Nursing Next Steps… PhD or DNP?

Updated on December 12, 2013
Donna G. Nativio
Donna G. Nativio
Catherine M. Bender
Catherine M. Bender

By John Chamberlin

For some nurses, obtaining a PhD or DNP can help them conduct research, influence policy and patient care, as well as continue their compassion for service, at a higher level.  If this is a path you are currently investigating, the interview below with University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing may be helpful.

Western Pennsylvania Healthcare News (HN) recently spoke with Donna G. Nativio Ph.D., C.R.N.P., F.A.A.N., Associate Professor and Nurse Practitioner, and Director, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program and Catherine M. Bender, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., Professor, Nursing and Clinical and Translational Science Institute, PhD Program Director of the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing.

HN: Describe the students and what they typically are looking to do post doctorate work?

Dr. Nativio: To characterize them as a group, they range from newly graduated with a BSN to those with many years of varied nursing experience who aspire to a career focused on care of patients in all heath care settings.   They seek to be prepared at the highest level for a leadership career in hands-on care and/or designing care through oversight of systems of care and/or teaching others to provide care in a faculty role.  

Dr. Bender: Students graduating from our PhD Program expect that post-doctoral work will prepare them to launch their independent research career.

HN: What is the distinctive difference between the University of Pittsburgh’s doctorate programs and other programs?

Dr. Nativio: The University of Pittsburgh Doctor of Nursing Practice Program offers more specialty choices than most DNP Programs.  Our specialty areas of concentration encompass 6 choices for Nurse Practitioners, 2 for Clinical Nurse Specialists as well as specialty preparation in Nursing Administration and Nurse Anesthesia. We have expert faculty to support learning in each specialty area.   

Also we require a focused and rigorous Capstone Project that allows the student to develop an area of expertise that they can build upon and extend following completion of the DNP Program.   In both curriculum and Capstone the emphasis is on quality outcomes.

Those in the post MSN to DNP may study full or part time on site or on line.  

Dr. Bender: There are many qualities that make Pitt’s PhD Program in the School of Nursing among the best in the country. First and foremost are the extraordinary faculty that teach and mentor the PhD students.

Our faculty are senior researchers with outstanding, highly productive programs of research. Thus they are uniquely qualified to mentor PhD students as they learn to become researchers. 

Our school is unique in that it is the only School of Nursing in the U.S. to be awarded three T32 grants from the National Institute of Nursing Research.  

These T32 awards support the training of PhD students and post-doctoral training in the areas of cancer survivorship, genomics and technology. 

HN: Typically, doctorate students are adult learners with families, full-time jobs, etc.  How does the University of Pittsburgh support the student as they work through the doctorate degree?

Dr. Nativio: DNP students may extend or accelerate their progress to degree completion depending on their specific needs and capabilities.  They may study full or part time.   

Teaching or Research  Assistant positions that provide tuition support may be available as is expert assistance from our Student Services office in applying for student loans and  scholarship offerings.  Upon admission students are assigned an academic advisor who tracks academic progress with each student and helps in revising a program of study if family responsibility, work demands, health  or other personal issues arise. 

Dr. Bender: Our school offers financial support to full-time PhD students so that they can focus on their doctoral study and maintain the balance that is needed to attend to the needs of their families and other commitments. Our faculty are also particularly sensitive to the needs of our PhD students to balance their scholarly work with the needs of their families.

HN: Do most students seem to have employer sponsored tuition or self-pay?

Dr. Nativio: It is rare for the employer to cover all academic costs, some provide tuition assistance, a few students are supported by family but most DNP students pay their own tuition through savings or student loans.

Dr. Bender: Most students receive support, toward their PhD, from the School of Nursing. It is an extraordinary opportunity for focusing on their doctoral study.

HN: Typical career path for a post DNP student?

Dr. Nativio: DNP programs across the nation began 8-10 years ago so the typical career path is still to be defined.  Many have become active in professional and community organizations, published in peer reviewed journals and done international, national and regional presentations. 

Many are important members of our ‘community of interest” and assist us in teaching and mentoring current DNP students, advise us on curriculum and help recruit new students. 

Dr: Bender: The typical career aspiration of our PhD graduates is obtaining an academic position in a research intensive university.  They are well prepared for these positions given that Candidates for the PhD program have typically been involved in research, have presented their research at national forums and have published papers in their area of research interest.

If you are looking to elevate your nursing career to the doctorate level, take time to evaluate your options. Understand the educational differences in respect to the eventual career path you plan to choose.  Understanding your endpoint will help you choose the correct educational track.

Before ending this article, it seems fitting to provide a quote from the Dean, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N:

“The School of Nursing is research intensive with a strong academic environment.  Our doctoral programs are designed to prepare graduates to generate (PhD) or use (DNP) research to improve the care of patients, to educate the next generation of nurses either in the university or in the clinical setting, and to provide leadership to the future directions of nursing.  We are very proud of the contributions that our graduates make to health care and to nursing.”

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