Dr. Nurse: Many Professional Practitioners Are Seeking Doctorates, but Will It Pay Off?

By Hu, Helen | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, July 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

Dr. Nurse: Many Professional Practitioners Are Seeking Doctorates, but Will It Pay Off?


Hu, Helen, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Julie Benz got her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree the hard way--enrolling in a full-time doctoral program while working full time.

nearly killed her, Benz says with a laugh. "Six credits into it, I didn't clean my house," she recalls. "I didn't grocery shop."

Benz, a clinical nurse specialist with decades of experience, didn't really need to get a DNP, one of at least 15 relatively new professional practice doctorates in fields including health care. Still, Benz wanted to be updated on subjects such as diseases and pharmacology, which have seen big change since she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees.

A nurse at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colo., Benz got her doctorate in May 2012, and was glad she did. What she learned about health care financing and policy is helping her as she joins efforts to set up a network for responding to heart attacks across the state.

Across the continent, Jodi Gray, co-owner of two physical therapy clinics in South Florida, is familiar with the push in recent years for PTs to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree --in fact, the accrediting body will require all those entering the field to have them by 2020.

Gray sees the pros and cons of the degree, but no immediate monetary reward for the therapist, at least in her clinics.

If she were hiring and two people came to her--one with a doctorate and one with a lesser degree--"I wouldn't pay one more than the other," Gray says.

There has been a push for professional practice doctorates in some fields that never had them before, and it's putting strains on universities and students, and the payoff is unclear, according to a paper by Dr. Ami Zusman, visiting scholar at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Besides nursing and physical therapy, these degrees, called PPDs, are being offered in fields including acupuncture and oriental medicine, audiology, information management, occupational therapy, art therapy and bioethics.

Physical therapy, nursing practice and audiology have had the biggest growth in PPD programs, number of degrees issued and enrollments, says Zusman.

Over the past 15 years, the degrees have created a growth industry of more than 500 programs in the United States in at least a dozen fields. More than 10,000 of the degrees were awarded in 2012.

"I began to wonder why there was this enormous growth, and what's driving it," says Zusman, whose paper, Degrees of Change: How New Kinds of Professional Doctorates are Changing Higher Education Institutions, was published in June.

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Some professional organizations and accrediting agencies, especially in the medical field, have set expectations--and in some cases, deadlines--for earning the doctorates simply to enter those professions. Programs for these doctorates are typically shorter than Ph.D. programs and focus on clinical experience, not research.

Some schools have no experience with doctoral programs and lack funding and qualified instructors, according to Zusman, who once directed graduate and professional education planning, policy and student outcomes assessment for the UC system. Increased program expenses are passed onto students, who face paying more in tuition for staying in school longer and losing out on what they could be earning on the job, says Zusman, adding that the underserved might find tougher access to certain professions.

What's more, in the case of the DPT, Zusman found no evidence that degree holders had greater earning power, despite the heavier student debt and additional study. In fact, she cites a survey that says they had less, perhaps because they were recent graduates and had less job experience.

Zusman found that the pressure for PPDs came not from universities or employers, but from professional organizations and related accrediting bodies seeking greater status, independence from physicians, income and exclusivity in their fields. …

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