Registered nurses who wish to move up the career ladder can expand their opportunities by returning to school. Once they obtain a graduate degree, RNs can become nurse practitioners or nurse researchers. Individuals who choose to become nurse practitioners will have new responsibilities and freedoms, including the ability to write prescriptions. Those who want to research or teach can earn a PhD to prepare for work in academia.
The education process for nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses has traditionally culminated in a master’s degree. However, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has recognized that these master’s programs are as course-heavy as doctoral level programs in health professions such as pharmacy and optometry. The organization has also acknowledged that the level of responsibility of a nurse practitioner is similar to that of other health professions that require a doctoral level education. As such, it has endorsed a plan to require future nurse practitioners to seek out a doctorate degree.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
Major nursing and nurse practitioner organizations support a proposal requiring nurse practitioners to obtain a doctor of nursing practice degree by 2015. If state legislators pass laws to instate this requirement, nurse practitioners who already work without a DNP will not be penalized. These new doctoral programs target nurses who wish to remain in patient care and leadership roles within health care systems. The courses in this program emphasize practical nursing skills, evidence-based practice and leadership. They prepare nurses to work in advanced medical practice environments. There is a substantial clinical practice component to this degree, but a dissertation is not required.
According to the National Institute of Nursing Research, nurse researchers are focused on building the scientific foundation for clinical practice, preventing disease, managing symptoms and enhancing palliative care. Nurse researchers must have a PhD in nursing. The studies conducted by nurse researchers are utilized by nurses who work as patient care providers.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing
The PhD in nursing is a doctoral level nursing degree that prepares nurses who wish to go into nursing research as a career. This degree program emphasizes advanced research design and research methods. The PhD program at Duke University, for example, has a curriculum that focuses on the trajectory of chronic illness and care systems. Students in the PhD program have no clinical component to complete, but they do have to teach and write a dissertation.