Doctorate

Read this article before signing up for an advanced degree

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Education is the watchword of modern nursing. More and more nurses today are BSN-prepared and about 10 percent of California acute care hospitals now require that RNs earn a BSN if they don’t already have one. Many nurses today are also going back to school to earn their master’s degrees, either to hone their skills or to move into advanced practice roles.

While most nurses understand the value of the BSN or master’s degree, the case for earning a nursing doctorate — a Ph.D. or DNP — isn’t quite so obvious. In fact, I wasn’t sure myself. In the next few pages, I’ll explain what led me to pursue this “final frontier” of nursing education — and why you might want to do the same.

Why I Changed My Mind About Nursing Doctorates

Frankly, I never imagined I would be pursuing a doctoral degree. Whenever the idea came up, my reactions were always, “I can’t afford it”; “I’ll never need that”; “It will be tedious”; “It’s not important”; and, “I can’t do it.” Yet, here I am. Soon after I wrote this article, I completed the final semester of my doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program. Now, whenever I’m asked, “Was it worth it? If you could go back, would you do it all again?” my answer is an immediate yes.

Over the last three years, I’ve learned a great deal and would now recommend the DNP degree without hesitation. If you find yourself struggling with the same doubts and rationalizations I had before I started my doctoral program, here are five reasons to change your mind.

Reason No. 1: Expand Career Opportunities

Let’s come right out and talk about the elephant in the room: the cost of pursuing this level of education. Notwithstanding the many scholarships and awards out there, there’s no denying that a doctorate can be expensive. However, I consider it a recoverable investment. Having a nursing doctorate can help qualify you to become a nurse educator or conduct research.

In the past, I applied for countless academic roles, but with no formal teaching experience, I was never considered — never even called for an interview — until I enrolled in a DNP program. A doctorate also may open the door to many other dynamic opportunities, such as consulting or entrepreneurship.

For Kathleen McDermott, APRN, DNP, PMHNP, BC, pursuit of a DNP helped catapult her career to the next level. She earned her doctorate in 2015 from the California State University DNP Consortium, a program offered through Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach and Los Angeles. Before that, she worked for more than seven years with Mental Health America of Los Angeles (MHALA), first as a psychiatric nurse practitioner and then as director of integrated care. Her DNP final project focused on improving how MHALA delivered care.

“My dissertation was a key study on my agency,” she recalls. “I’m glad I didn’t get fired for a rather scathing review!” Although her study revealed institutional flaws, McDermott was able to translate those findings into program improvements. Her chief recommendation: “Get beyond treating members [patients] one by one, but instead implement a system change.”

By examining MHALA “through that lens,” she says, she “was able to say, ‘We need this, and here is why.’” Not long after earning her DNP, MHALA promoted McDermott to vice president of healthcare integration. She attributes her promotion to her doctoral work — coupled, of course, with her years of experience with the organization.

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To decide if the benefits of earning a doctoral degree would be worth the cost at this point in your career, first calculate how much it would cost to complete the degree and then consider what opportunities it might provide. Determine how long it would take to recover those costs in the higher-salaried positions the degree could make available to you.

Also, consider the cost of lost opportunities. Will you be throwing away chances of greater compensation if you don’t have a doctorate?

Reason No. 2: Keep Up with Evidence-Based Practice

Staying current is extremely important for nurses, especially if you’ve been out of school or away from the bedside for a while. When I decided to return to school to earn my DNP degree, it had been over 10 years since I had been in school. My program turned out to be a great way to update my practice while earning a degree at the same time.

Unlike pursuing continuing education, a structured degree program forces you to take certain required courses that you might otherwise not deem important enough to choose on your own. For example, I had to take an ethics course, which, beforehand, I believed I wouldn’t greatly benefit from. I ended up finding myself inspired by it — I even ended up teaching ethics for RN-to-BSN students!

Similarly, I wrote a paper for a required policy course on the approval of OxyContin for younger patients. That paper sparked a new interest that ultimately led me to focus on the opioid crisis for my final DNP project.

McDermott had a similar experience. “It didn’t further my clinical skills,” she says of her DNP program. “I learned leadership skills, translational research and systems. Nurses are not always taught this. This broader view is really important.”

Writing and research, especially on challenging topics, stimulate the brain and remind us to how to communicate effectively. Of course, research is at the heart of the Ph.D. in nursing, which also takes a greater focus on theory. A DNP, meanwhile, is a practice-based degree that focuses on applying research to improving practice or delivery of healthcare (a process that research has shown often takes way too long!). Each of these degrees is important.

The nursing Ph.D. is the gold standard for nurse educators and the researchers who expand what we know about practice, care delivery and patient safety. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends the DNP as both the terminal degree for clinical nursing education and the graduate degree for advanced nursing practice preparation. (The AACN published eight essentials of doctoral education for advanced nursing practice, with which DNP candidates are likely quite familiar.)

The concepts doctoral programs explore, such as population health, interprofessional collaboration systems leadership and information technology, are ones that will help to transform our inconsistent, defective healthcare system. So, my original thought that I didn’t need this preparation couldn’t have been further from the truth!

Reason No. 3: Transform Your Passion into Expertise

My fears that earning a doctorate would be tedious also turned out to be quite off-base. Earning a doctoral degree allows you to become an expert on a nursing topic you’re passionate about.

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Ideally, you should find the topic (or at least the range of topics) that most interests you as early as possible so that you can delve into that topic as much as possible throughout your program. This will allow you to become fluent in the latest research and consider different perspectives. If you already know what your area of interest is, you can select a nursing school with faculty who specialize in that subject or who share your interest.

Your doctoral program should be an opportunity to learn from leaders in your field. Your thesis or final project will give you a chance to add your own voice to the discussions surrounding that topic.

Reason No. 4: Influence Health Policy and Elevate Nursing

When I thought that having a doctorate wasn’t important, I was sorely mistaken. Doctorate-prepared nurses elevate not only themselves, but also the entire profession. With about 3 million registered nurses in the U.S., we are potentially a strong front for influencing health policy. It behooves us to have a voice on matters about which we are informed and that impact us.

However, credibility is essential when it comes to public policy — and few credentials boost your credibility more than does a doctoral degree. Earning a doctorate also facilitates board membership. The Institute of Medicine’s  2010 report The Future of Nursing recommended that more nurses participate on the boards of healthcare organizations, but only 5 percent of current hospital boards have an RN member. While a doctorate isn’t required to serve on most boards, obtaining a doctoral degree helps to establish your qualification to sit among other professionals with similar levels of education.

The Future of Nursing report recommended doubling the number of doctorate-prepared nurses by 2020. Amazingly, this goal has already been achieved. In fact, from 2010 to 2015, the annual number of DNP graduates increased by a factor of 11, reaching 14,343 in 2015. (The number of nurses with Ph.D.s also increased, but in the 2010–15 period, DNP graduates outnumbered Ph.D. grads by more than 3 to 1.)

Reason No. 5: It’s a Worthwhile Challenge

A nursing doctorate is not for the inexperienced nurse, nor is it for students who are not willing to push themselves to learn and grow. A doctoral degree is for the engaged, independently committed learner. As I like to say to my students, you get out of your education what you put into it.

However, for those of us who love to learn (and most of us do), obtaining a doctoral degree is the ultimate challenge. It demonstrates your attainment of the highest level of education in your field. As nurses, we should always be striving to provide the best possible delivery of the best possible care, which means making ourselves the best we can be. I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies: You can almost always achieve something you set forth to achieve; conversely, you almost certainly won’t achieve anything you don’t set out to achieve!

Things to Consider Before Signing Up

While these are all good options to embark on an academic venture, this doesn’t mean you necessarily need to head over to the nursing school down the road and sign up. There are a number of different types of nursing degrees and programs, and some options will suit your interests and needs better than others.

Take the advice of Aja Tulleners Lesh, RN, Ph.D., dean of the School of Nursing at Azusa Pacific University, who says you should “look for an educational institution that mirrors your values and your passions.”

Take time to peruse the programs out there, analyzing their curriculums, tuition costs, ratings, student reviews and program/track options. Some programs run only on the weekends while others are completely online. Some are now hybrids that include both online and in-person classes. If you’re willing to try an online program, you could potentially choose almost any nursing school across the country. Just make sure the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Pursuing an advanced nursing degree is a big commitment and a big decision. Before you make up your mind, do your cost/benefit analysis, consider your options, talk with your family and be honest with yourself and your checkbook. Then, make the leap!

DARIA WASZAK, RN, DNP, CEN, COHN-S, is a Long Beach native and SDSU and UCLA alumna. She has over 20 years of clinical and leadership experience and is currently a RN/BSN faculty member.

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