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Physician-Scientist Workforce (PSW) Report 2014

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Training of Nurse-Scientists

Nurse-scientists usually begin their education with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree; most enter clinical practice at that point. The nursing profession traditionally has viewed clinical experience as a prerequisite to graduate education and new graduates were encouraged to practice clinically by faculty and peers between degrees rather than continuing straight on to obtain a PhD.45 This career path has resulted in the norm of nurses returning for a master’s degree in their mid-thirties to become an advanced practice nurse (e.g., nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist) or administrator, then returning to the work force for another decade, and finally returning to graduate school to obtain a PhD in their late thirties or even older.46 Nurse-scientists complete their doctoral degrees, on average, at the age of 47, which limits the number of years they have to build a scientific program and contribute to the scientific base of nursing practice.47

Nurses with advanced degrees such as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse executives command significantly higher salaries than nurse-scientist faculty at research institutions. This is an important disincentive to return to school to obtain a PhD. Although academics in all disciplines are rarely compensated at the same level as their peers in practice or industry, the disparity for nurses is one of the largest. In fact, clinical nurses working in hospitals or ambulatory care, nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and others have average salaries that are 30 percent higher than those of assistant professors of nursing.48

Trends in Nurse-Scientist Training

Despite the barriers cited above, nurse-scientist training has been on the upswing:

  • In 2012, 131 schools of nursing (19 percent of 677 nursing programs) offered research-focused PhD programs.49
  • Enrollment in nursing doctoral, research-focused education increased 28.6 percent from 2008-2012.50
  • Graduations from nursing, research-focused doctoral programs increased 11.7 percent from 2008-2012.51
Figure 4. Five-Year Doctoral Enrollment and Graduation Changes in the Same 131 Schools, 2008-2012.

Schools of nursing offer both full- and part-time doctoral programs in order to attract and accommodate the best talent. In Fall 2012, 45 percent of 5,110 individuals enrolled in research-focused doctoral programs were enrolled part-time.52 However, part-time programs take longer to complete, which contributes to the older age of research faculty.

Table 4.1. Enrollment Changes in Nursing Schools, 2011-2012

Table 4.1. Enrollment Changes in Nursing Schools, 2011-2012
Enrollment Changes in Same Schools Reporting in Both 2011 and 2012 by Type of Degree (From Tables 11&12, AACN, 2013)
TOTAL 4,907 5,110 203 4.1
FULL-TIME 2,639 2,787 148 5.6
PART-TIME 2,268 2,323 55 2.4

Influence of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

The development of a professional doctorate may also affect the numbers of nurses pursuing a PhD. The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) was introduced in 2004 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) with a recommendation by its members to adopt the DNP degree for all advanced practice nurses by 2015. In 2012, 217 schools reported offering the DNP degree.

  • The degree is designed as the terminal degree for advanced nursing practice with a focus on quality improvement and research translation.
  • Whether or not DNP programs will attract applicants that would have been interested in a PhD is unknown and what effect it will have on future PhD applications is also unknown. However, it is important to note that the program is focused on preparing its graduates “to fully implement the science developed by nurse researchers prepared in PhD, DNSc, and other research-focused nursing doctorates.”53 Its graduates are not expected to contribute scientific discoveries or to lead interdisciplinary teams of scientists. Thus, “the DNP will not meet the need for more nurse-scientists and it may contribute to their shortage.”54 In 2012 there were over 11,000 students enrolled in DNP programs, a 27 percent increase from 2011.55

NIH Support of Nurse-Scientist Training

At the NIH, the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) supports training of nurse-scientists through intramural opportunities such as the Graduate Partnership Program and through extramural opportunities that include both institutional and individual training awards. For the GPP program, 16 nursing PhD students have participated to date. From an extramural perspective, NINR supports the T32 institutional training grants; F31, F32, and F33 individual fellowship awards; and the K01, K23, K24, and K99/R00 awards for early career investigators. In the past NINR also supported the K08 mechanism.

In response to the need for new nurse researchers and faculty, NINR currently spends approximately 8 percent of its appropriated funds on the training of nurse-scientists. As a percent of budget, this is more than most NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) spend on pre- and post-doctoral training.

45 Dracup, K, Greiner, D.S., Haas, S.A., Kidd, P., Liegler, R., MacIntryre, R., et al.(2009). Faculty shortages in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs: Scope of the problem and strategies for expanding the supply. Retrieved from: As cited in: IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2011. The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press p.I-36-37

46 IOM, 2011.

47 Dracup, 2009.

48 IOM. 2011.

49 Fang, Li, Bednash, AACN, 2013.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Fang, Li, Bednash, AACN, 2013.

53 American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2010). The research-focused doctoral program in nursing pathways to excellence.

54 IOM (Institute of Medicine). (2011). The future of nursing: Leading change, advancing health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

55 Fang, D. Li, Y., Bednash, G.D. (2013). 2012-13 enrollment and graduations in baccalaureate and graduate programs in nursing. American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

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