Rounds with Leadership: Taking Action to Champion the PhD in Nursing

Published January 30, 2019

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

January 30, 2019 - Taking Action to Champion the PhD in Nursing

Welcome to AACN’s 50th anniversary year!  Since 1969, AACN has been the nation’s leading advocate for baccalaureate and graduate nursing education. Our founders clearly recognized the strong connection between having a well-educated nursing workforce and the ability to provide high quality patient care. This guiding philosophy is alive today in our member deans, faculty, and students who are the core of AACN’s strength and essential partners in our work to improve health and health care on a national scale. 

Heading into the new year, one of our top priorities is to ensure steady enrollment in all baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral level nursing programs. Within this universe, one area of great concern is sustaining interest in the PhD in nursing, as these programs supply our future faculty, researchers, and leaders. As you likely know, enrollments in PhD programs have declined each year from 2013 through 2017. On a brighter note, preliminary data from AACN’s 2018 annual survey show that enrollment in PhD programs is up 1%, which hopefully marks the end of the downward trend. Even with this welcome news, more must be done to ensure that we are graduating enough nurses from our PhD programs to meet workforce needs (inset graph showing PhD enrollments).

At AACN’s Doctoral Education Conference held earlier this month in San Diego, hundreds of research directors and faculty for our nation’s PhD programs came together to explore pipeline challenges, including a deep dive into this issue at the PhD Preconference held on January 23.  Following a robust day of dialogue and solutions sharing, major themes emerged, including the need to highlight the value proposition for pursuing the PhD, variations in educational experiences across research-focused programs, the roles faculty play as mentors and advocates for nursing science, the benefits of exposing baccalaureate students to the joys of nursing research and discovery early in their professional formation, and the need to celebrate and elevate the impact nursing scientists have on health care.

Based on the discussion at this convening and the most recent meeting of the Board of Directors, AACN has identified four priority areas for action:

  • Continuing the Conversation: AACN’s Board has made addressing the PhD pipeline a chief priority, and we recognize the central role the association can play in bringing stakeholders together, including representatives for health care, higher education, and federal agencies. This conversation has just commenced, and we need to hear from all voices if we are to turn the tide.

  • Enhance Marketing for the PhD: AACN is committed to creating resources to help member schools generate strong interest in the PhD. Over the past few months we have created a new section on the Web focused on the PhD in nursing, which highlights the latest data and other resources currently available. To augment this resource, we are developing new marketing materials, including video testimonials from veteran nurse researchers, highlights of the impact that nursing research has had on health care, resources for career counseling, and recommendations on how to engage undergraduates in nursing research.

  • Identify Data Gaps: To better assess pipeline issues and the future of PhD education, AACN is working to identify the data gaps related to this issue and how we can bridge these gaps. We also will work to keep the known data – like those captured in AACN’s October 2018 report on the PhD pipeline – front and center. 

  • Identifying Partners: AACN already has been in touch with many potential partners with an interest in working together to address the PhD pipeline issue. We have had preliminary conversations with key stakeholders, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Jonas Center, Sigma Nursing, and the National Institute of Nursing Research. We will continue to seek broader engagement with other groups including the National Institutes of Health, the Hillman Scholars, regional research societies, the Graduate Nursing Student Academy, the American Academy of Nursing, business partners, and the Nursing Coalition to increase our advocacy around the issue.

AACN is proud to lead this effort and is committed to working collaboratively with member schools and external stakeholders to champion the PhD and inspire the next generation of nursing scientists.