There are 2 main nursing degrees at the doctoral level, the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the PhD in Nursing. A nursing PhD is an academic degree that focuses on the theory of nursing practice and clinical research. In contrast, traditional or online DNP programs are more practice-oriented degrees that focus on teaching you how to use research to improve real-world health policies and nursing strategies.
Both traditional programs and accredited PhD nursing online programs usually take 3 to 5 years to complete depending on your previous coursework and how much time you spend writing your dissertation. PhD programs are built around your dissertation, which is a final project that combines previous research, your own research and nursing theory to address general nursing practices or public health strategies.
As students pursue their PhD, they first go through a process designed to enhance their independent research skills. During the first phase of the program you will take graduate-level courses and begin to develop possible ideas for your dissertation topic. After you have chosen a topic and finished your coursework, the last 2 to 4 semesters of the program are usually devoted to researching and writing your dissertation.
Once the dissertation has been completed, the final step before receiving the degree is to present and defend the dissertation before a group of expert reviewers who are usually faculty members. Throughout all stages of dissertation development, students are guided by a faculty advisor whose role is to provide theoretical and practical advice, recommend relevant literature and suggests ways to gather data.
Who should pursue a PhD in nursing?
Programs that offer nursing online degrees or traditional degrees at the PhD level look for students who are capable of developing new knowledge toward the advancement of nursing practice. PhD students are usually well versed in various research and data analysis methods. However, they also typically possess a considerable amount of clinical experience, and most programs require that admitted students hold a current RN license.
Traditional and online doctoral programs in nursing take a more academic approach to nursing science, so the best PhD students are usually passionate about ideas and enjoy spending lots of time researching, writing and teaching. These programs also take much longer to complete than other undergraduate and graduate degrees, so PhD students must be dedicated and able to concentrate on a single specialty topic for several semesters.
Studying online for a PhD in nursing
Prospective online learners may be surprised to learn that some of the best online PhD in nursing programs stick to the same accreditation standards as the programs on traditional university campuses. In recent years, many of the best nursing schools in the country have invested heavily in distance learning technology to make their campus and coursework available to a larger number of students without sacrificing the quality of their programs.
Students enrolled in an accredited online doctorate in nursing program will typically have access to downloadable lectures, online discussion boards and video conferences. These resources ensure that students have regular access to their classmates and professors, which supports the educational side of learning as well as the social experience.
However, you should know that not all aspects of the degree can be completed from home, and the best nursing doctoral programs online will still require you to participate in research-oriented seminars and hands-on projects. For instance, some PhD programs offer mentoring courses in research and teaching where students must assist nursing professors on research projects or in real classroom settings.
While online nursing programs have become increasingly sophisticated, it is import for students to remember that even the best online nursing PhDs still do not offer the same opportunities for engaging with mentors or networking with colleagues that are available through traditional brick-and-mortar programs.
Doctorate-level coursework and program requirements
Both traditional and top nursing doctorate online programs will share a similar set of basic requirements. PhD-level coursework is designed so that you are first introduced to the various fields of research in the nursing profession.
Although the development of the dissertation is the core focus of nursing PhD programs, during the first several semesters you will also be required to attend seminars that focus on topics like clinical nursing theory as well as quantitative research methods, grant writing procedures and strategies for building a research team. These advanced courses give you the tools you need to start developing your own theories about current nursing practices and healthcare policies.
This phase is often followed by research residencies and independent study fellowships that give you time to prepare the foundation for your dissertation. Finally, as you research and gather information for your dissertation, you will share your ideas with your faculty advisor by writing a research proposals. If your advisor approves your project, you can move into the writing phase of the dissertation.
Whether you enroll at a traditional university or in an online PhD nursing program, the general purpose of your nursing dissertation will be the same: To develop and present an original proposal to improve an established theory, nursing practice or aspect of public health.
Gaining admission to a nursing PhD program
Most nursing PhD programs require students to have a bachelors or masters in nursing or a masters in a related field. Although admissions boards do not generally show a specific preference for admitting either bachelors or masters students, students who already hold an MSN generally complete their degree 1 to 2 years sooner than bachelors degree students.
In addition to holding a degree, you will also need to provide official transcripts that detail all of your previous college coursework. Most PhD programs also require you to have a current or pending RN license. Students who can demonstrate their academic skills by submitting their masters thesis or published scholarly papers are often given preference during admissions decisions.
Finally, many of the best PhD programs also require you to interview with 1 or more faculty members. This interview may be done in person, but students who do not live close to the university can often choose to have a phone interview or video conference.
Holding a job during your nursing PhD program
PhD students typically conduct independent research as part of their dissertation, but working as hospital researchers, nursing managers or teaching assistants at universities can help them deepen their knowledge of current nursing practices.
Clinical jobs are often especially practical for online learners since distance-learning programs offer more flexibility. However, both online and on-campus PhD programs tend to be very rigorous and usually require students to attend scheduled seminars, conduct independent research and discuss dissertation details with faculty panels, leaving little time to hold an outside job.
Students with several years of experience working as an RN may want to focus on their PhD in order to finish quickly. However, students who enter a PhD program directly after finishing their BSN may want to consider working part time as an RN during their PhD studies in order to get some additional hands-on clinical experience. It will almost certainly take them longer to complete their degree, but the real-world nursing experience that they acquire can be of tremendous value for their later research.