Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PHD) Programs

Although Doctor of Nursing Practice and Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing degrees are becoming more and more of a necessity in hospitals and a critical requirement for employers, only 1% of the nation’s nurses currently own a doctoral certification. As such, the demand for healthcare professionals with solid academic qualifications has never been higher. Although it requires significant time and financial investment, scholarly programs can open up new opportunities for a career in research, leadership, quality control and optimal patient care. With a PhD in nursing, the possibilities are endless. How do you go about earning your doctoral degree? To find out the answer to this question and many more, please read the in-depth guide below.

Who is this program for?

A PhD is a smart decision or even a necessary, urgent step for many nurses across the nation, regardless of specialization. The workforce is continually required to improve its qualifications. By 2020, the number of BSN (Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing) holders has to grow from 50% to 80%, and more and more management positions will require a minimum of Master’s level education. The highest-paid professions (Nurse Anesthetist, Nurse Manager, Oncology Nurse and so on) now ask for an MSN, a DNP or both; teaching health care in a reputable university is no longer an option without some form of doctoral studies.

A Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program is designed for working RNs (registered nurses), NPs (Nurse Practitioners) and other healthcare professionals who want to deepen their understanding of patient care, earn a higher income and branch up towards different advanced practice nursing job positions. It is an ideal choice for those who want to delve into scientific or academic environments, conduct life-changing research, bring new medical discoveries to the table, that can entirely transform nursing, to create lasting change within the current healthcare system through policies, scholarly efforts and education.

What can a PhD do for you?

A Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program will teach you how to assume a leadership role in healthcare and become a resourceful scholar and successful nurse scientist. You will learn interdisciplinary terms, manage research studies, make modifications and recommendations for the care system, and help translate your knowledge into practice via education and other academic endeavors. You will help design faculty-guided medical care plans, conduct comprehensive research projects and benefit from a median salary significantly higher than the average income of an RN.

A PhD in nursing allows you to prepare the next generation of nurses and teach them how to provide excellent health care within a wide range of both inpatient and outpatient settings. This doctoral degree will help you expand the career possibilities for both students and employees, as well as implement collaborative improvement efforts to resolve the system’s shortcomings and guide professionals towards a safe, reliable and efficient work practice. You will participate in research conferences, write for academic journals and slowly but surely begin to change the nation’s entire healthcare network.

Should you choose a PhD or a DNP?

Although any doctoral degree will do wonders for your career and drastically expand your learning horizon, many students are still undecided whether or not they should choose a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Practice. There are a few crucial differences between these two types of programs which we will discuss here so you can make an informed decision. First, if you are more interested in the pragmatic, hands-on side of nursing, you should undoubtedly pursue a DNP. If, on the other hand, you are passionate about academia and would like to reach the highest level of education while at the same time collecting and analyzing innovative medical data, then a PhD program is most likely the right career path for you.

Second, the core curriculum of these two programs differs significantly. A PhD track will focus on scholarly development, theoretical knowledge, and various research methodologies, whereas the DNP coursework is centered on translating research into clinical practice, creating and implementing relevant healthcare policies, financial management and fulfilling executive roles. An easy way to remember this is that PhDs are research-oriented and construct the theoretical and academic framework of nursing, while DNPs emphasize practice and achieving results through direct patient care.

Both programs are open to accepting BSN holders (without any Master’s level education) in some cases, depending on the school and specialty. But a PhD requires fewer credit hours than its practical counterpart. The former will ask you to complete approximately 60 hours, whereas the latter can demand up to 95 credit hours. The clinical work requirements are another essential difference between the two tracks. While a DNP program will demand that you complete a minimum of 600 clinical hours, the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program typically has minimal obligations when it comes to clinical rotations.

Similarly, your dissertation project will vary depending on whether you choose a PhD or not. You will need to prepare an in-depth, research-oriented final paper, while a DNP program will ask you to develop a practice-based final project or clinical paper. Last, there are contrasting job prospects for both these career paths. As a practical doctoral program graduate, you will focus more on providing direct medical care, clinical work, implementing policies and generally doing work pertaining to the nitty-gritty or “hard” side of nursing. On the contrary, a PhD certification will allow you to become part of healthcare academia, where you will center your work on foundational knowledge, research, medical discoveries and nursing education.

What does a PhD in Nursing program require?

A minimum requirement for a PhD program is holding a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN). You might be admitted if you have a Bachelor’s Degree in a non-nursing field, but this varies from case to case. Keep in mind that for some schools, a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) is mandatory for admission. However, other universities will only consider it a plus or discerning criteria for choosing between equally-qualified candidates. Additionally, you will need a GPA of 3.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale to be considered. And most schools regard work experience as an RN or NP as a major advantage.

For the application process, you will need to submit your official GRE (Graduation Record Examinations) scores within the past five years, three letters of reference (two academic and one from a supervisor, colleague or employer), your current curriculum vitae (CV), a copy of your RN license (where available), a graded paper or an official publication belonging to you to serve as a writing sample, as well as a goal statement detailing your research ambitions (which should preferably intersect with the faculty’s resources and objectives). Most universities will ask you to participate in a face-to-face interview to assess if you are the right candidate for the school. There are no prerequisite courses needed for the PhD in nursing program.

What will you learn?

A PhD program will teach you how to take an academic approach to nursing and healthcare in general, and how to conduct research-intensive projects, discover, collect and analyze raw data, as well as disseminate new information to professionals in the context of conferences, official publications and executive meetings within medical or higher education institutions. The program will focus heavily on leadership skills, improving health outcomes, policy initiatives and developing habits of scholarly thinking that enhance the safety, results, and efficiency of advanced nursing practice.

You will learn theory development, how to successfully operate within an academic environment and conduct revolutionary research that directly impacts the future of healthcare. In the final phase of your studies, you will be asked to create a research proposal, collect and evaluate medical data, and conduct independent research to substantiate it, as well as assess the health outcomes and significance of your findings. This offers you the opportunity to make a real, original contribution to the current foundation of nursing and to the scientific community.

You can choose to pursue a PhD in nursing with the following specializations: healthcare administration, leadership, public health policy, education and interdisciplinary health. Here are the main courses you will be attending during your studies:

  • Scientific Perspectives in Nursing
  • Measurement in Health Care Research
  • Philosophical Perspectives in Health
  • Theory Development in Nursing
  • Quantitative Research Design and Methods
  • Qualitative Methods
  • Statistical Methods in Public Health
  • Quality Data Collection
  • Advanced Methods: Meta-Analysis
  • Responsibilities and Activities of the Nurse Scientist
  • Symptom Evaluation and Management
  • Research Issues in Aging: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
  • Advanced Nursing Health Policy
  • International Health Systems and Research
  • Foundations and Essentials of Doctoral Study in Nursing
  • Organizational and System Leadership for Quality Improvement
  • Doctoral Writing
  • The Evolving Roles of a Nurse Educator
  • Mixed Methods Research Design

How long does the program take?

A standard PhD program in nursing requires around 60 credit hours to complete. This translates to three years of full-time study. However, this number will largely depend on the specialization you are pursuing, the school you have chosen, how fast you can progress and cover the core curriculum, as well as whether or not you study part-time. Some students can take 4 years or longer to finish their PhD programs.

Are there any clinical hours required?

No. A PhD program is focused on academic knowledge and research, not hands-on practice. As such, you are not obligated to complete any clinical hours to finish your studies and earn your doctoral certification. Keep in mind that this is not the case with a DNP program, where you will be asked to carry out at least 500 clinical hours.

Can you study for a PhD online?

There is a wide array of distance learning options available. Since this type of certification does not demand clinical rotations, you can enroll in an e-learning program and have all of your coursework and examinations completed 100% online, with little to zero campus visits required. You will also be able to work during your studies, since an online doctoral program will allow you to schedule your own learning time. It also costs less than if you were to earn your degree through the conventional route.

Considering the urgent need for more nurses with higher education degrees, many employers and health institutions alike are now becoming less and less prejudiced against online learning alternatives. As a result, some even prefer it over traditional programs because they allow you to focus more on your work responsibilities. Moreover, the vast majority of prestigious universities already offer online options for earning a PhD in nursing. Here is a selection of some of the best schools in which you can enroll to improve your academic skills and earn a doctoral degree:

  • George Washington University
  • Medical University of South Carolina
  • Duke University
  • University of Kansas
  • University of Florida
  • Simmons College of Nursing and Health Sciences
  • Regis College
  • Capella University
  • West Virginia University
  • Bradley University
  • Loyola University – New Orleans
  • University of Nevada
  • Duquesne University
  • Maryville University
  • University of Colorado – Denver

How much does the program cost?

Tuition for a PhD in nursing program is approximately $45,000 per year. Prices will vary according to the length of your studies, the school you have enrolled in and the specialization you are pursuing. You should expect to pay approximately $2,000 per credit hour, considering that a full-time student will carry out around 9 credit hours per semester. Other fees include matriculation cost (about $500), a health fee (up to $500), room and board, textbooks, supplies, personal living expenses, and travel and health insurance.

You can reach out for help from a financial aid organization and see if you are eligible to apply for grants, trainee scholarships or fellowships, federal loans, private loans, research assistantships or financial support from other official health institutions. If you are employed part-time, this might also be a reliable way to pay for your education expenses. You can even take a job on your university’s campus.

What about accreditation?

All PhD programs must be accredited by an official organization. The two main institutions are(The Accreditation Commission For Education in Nursing and The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education) does not recognize DNS and PhD programs. This type of doctoral program can only be authorized by the following associations: The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), The Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) or The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (HLC-NCA).

Where can you work with a PhD in Nursing?

A Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing degree allows you to become a successful scholar, working in research centers, universities, management centers and academia. When it comes to salary, nurses with PhDs earn an average income of $95,557 per year. Here are some of the most popular job positions you can apply for with a doctoral degree:

  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Nurse Midwife
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nursing Faculty Member
  • Nurse Educator
  • Nurse Researcher
  • Director of Clinical Services
  • Director of Nursing Research
  • Nurse Manager