Confident PhD-prepared nurse stands smiling outside of research hospital

High Demand, Low Supply: Why PhD-Prepared Nurses Are Needed 

Confident PhD-prepared nurse stands smiling outside of research hospital

Written by Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN.

No matter where a nurse is in their career, there’s always more to learn. While 13% of nurses have a graduate degree, less than 1% of nurses have a PhD, and those who do are in high demand.

About PhDs

PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy (from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor), is the terminal degree for many disciplines, not only philosophy. In the original Greek, ‘philosophy’ translates roughly to ‘lover of wisdom’ — a fitting title for the nurse who loves to learn.

A lofty goal

In 2010, the groundbreaking first Future of Nursing report was published in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute of Medicine. The report called for 80% of RNs to have BSNs by 2020. However, one of the lesser visible calls to action was the lofty goal of doubling the number of doctorally prepared RNs by 2020.

In 2009, there were a total of 8,267 nurses employed with a doctoral degree. By 2019, the Campaign for Action dashboard notes there were 37,852.

By 2019, that goal of doubling doctorally prepared nurses was met in part with the expansion of the DNP terminal degree option. In that year, there were 7,944 DNP graduates, compared to 801 PhD graduates.

What is a PhD-prepared nurse?

There is often confusion between the roles of a PhD- and DNP-prepared nurse. As noted in The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 report, PhD programs are research-focused, and graduates typically teach and conduct research, although these roles are expanding.

DNP programs are practice-focused, and graduates typically serve in advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles and other advanced clinical positions, including faculty positions. PhD-prepared nurses are essential in the development of the research to support evidence-based practice and add to the body of nursing knowledge. The DNP-educated nurse plays a key role in translating evidence into practice.

PhD-prepared nurses traditionally study issues related to health and healthcare through the viewpoint of a nurse.  With a shortage of PhD-prepared RNs, it is imperative for the health of the nursing profession and of our country that we increase the number of PhD-prepared nurses.

Why PhD-prepared nurses are needed

In the Future of Nursing 2020-2030 report, conclusion 7-2 states the need for more PhD-prepared nurses to help build the knowledge base in the nursing profession for other nurses to translate (DNPs) and use in practice (LPNs, RNs, and APRNs). Research is urgently needed in fundamental areas of nursing — for example, a 2021 study noted a dearth of nurse-led research related to COVID-19.

Often when nurses contemplate PhD vs DNP, they assume that a PhD-prepared RN must always be doing research. While research is a fundamental component to a PhD-prepared RN, not all PhD-prepared RNs are 100% dedicated to research activities. The analytical and critical-thinking skills mastered in a PhD program translate well into other areas, including teaching, leadership, and management roles.

Other roles for PhD Prepared RNs include:

  • Nursing faculty
  • University researcher
  • Director of professional practice
  • Nurse researcher for a hospital or healthcare system
  • Health policy director

Salary and career paths

With the variety of roles brings a range of salary and work expectations. In a university or college setting, a PhD-prepared RN may have a 9-month contract aligned with the academic calendar, while a PhD-prepared RN who is also the nurse researcher in a hospital would work a year-round schedule.

Of course, the salary and benefits differ from role to role and location to location. Nurse researchers in the academic setting may make around $95,000-$120,000 a year, while a nurse researcher in a hospital will usually have a higher salary range.

Want to contribute to our 2021-2022 Nursing Salary Survey? Share your insights.

There are several entry points into a PhD program, including master’s and bachelor entry. Some nurses question the practice of foregoing a master’s degree first, but if the end goal is a PhD, obtaining a Master’s in Nursing along the way, though it may be beneficial, is not a requirement.

While a BSN to PhD will take one 3-5 years to complete, the journey will be worth it in the end, as PhD-prepared Nurses are uniquely equipped to expand the global knowledge-base and help advance the nursing profession.