Data Spotlight: Trends in Nursing PhD Programs

Generating strong interest in the PhD in nursing (and similar research-focused doctorates) is a priority for the profession. Although less than 1% of today’s nursing workforce has earned a PhD (NCSBN, 2021), these individuals are in high demand with the need for nurse scientists, faculty, and leaders on the rise.
Despite this great need, AACN has seen a steady decline in enrollment in PhD programs over the last 10 years. Since 2012 enrollments have declined 12%, from 5,110 to 4,476 students, even though graduations have increased 20% from 611 to 733 graduates (Figure 1). During this period, the number of research-focused doctoral nursing programs has increased 14%, from 131 to 149. As seen in Figure 2, these programs are now available in almost every state in the U.S. The regional distribution of students enrolled reflects the distribution of programs, which are more heavily concentrated in the South and North Atlantic (Figure 3). In 2021, the largest number of graduates were in the South and Midwest, respectively (Figure 4). 
The data on racial and ethnic diversity within the PhD student population shows a growing level of representation. Over the last 10 years, the percentage of students and graduates from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups has increased by 8% (Figure 5). Notably, the percentage of African American students has increased 5% from 2012 to 2021, and the percentage of graduates has increased 1.5%.  
AACN is committed to working with practice partners and other stakeholders to advocate for more resources for PhD programs and support to create a more diverse community of nurse scholars. Released in April 2022, our position statement on The Research-Focused Doctoral Program in Nursing: Pathways to Excellence presents a new vision for the PhD in nursing and program graduates, which will help spark strong interest among students in careers as nurse researchers.


Figure 1: Research-Focused Doctoral Enrollments and Graduations, 2012-2021

Line graph showing number of student enrollment and graduations from 2012-2021.

Figure 2: Fall 2021 Number of Research-Focused Doctoral Programs by State

A U.S. Map showing number of doctoral programs by state.

Figure 3: 2021 Research-Focused Doctoral Enrollment by Region

A U.S. Map showing number of doctoral programs by region.

Figure 4: 2021 Research-Focused Doctoral Graduations by Region 

A U.S. Map showing number of doctoral graduates by region.

Figure 5: Percent of Racial/Ethnic Minority Students and Graduates, Research-Focused Doctoral 2012-2021

Line graph showing number of racial ethnic minority student enrollment and graduations from 2012-2021