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Keeping the Ph.D. pipeline flowing

March 20, 2020

I recently moderated a panel discussion, hosted by the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) nursing deans on “The Ph.D. Pipeline in Nursing: Sustaining the Science in the MNRS Schools.” The panel discussion is a continuation of one hosted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR).

The initial AACN-NINR discussion was prompted by concern over the decreasing enrollments in research-focused doctoral degree programs. A key focus of that discussion was “sustaining the science.” Nursing has made tremendous progress in “developing the science” through the preparation of nurse researchers (or “scientists;” I feel we should claim that role).The goal of the discussion was to analyze contributing factors surrounding the recent decrease in enrollments and to identify steps to increase interest in Ph.D. programs. AACN and NINR subsequently issued a report, “The PhD Pipeline in Nursing: Sustaining the Science,” as a way to generate continued discussion.

In a follow-up discussion, deans at the Spring AACN meeting suggested three recommendations for increasing enrollments:

  • Early exposure to research
  • Financial support
  • Developing pathways to the Ph.D.

These three recommendations formed the foundation for the panel discussion at a Midwest Nursing Research Society (MNRS) event hosted by BTAA deans. The deans were gratified by the packed room and lively discussion, which included a great deal of items for consideration.

Several of the items – there were too many mentioned to include in this post – are things that we are either already working on or exploring in the MSU College of Nursing in an effort to increase Ph.D. enrollment while “sustaining the science.” These items are included in the first two aforementioned recommendations: “early exposure to research” and “financial support.”

Early Exposure to research:
We are already working on three ways to meet this recommendation. First, we are working with the Honors College to expand our honors program options to BSN students who may be interested in research. This approach provides students with practical experience of faculty research while developing their own topics of interest.

Second, we want to think of ways to include high school students, in addition to those in the BSN program, in faculty research. This option has the additional possibility of attracting students to the profession who may not have considered all nursing career opportunities.

Lastly, we are currently enrolling students who have completed the BSN either directly into the Ph.D. program or while they are in practice. With the growth of DNP graduates and decrease in the MSN option, we anticipate more BSN- or DNP-prepared applicants to Ph.D. programs. 

In addition, there are three more areas within this recommendation that we should explore further:

  • Developing clinically relevant research of importance to our practice partners
  • Partnering with colleagues and students associated with non-research level colleagues and universities
  • Exploring options for exposing students to team science

Financial Support: 
Enrolling in a Ph.D. program is an investment, not just for the student, but for the college and discipline. 

It’s an investment in the growth and development of individuals who can contribute, not just to “sustaining the science,” but to continue growing the science. Of course, this requires money. We currently provide two-year research/graduate assistantships, limited to Ph.D. nursing students, that provide some support for matriculation.

Our teaching workload policy also provides an incentive for faculty to seek financial support for students in the Ph.D. program by recognizing it as a formal teaching activity. Other suggestions that may be useful to explore are providing a monetary amount to students and to faculty as an incentive to work with students, revisiting the program length, and considering part-time options. Currently, there are not support options for part-time students.

In summary, we are at a critical point in the development of preparing Ph.D. nurses to sustain and grow the science. Increasingly, I hear from CEOs, politicians and health care field that the inclusion -- and leadership -- of nurses will be a major driver in the transformation of the industry. Nurses must be “at the table,” and a key to this transformation will be the “sustaining, and continuing development, of the science.”

Yours in Spartan Spirit,

Randolph F. R. Rasch, PhD, RN, FNP, FAANP

Dean and Professor

College of Nursing

Michigan State University