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What do you do with a PhD in nursing?

By Tiffany Montgomery | 10/17/2012

I now view the question as an opportunity to educate.

Tiffany MontgomeryAlmost weekly, I am asked about my choice to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in nursing. The frequency of this makes me wonder if the general public only sees nurses as bedside handmaidens who take orders from physicians. The more frustrating thing is when these probing questions come from other PhD students.

I was shocked the first time I was asked by a non-nursing PhD student, “What do you do with a PhD in nursing?” I’ve now grown used to hearing this question from my doctoral colleagues outside the school of nursing. Still, it’s quite bothersome, because the question usually isn’t framed as an inquiry about what area of research I’m interested in or what type of employment I plan to seek upon graduation. It’s more, “Why in the world would a nurse want a PhD?”

Before I became accustomed to the question, I wasn’t sure how to answer it. Oftentimes, it was difficult to decipher whether or not the person asking was trying to be sarcastic (especially if the question came from another PhD student). At one point, I became irritated by the question and started giving a pretty snappy reply: “The same thing you do with a PhD in anything else!”

After completing a year of doctoral studies, however, I now realize that the general public is unaware of all the wonderful avenues available to nurses. So, now I view the question as an opportunity to educate.

What do you do with a PhD in Nursing?What do you do with a PhD in nursing? Whatever you want! There are PhD-prepared nurses who teach, conduct research, evaluate programs, write books, lead health care organizations and work for the government. With a doctoral degree, the sky is the limit. One thing I doubt most nurse PhDs want to do is work full time in direct patient care. At the doctoral level, nursing is less about hands-on patient care and more about the abstract thinking that helps move the profession forward. More than anything else, a nurse with a PhD has the training needed to conduct research and add to the body of available nursing research knowledge. While not all PhD-prepared nurses choose to work as researchers, all have been exposed to great amounts of research and have had to demonstrate their ability to conduct high-quality research on their own.

Three jobs I’ve noticed that most PhD-prepared nurses consider are listed below. The job descriptions provided are based on my observations of nurses employed in these positions, and they may vary from facility to facility:

Nursing faculty member—A nurse educator who works in an AS, BSN, MSN or PhD program as a classroom instructor. Nurse faculty members are also responsible for creating, implementing and evaluating program curricula and mentoring nursing students. Oftentimes, in addition to their teaching responsibilities, they are expected to conduct research. They typically disseminate this research in scholarly journals and at research conferences.

Director of nursing research—a nurse researcher who serves as administrator of the nursing research department of a health care facility or coordinator of the facility’s nursing research program. The director may supervise other nursing research employees, or he or she may be responsible for overseeing all nursing research projects conducted within the facility. The director of nursing research is typically the go-to person within the facility for questions regarding the design and implementation of a desired research study. He or she may or may not be responsible for dissemination of research findings.

Director of clinical services—a clinical administrator who oversees daily operations of patient care departments in a health care facility. He or she is the liaison between upper management and department managers. Although the director is not involved in direct patient care, he or she is aware of the work flows in each department that promote optimal patient care. The director may generate or receive reports addressing the efficiency of departmental work flows, and this information is then given to each department manager in an effort to increase efficiency and patient satisfaction.

Other jobs available to PhD-prepared nurses include research or high-ranking administrative positions in pharmaceutical companies, research institutes, health advocacy organizations, health care information technology corporations and nursing or other health-related publishing companies. A nurse who has attained a PhD can practically work anywhere that research, education, or program evaluation takes place. The important thing to remember is that graduation from a reputable PhD program ensures that a nurse has received proper research training.

If you have any additions to the types of jobs held by nurses with PhDs, please post below. I’d like to learn of new opportunities for nurses with the terminal degree.

Tiffany M. Montgomery, MSN, RNC-OB, C-EFM, a women’s health nurse since 2005, initially worked as a labor and delivery nurse before broadening her focus to obstetrics and gynecology. She is now pursuing a PhD in nursing at UCLA.
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