Rounds with Leadership: Strengthening the Pipeline to the PhD

Published January 31, 2018

Welcome to Rounds with Leadership, a new forum for AACN’s Board Chair and President/CEO to offer commentary on issues and trends impacting academic nursing.

January 31, 2018 - 

Strengthening the Pipeline to the PhD

At AACN’s Doctoral Education Conference held earlier this month, more than 700 faculty members and administrators from across the nation explored the many opportunities and challenges that come with preparing nurses for the highest level of research and practice. With an emphasis on enhancing quality, those present were encouraged to re-envision doctoral education for today’s learner and to reignite their passion for inspiring the next wave of nurse leaders. 

Through our work to educate nurse researchers and advanced clinicians, what we do directly impacts the quality of patient care as well as health outcomes. We need to continue developing new science to ensure that we understand health in its broadest sense and how to promote health, whether for prevention of illness and injury, or in the face of chronic conditions, urgent and emergent problems, or end of life care. We need practice experts to break new ground when it comes to care delivery and systems redesign, and measuring and improving relevant outcomes of care.  Together, graduates from research- and practice-focused doctoral programs will work to bridge the gaps in health care and optimize health by collaborating with each other and with other health professionals and community members. 

By all accounts, the profession is making great strides in preparing more nurses at the doctoral level as we move closer to meeting the IOM report (2011) recommendation related to doubling the number of nurses with doctorates by the year 2020.  This year, we expect to see another double-digit percentage increase in the number of students pursuing the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) -- the 14th consecutive year of enrollment growth in DNP programs.

Despite this welcome trend, enrollment in PhD programs has decreased for the third straight year, based on preliminary data compiled through AACN’s 2017 survey of baccalaureate and graduate programs in nursing. Last year, 4,632 students were enrolled in the nation’s 138 PhD in nursing programs, which represents a 14.2% decrease in enrollments since 2014. Reversing this decline must be a priority for the profession if we are to meet the growing demand for nurse researchers and faculty.

Fortunately, there is work underway to break down barriers and bring more nursing students into PhD programs, including the following:

  • Since 2008, the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veteran’s Healthcare has invested nearly $25 million in the Jonas Nurse Scholars program, which has enabled more than 1,000 nurses from all 50 states to complete doctoral level nursing education. The program, which is coordinated by AACN, has provided support to 682 PhD scholars.
  • Initiated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2013, the Future of Nursing Scholars program has provided financial support, mentoring, and leadership development to 213 nursing students in PhD programs.
  • Since 2007, AACN has partnered with the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing’s Future to offer the Minority Nurse Faculty Scholars program designed to increase diversity within the nurse faculty population. Of the 55 Scholars selected to participate in this program, 50 have completed or are pursuing the PhD.

In addition, AACN also is working to enhance the pipeline into PhD programs by advocating for new federal legislation and increased funding for graduate nursing education; collecting and publishing data to quantify student enrollment trends; identifying and disseminating long and short-term strategies to address this issue in AACN’s newsletters, webinars, and conference programming; and expanding the applicant pool for schools seeking PhD program applications via NursingCAS, the profession’s centralized application service.

Though the efforts outlined here are yielding results, much more must be done to ensure strong interest in the PhD among current and prospective nursing students.  As educators and role models, we are uniquely well positioned to prepare the future stewards of our profession to lead with integrity, enthusiasm, and joy. Please share your ideas, success stories, and recommendations with us as together we foster the culture of inquiry and innovation that is so necessary to building the scientific foundation for nursing practice and re-envisioning our healthcare delivery system.