Demystifying PhDs: A Review of Doctorate Programs Designed to Fulfil the Needs of the Next Generation of Nursing Professionals

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ABSTRACT

Commonly, the expression 'PhD' evokes a level of trepidation amongst potential candidates from both the clinical and academic spheres. In contemporary settings, a Doctor of Philosophy is highly regarded and increasingly necessary for a successful academic nursing career. The aim of this paper is to explore the options for doctoral education for nurses, and consider the role of the doctorate in career planning for nursing, and in the attainment of career goals. Here we discuss some key issues and practicalities including career planning, selecting a doctoral program, choosing a university, supervision, committees and panels, achieving a work-life balance and dealing with conflict. The PhD process should be an enriching and satisfying experience which may lead to enhanced professional and personal growth; however, there are potential pitfalls that nurses should be aware of before embarking on doctoral training. Future studies are needed to assess the impact of the different doctorates offered to see if, in fact, they are advancing nursing practice and research endeavours.

KEYWORDS: nursing education; postgraduate education; PhD; professional doctorate; career development

INTRODUCTION

For universities internationally, a well regarded Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program that attracts highly qualified, motivated candidates who complete on time is an important quality indicator (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2002). However, there are many options for doctoral training and several doctoral programs to choose from. The aim of this paper is to explore the options for doctoral training for nurses, and consider the role of the doctorate in career planning for nursing, and in the attainment of career goals.

PLANNING A CAREER: THE PURSUIT OF LIFELONG LEARNING AND SCHOLARSHIP

A satisfying and successful career in nursing does not happen automatically. It requires careful planning and should be considered a dynamic and deliberate work in process (Shirey, 2009). Career planning is a long-term and continuing endeavour, and when aligned to strength and passions, can provide the professional momentum to achieve desired career goals (Shirey, 2009). Increasingly, doctoral qualifications are necessary for career trajectory, and such a qualification opens and expands career possibilities for nurses. The rapid expansion of research, technology and the requirement for more autonomous practitioners (Davenport, Spath, & Blauvelt, 2009) all support the growing demand for doctoral training - whether practice, education or research focused.

Outside academic settings, nurses are pursuing doctoral studies as employment opportunities become more competitive and higher academic/research qualifications are deemed desirable (if not essential) by prospective employers. However, particularly in relation to the clinical areas, some have questioned the relevance of a PhD and whether this is the best career choice for nurses, or if having a PhD makes for a better clinician or manager (Borbasi & Emden, 2001; Ellis, 2005; Wilkes & Mohan, 2008). Being a manager or clinician involves more than a qualification; leadership and teamwork skills, clinical application of ideas and business acumen are also needed. Research PhDs are focused in a particular area, meaning that graduates become 'experts' in the narrow area of their thesis. Depending on the topic area of the thesis, the expertise gained through the PhD may or may not match the skills required in the clinical workplace (Kirkman, Thompson, Watson, & Stewart, 2007). Notwithstanding these concerns, the attainment of a doctoral qualification affords a range of generic skills which includes demonstrating that a graduate has the ability to organize and see a project through from beginning to end; this in itself is an important demonstration of overcoming problems during their candidature.

In contrast to colleagues from other disciplines, nurses have been relatively slow to pursue doctoral status (Davies & Rolfe, 2009) and this may be due, in part, to dissent within the nursing profession (Brown-Benedict, 2008). …