BSN-to-Doctorate Programs Fast-Track Nursing Research Careers

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University of Texas adds BS-to-Ph.D. Program

The University of Texas at Austin recently added an alternate-entry nursing doctorate program for students with a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline. It includes a 15-month preparation to become a registered nurse, followed by a one-semester bridge course, before beginning Ph.D. studies.

“We think this is the only program in the country doing that right now,” said Lorraine O. Walker, RN, Ed.D., FAAN, the Luci B. Johnson Centennial Professor in Nursing at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re making sure we’re not putting up a barrier to people who are not nurses to coming in for a graduate degree.”

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

Nurses aiming for a research or academic career can streamline their educational preparation by attending a bachelor of science in nursing-to-doctoral program and obtaining an earlier start developing the expertise to become prominent professional leaders.

“These programs appeal to committed, energetic people who see nursing as a career and profession,” said Geraldine “Polly” Bednash, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, executive director of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “They have a commitment to the profession and growing their knowledge base to be the best they can be.”

Traditionally, nurses interspersed graduate education with clinical experiences, obtaining a master’s degree before pursing a doctorate. But this has led to nurses obtaining a terminal degree at a later age than many other professions. BSN-to-Ph.D. programs speed up the process.

“They will have more time to build a research career and get more return on their investment,” said Diane Boyles, RN, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing. “They will be able to select an area of research and pursue it in much more depth over a longer time frame.”

Traditional Ph.D. students at the University of Kansas School of Nursing are in their early to mid-40s. Its BSN-to-Ph.D. program attracts a younger cohort, typically nurses in their late 20s or early 30s.

Many BSN-to-Ph.D. students move to graduate school directly after completing their undergraduate degree, before they develop as many financial and family obligations.

“They are used to being students and have fresher writing and test-taking skills,” said Ann Horgas, PhD, RN, FAAN, associate dean for research at the University of Florida College of Nursing in Gainesville. “It’s easier for many of them to get back into a school routine, and they have fewer competing demands.”

Educators hope restructuring and expediting studies will attract more nurses to academic and research careers. During the past 10 years, the number of universities offering BSN-to-doctoral degrees has grown from one to almost 50, with a dozen more programs in the works.

“Clearly, what is happening in the academic world is they are seeing a need to grow these programs, and there is a shift in people’s perceptions about the need to grow people at an earlier age. It’s a positive shift,” Bednash said.

Nursing schools face a severe faculty shortage. Last year, universities turned away almost 30,000 qualified applicants, primarily due to a dearth of instructors. Compounding the problem, many current professors plan to retire within the next decade. 

“We have a big need for doctorally prepared faculty in order to meet educational challenges within our schools and to promote research endeavors in nursing,” said Cynthia McCurren, Ph.D., RN, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, School of Nursing, which launched its BSN-to-Ph.D. program in January. “We hope to address the faculty shortage.”

Most BSN-to-doctoral programs allow nurses attending full time to complete their doctoral studies in four to five years.

“It shortens the progression from a bachelor’s to Ph.D. by a year and a half,” said Lorraine O. Walker, RN, Ed.D., FAAN, the Luci B. Johnson Centennial Professor in Nursing at the University of Texas at Austin. She recommends students limit work to part time and study full time, placing a strong emphasis on research and learning how to write grants and give presentations to help their career development.

BSN-to-PhD curriculums often include master’s level bridge courses before starting the traditional doctoral studies. Many programs skip most of the master’s coursework.

“This is an option for someone who doesn’t want to go into advanced practice or for people who got certificates in advanced practice and don’t need a master’s degree but would like an advanced degree,” said Diane Holditch-Davis, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, professor and director of doctoral and post-doctoral programs at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Holditch-Davis explained that it also appeals to nurses with a master’s degree in other disciplines.

However, some university programs offer an advanced-practice option. Students in the University of Kansas program can chose a family nurse practitioner Ph.D. track or one of two research tracks. And the University of Florida’s BSN-to-Ph.D. program includes a master’s of science in nursing with a specific clinical focus, allowing students to become certified as a nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist.

“They have basic advanced practice knowledge that is important and important for some employers as well,” Horgas said. “It also provides students with a solid clinical foundation and advanced knowledge of the clinical area. That serves as a good base for their doctoral work.”

Including more clinical opportunities negates some of the unease voiced about BSN-to-Ph.D. programs—that nurses not following the traditional path do not receive enough clinical experience.

“In order to be a good teacher and researcher in a practice discipline, such as nursing, you need to have some awareness about what clinical practice is about and issues around patient care. If you never had that experience it’s hard to be a teacher and know what the critical clinical questions might be,” said McCurren, who explained that Louisville’s program includes a practicum in a clinical setting to provide hands-on experience related to the student’s research interest.  

Horgas said that nurses often put unrealistic demands on fellow nurses expecting them to be expert clinicians as well as researchers and leaders, yet that may not be realistic. She feels that by allowing more diversity and creativity in the educational process, the profession may attract more nurses to doctoral programs and ensure the development of the next generation of educators and researchers.

With the growth of BSN-to-Ph.D. programs, nurses have more choices for graduate study. While many of the programs are similar, variations exist. Candidates should consider available offerings and whether a faculty member at a particular school has similar research interests, and then select a program that will best help them achieve their aspirations. 

“[A BSN-to-Ph.D. program] gives motivated students another option to pursue advanced education in nursing,” Horgas said. “There is a lot of support for people to move through their education in a more expeditious mode. There is a lot to be said for going through an academic program and getting it done.”

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