Ph.D. in Nursing Guide - Salary, Benefits & Programs

If you are considering pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing degree, you are aspiring to the highest level of education available within the nursing profession. The Ph.D. in Nursing degree is one of two terminal degrees available to nurses. The other is the Doctor of Nursing Practice or DNP. Unlike the DNP degree, which focuses on advanced clinical practice, the Ph.D. in Nursing degree prepares you for a science- and a research-focused career spent furthering knowledge that is essential to nurses and nursing education at all levels. 

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PhD nurses have a variety of exceptional career opportunities available to them based upon their dedication to advancing the nursing profession. Their education focuses on changing patient outcomes and the quality of care that nurses provide through research and education, and as a result, their expertise is in demand within the field of scientific inquiry, hospital and university administration, nursing schools, and in organizations creating public healthcare policy. 

There is a great deal to know about becoming a Ph.D. nurse, as well as about the numerous benefits and options available to those who pursue this path. This guide has been created to assist you as you navigate the journey to becoming a Ph.D. nurse and includes information on the various types of programs available, the requirements for acceptance into the program and expected curriculum, and the financial aspects of pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing degree.

Advantages of a Ph.D. in Nursing Degree

Nurses who elect to pursue a Ph.D. in nursing are making the decision to guide the future of the profession and to have a long-lasting impact on the quality and delivery of patient care. Rather than focusing on improving their own delivery of care, nurses who have their Ph.D. in nursing work to make improvements in care through scientific inquiry aimed at developing new knowledge in nursing science. As a Ph.D. nurse, you have the confidence of knowing that the contributions you make to the field can change public policy at a national and global scale. 

Beyond the personal satisfaction and accomplishments promised by working as a Ph.D. nurse, you will also be filling a very real need in the U.S. healthcare system. The Future of Nursing report published by the Institute of Medicine has encouraged nurses to pursue doctoral degrees, saying that the profound changes being experienced will mean a greater need for highly-educated nurses to serve as mentors, faculty, leaders, and policymakers going forward.

  • Ph.D. nurses have achieved the pinnacle of their profession’s educational offerings and are respected as experts. Doctoral-level nurses command a high degree of respect from medical professionals at all levels, as well as from those with whom they collaborate on questions of healthcare policy, administration and education. 
  • Ph.D. nurses play an integral role in shaping healthcare policy and improving the delivery of care – Ph.D. nurses pursue and interpret scientific knowledge with the singular goal of improving care practice and policy. Research conducted by Ph.D. nurses has led to significant changes in hiring, educational and healthcare policies in hospitals, educational institutions, and public health.
  • Ph.D. nurses are invaluable educators. One of the biggest challenges facing the healthcare system is the shortage of nurses. Though there is an expectation that 438,000 nursing jobs will open up by 2026, nursing programs continue to turn nursing school applicants away because there is a shortage of qualified nurse educators.  With a Ph.D. in nursing, you can make real change by helping to provide future nurses with the high-quality education that they need.

About the Ph.D. in Nursing Degree 

The focus of a Ph.D. in Nursing degree is on scholarship and nursing research, and once you have completed your doctoral program you will be able to conduct your own independent research into topics that will advance the practice and delivery of nursing, as well as to publish your findings for the benefit of the greater community and to lead groups of researchers. Because the Ph.D. in Nursing program is focused on scientific inquiry rather than the improvement of your practical skills, there is no clinical requirement. Instead, you will be required to complete a dissertation. Following graduation, your future may hold a career as a nurse scientist, as an administrator, as a nurse educator, or in establishing health policy. A Ph.D. in nursing degree offers you the ability to truly shape the future of nursing science and healthcare.

Coursework and Curriculum 

Research-focused Ph.D. in Nursing programs reflect the individual philosophies and strengths of each school program and their faculty. Each is unique, but all are geared towards fostering intellectual inquiry and are designed to prepare their graduates with the ability to pursue careers in research and teaching, advanced clinical practice, health care administration and policy. Their emphasis on nursing research means that they will share certain core elements designed to make them experts in the field of nursing, and include:

  • The philosophical and historical foundations of nursing knowledge
  • Review of existing and evolving nursing theory
  • Methods and process of developing theory
  • Research methodology and data management
  • Academic, research, practice and policy development

Programs will typically include content related to leadership strategies related to nursing, healthcare, and research; guided scholarship research experiences, including mentorship and working alongside faculty on their individual research programs; and immersion experiences designed to encourage leadership and scholarship. Each student will be required to complete a dissertation.

Ph.D. in Nursing programs can be pursued on either a full-time basis or a part-time basis and are also available online. Most take three to five years of full-time study to complete.

Salary and Pay

Despite the Institute of Medicine’s call for a dramatic increase in the number of nurses holding a doctoral degree, the percentage of nurses holding either a Ph.D. in nursing or the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree remains at less than 1% of all nurses in the country. As a result, the demand for Ph.D. nurses is growing, and so is the compensation that they are being offered. The salary available to Ph.D. nurses is largely dependent upon the career path that they pursue after their graduation: while nurse researchers earn an average salary of $95,000 per year, nurse educators earn over $111,870 per year. The American Organization for Nursing Leadership’s 2019 Salary and Compensation Study for Nurse Leaders found that doctoral-degreed Chief Nursing Executives can earn as much as $300,000 per year when they are working for healthcare systems or as consultants. 

Career Outlook

Pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing is a smart career move, particularly while the healthcare industry is struggling with such extensive shortages. The most pressing issue in nursing today is the national shortage, but a scarcity of nurse educators has forced nursing schools to turn away thousands of qualified applicants. According to Robert Rosseter, spokesman for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “The annual national faculty vacancy rate in nursing programs is over 7%. It’s about two teachers per nursing school or a shortage of 1,565 teachers.” Additionally, Ph.D. nurses are very much in demand by health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, research institutions, and health care facilities. 

Key Differences Between DNP and Ph.D. in Nursing Degrees

The Ph.D. in Nursing is one of two doctoral-level degrees available to Registered Nurses, with the other being the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Though both are terminal degrees that represent a remarkable level of academic achievement and expertise in the field of nursing, they are very different from one another. The most notable difference between the two is that the Ph.D. in Nursing degree is focused on research and prepares the graduate for a career in scientific inquiry while the DNP degree is focused on advancing the graduate’s clinical practice and leadership skills. Both degrees provide the ability to improve patient outcomes and care.

Here are some of the most important differences between a Ph.D. in Nursing and a Doctor of Nursing Practice:

  • Where a Ph.D. in Nursing’s goal is to research and develop new knowledge in nursing, a Doctor of Nursing Practice’s goal is a higher level of expertise and skill in patient care and service leadership.
  • Where a Ph.D. in Nursing prepares graduates to design, conduct and publish research, a DNP prepares graduates to provide the highest level of practice and care.
  • Where a Ph.D. in Nursing prepares graduates for a career in research and scientific inquiry dedicated to improving nursing outcomes, a DNP prepares graduates for Advanced Practice Nursing in specialty practice areas, as well as for leadership.

Types of Ph.D. in Nursing Programs 

Earning a Ph.D. in Nursing represents a significant achievement and commitment of time and effort. Though some doctoral candidates pursue their degree full time in a campus-based program, campus-based programs can also be pursued on a part-time basis, and the degrees are also widely available online. Registered Nurses with BSN degrees can apply to some Ph.D. programs, though many require having earned an MSN degree. Some nurses pursue both DNP degrees and Ph.D. degrees either consecutively or concurrently.

  • RN-to-PhD Program – Designed for RNs who have earned their Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) and want to pursue a career in nursing science research without first pursuing their MSN degree. These programs generally consist of required course work, electives, doctoral comprehensive examinations, and a dissertation.
  • MSN-to-PhD Program – Designed for Registered Nurses who have earned their Master of Science in Nursing degree from an accredited program. These programs generally include core courses for the doctoral program, electives, and dissertation study.
  • DNP/Ph.D. Dual Degree Program – These rigorous programs provide students with the opportunity to attain expertise in scientific inquiry and faculty practice at the same time as providing them with the practical skills of expert nurse clinicians.

Online Ph.D. in Nursing Programs

Earning a Ph.D. is a lengthy process that requires a tremendous amount of time and dedication. Pursuing a degree online offers students the opportunity to pursue their studies on their own time, and even to shorten the amount of time it takes for them to complete the program, but for nurses an online program addresses and solves the unique challenges faced by many nurses wishing to advance their education: as stated on the AACN website, “compared with other professions, nurses have more interruptions in their careers. Many in the profession are females who work as nurses while fulfilling responsibilities as wives and mothers.”  

Online Ph.D. in Nursing programs accommodate the personal and professional needs of working professionals and caregivers. Further, because the Ph.D. in nursing degree’s focus is on scientific inquiry, there is no need to arrange for onsite hands-on practical hours as is true with Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Degree programs. Though most programs do have a minimal amount of time that each Ph.D. candidate is required to spend on campus, for the most part, all that a student needs is Wi-Fi access in order to earn a doctoral-level degree that will make a significant contribution to their own career success, as well as to the delivery of care and to nursing science.

Here are just a few of the benefits of choosing an online Ph.D. in Nursing program:

  • Freedom to study from anywhere - no matter where you live or what your level of mobility, you can pursue a degree from the comfort of your own home, as well as any other location that has Wi-Fi access.
  • Set your own pace - online Ph.D. in Nursing programs can be pursued at your own pace. 
  • Continue to work - you can continue working at your current job while pursuing your degree.

The process of applying to an online Ph.D. program is almost identical to the process of applying for a traditional campus-based program. Applications can be submitted at your convenience, as many online programs operate separately from the standard semester schedule.

There are currently more than 135 Ph.D. in Nursing programs available in the United States, and many of those programs are available online. In choosing the program that is most suitable for you, it is important to start by identifying the area of research that is of the most interest to you, as a Ph.D. in Nursing programs largely focus on conducting research in a specific area. Different programs permit varying degrees of freedom in making that selection. They also differ on the opportunities for funding and grants.

In addition to researching these factors, you also want to look at these elements:

  • The program’s admission requirements
  • The program’s reputation
  • The funding that the program provides for student research
  • The specific number of in-person visits you will need to make and their duration
  • Does the program enable the delivery of your dissertation locally, or whether presentation requires travel to the school’s campus
  • The program’s credit hour specifications

Classes and Clinicals 

Ph.D. in Nursing programs focus on research rather than on clinical practice, and as a result, there are no clinical hour requirements. Instead, the programs focus on core classes that focus on the history and philosophy of nursing, the development, and testing of nursing research and the various issues relevant to the field. Data management and methodology are also addressed. Beyond those general didactic paths, the courses being offered by each program relate to the specific focus of the doctoral program. Sample classes may include:

  • Advanced Nursing Health Policy
  • Critical Applications of Advanced Statistical Models
  • International Health Systems and Research 
  • Issues and Trends in Cardiovascular Health Promotion Research
  • Special Topics in Violence Research
  • Statistical Methods in Public Health
  • Stress and Stress Response
  • Symptom Evaluation and Management
  • Technology and Tools to Conduct, facilitated, Implement and Manage Research 
  • The Evolving Roles of the Nurse Educator 
  • Theory and Concepts of Health Behavior
  • Translational Research
  • Writing for Publication 

Ph.D. in Nursing Program Requirements 

The requirements for admission into a Ph.D. in Nursing program are dependent upon whether the program is created for students entering with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree or a Master of Science in Nursing degree, but generally, every program will require the following:

  • A Bachelor’s or Master’s in Nursing degree from an accredited program 
  • A personal statement indicating research goals 
  • GRE scores if applicable
  • A minimum scholastic GPA of 3.0 
  • Interview with faculty if moved forward by the admissions committee
  • Writing sample 
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Unencumbered RN license
  • Official Transcripts from all post-secondary schools
  • TOEFL or IELTS if applicable

What to Consider Before Enrolling in a Ph.D. in Nursing Program

A Ph.D. in nursing is the pinnacle of the nursing profession. The only degree that is equivalent is the Doctor of Nursing Practice, and there is no degree that is higher. Making the decision to pursue this degree represents a life-changing decision, and there are numerous things that you need to consider before taking this enormous step: 

  • The Ph.D. in Nursing degree takes years to attain. Students who pursue this level of research not only face three years’ worth of full-time classroom hours that they need to invest but also need to design and conduct a research project and then complete a dissertation that in and of itself can encompass multiple years of dedication and effort. Still, the education and expertise that you gain in the pursuit of your doctoral degree will both further your own career but also the delivery of nursing care for the larger community.
  • A Ph.D. in Nursing degree focuses outside of hands-on practice. The degree’s focus on research and scientific inquiry is so comprehensive that it does not offer or require any clinical hours. Though for some this is counterintuitive following becoming a Registered Nurse, there is real value in adding to the knowledge that hands-on nurses need to deliver better care. Further, Ph.D. nurses are still able to deliver care, and even to operate their own practices in many cases.
  • Financial commitment. Pursuing an advanced education – even on a part-time or online basis — means having to take time away from other areas of your life and is likely to have an impact on your ability to work as many hours as you have previously. A Ph.D. in Nursing degree is frequently funded by the program that you choose, and after initial grants and stipends, there are generally additional fellowship funds available to help support students as they pursue their studies.

How Much Does a Ph.D. in Nursing Degree Cost?

After having already paid the costs involved in becoming a Registered Nurse, you have good reason to be concerned about the costs of investing in even more education – especially for a program that can take as long as five years. Tuition at Ph.D. in Nursing programs varies widely based upon whether the program is offered as a full time, campus-based setting or online, as well as on the reputation of the program and other factors. High-quality Ph.D. in Nursing programs can be found that charge less than $400 per credit hour, while some of the most recognizable teaching institutions in the country charge as much as $2,300 per credit hour. It is important to remember that many Ph.D. programs’ fees are almost entirely funded by the institution itself or through federal grant funding designed to encourage the research that is being pursued. These grants are more frequently available for students who are studying for their doctoral degree on a full-time basis, while part-time students are required to pay the full tuition fee.

Paying for Your Ph.D. in Nursing Degree – Financial Aid, Scholarships, Grants, Loans

As a candidate for a Ph.D. in Nursing, you are embarking on a path that will help you improve the delivery of care provided by nurses in clinical settings. Unfortunately, even pursuing lofty goals that will help solve some of medicine’s most pressing problems costs money. Here are some options available to help you pay for your Ph.D. in nursing.

  • Scholarships. There are many organizations that are interested in expanding scientific knowledge and that want to help you pursue that goal. Here are some of the most generous scholarships available to Ph.D. in Nursing students:
  • Grants. Grants can be funded privately or through the federal government, and do not need to be repaid. Numerous research organizations offer grants specifically designed to encourage nursing research in a specific area of inquiry. Some of these include:
  • Student loans. Student loans are available through private banks, but those who are pursuing their Ph.D. in nursing may be eligible for the Nurse Faculty Loan Program made available through the Health Services and Resources Administration. This program was started in 2004 and covers tuition and other costs for up to five years (approximately $35,500 per year)—up to 85 percent of which is forgiven.

In addition to being able to apply for student loans to help pay for your PhD in Nursing, candidates for doctoral degrees may want to investigate the National Institute of Health’s Loan Repayment Program, which repays up to $50,000 each year of a researcher’s qualified educational debt in return for a commitment to engage in NIH mission-relevant research.

For additional funding, most Ph.D. students will find themselves eligible for teaching assistant positions which can help to offset the costs of their education. It is a good idea to contact the Office of Financial Aid at your chosen school to see what is available. They may also be able to offer flexible payment programs.

Next Steps to Enroll in a Ph.D. in Nursing Degree Program

Nurses with PhDs are leading the way in the future of nursing care. They have the education and training that is needed to fill essential roles in leadership and to pursue research that will further the advancement of the nursing profession for their immediate community and beyond. If you have decided that a Ph.D. in nursing is in your future, these are the next steps you need to take to make your dream a reality: 

  • Carefully review the programs that are available to you, giving special consideration to whether you want to attend an in-person, full-time program or whether you’d prefer to study online. You also need to spend time researching each program’s research focus to find one that matches your particular interests, as well as the ones that meet your financial needs.
  • Once you have identified the programs that you want to apply to, make lists of each one’s requirements and deadlines, then begin putting together everything that they need to ensure that your documentation is ready and on time. Pay special attention to requirements regarding letters of recommendation, and make sure that each of those you have asked for a referral is aware of the deadline and has all that they need to comply with the requirements.
  • If you receive word from a school that you are under consideration, prepare for your interview carefully, paying particular attention to your reasons for choosing their particular program and your indicated research interest. It is a good idea to demonstrate your interest in the program by reaching out to any faculty members that might act as a mentor or research leader with whom you hope to work.

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Is a Ph.D. in Nursing Degree Right for Me?

If it is your goal to play an essential role in nursing leadership, in scientific and academic research in the field of nursing or to become a nurse educator, then applying to a Ph.D. in Nursing program is the best way for you to move forward. In doing so, you will attain the highest level of nursing education while putting yourself in a pivotal role in the future of healthcare and nursing knowledge.

References

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine

Institute for Healthcare Improvement

National League of Nursing

American Association of Colleges of Nursing

HealthGrad

Emerging RN Leader

Researchgate

CNN

Profellow

American Nurses Association

National League of Nursing

Sigma Nursing

National Institute of Health

Health Services and Resources Administration

Nurse.org

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