Enrolling in a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program can be a daunting task for many students due to the rigorous academic requirements often associated with it. Although DNP school can be intimidating, students who choose to enroll not only embrace the significance of pursuing higher education but also the possibility of advancing their roles as prominent health care leaders in the nursing profession. As a DNP candidate myself, I’ve grown to appreciate the triumph and struggles associated with pursuing a terminal degree. Therefore, I believe students who are considering pursuing their DNP degree must harness these seven attributes to ensure that they are not only readily prepared but also successful in their scholastic endeavors.
1. Clear Vision
Setting a vision and goal for the future is vital for success in the DNP program. Possessing a clear vision is necessary because it helps you organize your individual objectives and helps you maintain accountability throughout the program. If choosing to enroll in DNP school perfectly aligns with your personal and professional goals, having a vision that is well defined will not only help you focus on your objectives but also create a sense of purpose that ultimately becomes your own measurement for success.
2. Ability to Prioritize
Students who know what and how to prioritize tend to be more successful in DNP school because they know how to differentiate tasks as either critical or noncritical. One of the best ways to prioritize in DNP school is by looking over the program and course objectives of each class and determine which tasks need to be completed first. By knowing how to prioritize your tasks wisely you will not only be able to minimize stress but also maximize results more effortlessly and efficiently.
3. Effective Time Management Skills
Possessing excellent time management skills is an important trait prior to beginning DNP school because of the high academic workload associated with pursuing a doctoral degree. Managing your time effectively will allow you to accomplish more tasks in a shorter period of time and help lower your stress and increase your concentration and attention. To ensure that your time is properly managed, it helps to keep a written or electronic record, diary, or calendar to ensure that you know what tasks are required and when they must be completed.
4. Strong Work Ethic
Maintaining a strong work ethic is essential in determining your overall success in DNP school. Students who possess a strong work ethic understand that success can only be achieved by practicing the ideals of discipline and hard work on a regular basis. To maintain a strong work ethic, it is vital to practice positive habits consistently every day so that hard work is almost automatic. Forming respectable habits such as exercising daily, staying punctual, maintaining your obligations, and finishing tasks immediately help establish your credibility and image as a doctorally prepared nurse.
5. Healthy Work-Life Balance
While it is important to study and work hard in DNP school, it is equally important to create a healthy work-life balance and set aside much needed time for yourself and your loved ones. Learning how to care for yourself is extremely important in DNP school as working too much can ultimately cause you to become overwhelmed, overworked, and overstressed. To avoid this, it is best that you take consistent breaks throughout the day to maintain your overall well-being. Learning how to take ample rest breaks is vital to ensure your physical, mental, and emotional health is adequately cared for in DNP school.
6. An Understanding that Excellence is a Lifelong Process
One of the key principles that DNP students must understand is that excellence is a lifelong process. Understanding this concept is vital because sustainable success in DNP school and in life is not something that is built overnight but rather an extended period of time. As leaders in the nursing realm, DNP students must understand that sustainable excellence requires constant monitoring, learning, and improvement with the realization that the journey is just as important as the destination.
7. Perpetual Curiosity
DNP students who remain perpetually curious are more susceptible to success because curiosity not only propels innovation but also self-reflection. Fostering your curiosity in DNP school is essential because it allows you to be fully present in the moment. Curious people are not only happier but also more successful because they are non-blaming, non-shaming, supportive, and focused on exploring options to find the best solution that supports collaboration and innovation.
Jane F. deLeon, RN, MSN, considered herself a typical undergraduate nursing student. “When I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to finish up and find a job,” she recalls. “I thought I would never want to go back to school.”
Why, then, is she now a third-year doctoral student at the University of California at San Francisco? “After three or four years of nursing, I realized that there were problems in the field that I wanted to solve,” deLeon, who is Hispanic, explains. “I felt the only way I could change anything was to earn a graduate degree.”
Advanced degrees can definitely open doors for nurses who want to advance the profession of nursing. Post-graduate study can be a gateway to academia, research, advanced practice and hospital management. As more minority nurses earn graduate degrees, their voice in health care policy-making and minority health advocacy grows stronger.
Whether you’ve worked for a few years like deLeon or are just entering the senior year of your BSN program, graduate schools around the country are eager to talk to you.
Before you can apply to a graduate-level nursing program, you have to choose a school that best fits your particular interests and career goals. While this may sound simplistic, too many graduate students don’t devote enough time to this important first step, often selecting a university based solely on geographic location. An important factor to keep in mind when researching schools is where you want your graduate degree to take you in the field of nursing.
“The biggest mistake students make when choosing schools is not researching the full scope of the nursing profession,” says Ruth Johnson, RN, EdD, FAAN, professor and chair of the Department of Nursing at South Carolina State University, a historically black school. “They still view it as a profession where the only option is to work in hospitals.
“Today, nurses can work in any venue we desire: research, education, government,” continues Johnson, a former director of the Council of Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Programs for the National League of Nursing. “We can travel or even open our own practice with other health care professionals.”
Similarly, too few students considering graduate school have solid long-term goals for their nursing career, believes Kem Louie, RN, PhD, FAAN, an associate professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and president of the Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association.
“First, you must identify what your career goals are and what type of advanced practice you are interested in,” Louie advises. “Talk to other nurses already working in those areas to find out more about your choices.”
Other nursing educators agree. “The bottom line in choosing a graduate school is knowing what kind of education you want to receive,” says Karin Jones, RN, PhD, who is assistant dean at Grambling State University in Louisiana, another historically black university. “If, down the road, you want to be in research, you should go to a campus where there is extensive research. If you are interested in teaching, you should choose a program with an emphasis on education.”
The Faculty Factor
How do you find out what a particular nursing school’s emphasis is? The best way is to learn about its professors.
“Look at the faculty,” recommends Cornelia P. Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, director of the Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program of the American Nurses Association. “Make certain that there is at least one faculty member with the same research focus as yours or who has similar interests.”
When evaluating a graduate school’s academic focus, Porter suggests that nurses “not only examine the faculty, but also the productivity of the faculty. Are they actively engaged in research or publishing?” The number of grants funded to nursing faculty and the professional journals in which faculty members have been published can help you determine this.
If you’re looking for a career in teaching, check the credentials of the faculty. “If a university is strong in teaching, many of the faculty members will have doctorates in education,” Jones says. “Also, the curriculum will include courses in testing and evaluation.”
Of course, you can only attend one graduate school at a time, but that doesn’t mean you should apply to only one. Graduate school admissions can be highly competitive, so apply to at least two or three schools. But if you really have your heart set on one particular program, you may want to buck this traditional trend. After researching what was available in her area of interest—attracting more minorities into nursing—deLeon was so excited about the UCSF program that she did not apply anywhere else.
“UCSF was the right place at the right time,” says deLeon. “I had no doubt that this was the only school for me.” She has since narrowed her focus to cardiovascular disease and Hispanic women.
Finally, Jones reminds students not to overlook the obvious in their quest for the perfect graduate nursing program. Make sure it’s accredited by the National League for Nursing (NLN) and/or the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). You may also want to check out where former alumni are now. Are any of them national leaders in nursing? How many have risen to the top of their specialties?
Finding Your Comfort Zone
Looking for a graduate school that is the perfect fit raises many questions for the minority nursing student. Do you want to pursue your graduate degree at a historically minority university where you will be surrounded by students who share your same racial or ethnic background? Should you attend a majority school where you could turn out to be the only person of color in your class? And more generally, do you prefer a large school or a small one?
“Students have to decide what type of environment would make them feel most comfortable,” Jones notes. “Then, they need to look at the other students on campus. Do they come from big cities or small towns? Above all, do you feel that this a place where you can learn?”
While Porter, who is African American, feels that finding a graduate school with a diverse student population can be important, she stresses that such considerations shouldn’t interfere with obtaining the best education possible.
“Sometimes, [minorities] suffer from the ‘one alone’ syndrome,” she explains. “I think it’s nice if you can see people on campus who look like you, but that shouldn’t be a major factor in your decision.”
She offers this advice for minority students who choose to attend a majority school: “If you are going to be one alone, you need to make sure you find support networks, both on campus and in the community, to help you through the tough and lonely times.”
To increase your chances of finding that support, examine the university’s commitment to diversity—not just in words, but in actions. Graduate program guidebooks and university Web sites can provide helpful statistical information on the racial and ethnic make-up of a school’s student population.
But looking at the percentage of minority students at a given school is just the beginning. Examine what the university is doing to promote multiculturalism and diversity on campus. Do they have diversity days? Do they sponsor workshops? How is diversity reflected in the curriculum? Is the faculty varied in its ethnic and racial background?
After earning her MSN from the University of Utah, deLeon accepted a teaching position there, and for 10 years she was the nursing program’s only minority faculty member. Today, she appreciates the diversity offered at UCSF, citing the opportunities to interact not only with other Hispanic students but also with classmates and colleagues from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. “I love to meet people from different countries and learn about nursing in other parts of the world,” she says.
Taking a campus tour helped deLeon realize that UCSF offered the highly diverse learning environment she was looking for. “It’s important to visit the school,” she advises. “Take a look at the campus. Meet the faculty. Are they going to be supportive? Will there be opportunities for you to expand and interact with more than just nursing students?”
Many schools will offset the cost of campus visits for prospective students. UCSF, for example, is one of several colleges throughout the country that offer two-week on-campus courses in applying for graduate school.
The Mentor Connection
Dr. Maria Warda, RN, assistant dean of UCSF’s nursing program, agrees that faculty support plays a vital role in helping students make the most of their graduate school experience. She suggests that students look at faculty availability when considering where to apply. An active mentorship program, backed by strong faculty commitment, can greatly improve a student’s chances of succeeding.
Should graduate students of color specifically seek out minority mentors? Not necessarily, says Warda. “If the mentor and student are members of the same racial or ethnic group, that would be ideal, but it’s not necessary. It’s more important to look at the faculty’s dedication to helping students succeed.”
Look for mentorship committees, Warda advises. Meet with faculty members and assess their availability and their attitude toward students.
“Meet with students who are currently in the program,” adds Jones. “Get the inside story on the type of interaction, assistance and support you will receive.”
APPLY YOURSELF: How to Give Your Grad School Application Its Best Chance for Success
Choosing the graduate nursing program that’s right for you is only half the battle. Now you have to face the next hurdle: applying to your top-choice schools…and getting your application accepted.
Applying to graduate school can be a complex process. The application package varies by university, but most graduate programs require a goal statement (also known as a personal mission statement), GRE scores, references (at least three), evidence of community service, undergraduate transcripts and listings of honors and awards.
After spending so much time and research to find your ideal graduate school, how can you make sure you’ll actually get in? By knowing what graduate admission committees are looking for and by following these simple dos and don’ts, you’ll maximize your chances of being accepted by the program you really want.
Put It in Writing
Graduate school admission decisions are almost always paper-based. The committee that makes the decision to accept or decline your application will never meet you in person or talk with you directly. Therefore, your written goal statement may be your only chance to sell yourself.
“Most institutions cannot interview candidates in person, because of the volume of applications they receive. The only way an applicant can communicate to the admissions committee is through the goal statement,” explains Maria Warda, RN, PhD, assistant dean of the graduate nursing program at the University of California at San Francisco. She is one of many academic professionals who believe that most students fail to take full advantage of the opportunities inherent in their goal statement. Here are some of Warda’s recommendations on writing a standout mission statement:
DO be specific. “The goal statement should explain any unique aspect of the student’s background. It should help the screening committee be able to determine if the student is applying for a particular nursing specialty,” Warda advises. “Be sure to let the committee know why you have chosen that particular specialty. Demonstrate your knowledge in that area and show us how you intend to use your education when you graduate from the program.”
DON’T get too personal. Many would-be grad students make the mistake of rambling on about their personal lives for two pages without ever touching on their professional goals or career interests.
DO ask for feedback. To make sure your goal statement is on track, ask your mentor or a trusted faculty member to review it. It’s especially helpful to have your statement critiqued by someone who knows what your target school will be looking for.
Once Jane deLeon decided to apply to the doctoral program at UCSF, her colleagues and friends began referring her to people with connections to that school—a friend who had just been accepted, a relative who had earned a doctorate there, etc. “I didn’t know these people very well,” she says, “but I emailed them and asked if they would read my goal statement. I asked them to be honest and I used their feedback to improve my statement.”
Letting Others Speak For You
Letters of reference are a crucial part of your graduate school application. Most graduate applications require at least three references and may accept more. Some schools require reference letters to be included as part of your application packet, while others want letters mailed directly to the school or provide reference forms to be completed. Keep these tips in mind when preparing your references:
DON’T be “damned by faint praise.” “Many applicants don’t realize that graduate references must be strong,” Warda emphasizes. “They cannot be lukewarm.”
A reference that says you have great leadership potential won’t be enough to impress most schools. Instead, says Warda, your references should give concrete examples and details about how you have used your leadership skills. In other words, your references need to make the committee feel as though they will be missing out on someone special if they don’t accept you.
DO choose references who know you. “Many nurses think, ‘I have to find impressive people,’” says deLeon. “But it’s better to find people who know you and recognize the strengths you can bring to graduate school.”
Adds Karin Jones, RN, PhD, assistant dean at Grambling State University, “If your [undergraduate] school has a mentoring program, you should seek out a mentor who can serve as a reference because they know you both professionally and personally. Choose a clinical area where you excelled and find a faculty member who can comment on how well you did.”
DON’T wait till the last minute. “Most undergraduate seniors who are applying to grad school wait until the end of the year and try to get all their references at once,” says Jones. “I advise students to collect references as they go.”
DO capitalize on “big name” references if you have them. “If you are applying to a graduate program at a top university, one letter of reference from a faculty member who is recognized nationally is good to include,” Warda recommends. “Screening committees do respond to names they know.”
Presenting Your Grades
While a high GPA may seem like the most important factor to the would-be graduate student, it’s certainly not the only aspect looked at during the selection process, experts say.
“When a student’s application package is reviewed, it is reviewed in its totality,” explains Cornelia Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, director of the American Nurses Association’s Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program. “Grades are just one item. GRE scores, a goal statement, awards and honors—all of the factors become one package. One thing is not singled out over another.” Therefore:
DON’T count yourself out if your grades aren’t stellar. Graduate schools require a minimum GPA of 2.8 (out of 4.0), and most require a 3.0 average. But while higher GPAs make you more competitive, lower ones do not necessarily rule you out.
“Even if the applicant does not have a great GPA, there may be strong indicators in other areas that the student is able to be successful,” says Porter. “If that’s the case, the grades alone wouldn’t rule you out. If the committee feels you have potential, they may admit you on a probationary status. Schools have lots of ways to work with somebody if they want to give that student a chance.”
DO prepare thoroughly for your GRE. Many students fret over how well they will perform on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), a standardized test required for admission to almost all graduate schools in every field. A combined score of 1,000 is considered competitive at top universities. Certain minimum lower scores are required at second-tier schools.
DeLeon not only studied a GRE review book and but also paid for a class on how to take the exam. She feels it was money well spent. The GRE Web site (www.gre.org) is another helpful resource.
THE COUNTDOWN: Checklist for Preparing and Submitting Your Graduate School Application
Applications are usually due in the fall or the spring before the semester in which you plan to start your program. If you have already decided on a school and are ready to start applying now, the time frame may be a little tight, but you could still meet the deadline for spring 2002. Kem Louie, RN, PhD, who teaches at William Paterson University, recommends that you begin planning for the application process at least six months in advance.
Here’s a 12-month guideline for a fall due date. Of course, you can adjust this calendar depending on the actual month your application is due.
September—Finalize your decision about what you want to accomplish with your graduate studies. Begin a notebook of possible thoughts to be included in your goal statement. Keep working on this throughout the year. Also begin to think about people who could write letters of recommendation for you.
October—Begin researching schools and select 10 that match your interests.
November—Talk to your current undergraduate faculty about your goals and the schools you have selected.
December—Figure out how much money you will need and begin to look at possible sources for scholarships and financial aid. Find out the spring GRE schedule and get a review book to help you prepare for the exam. Also look into attending a GRE workshop to help you get the best
January—Contact your target schools for information. Ask to speak to faculty members in your area of interest. Request catalogs, admissions forms and financial aid information. Ask specific questions that will help you determine if the school is a good fit for your comfort zone. Reserve a slot for your preferred GRE testing date.
February—Narrow your choices down to three to five schools. Plan campus visits.
March—Contact organizations and companies connected with your chosen specialty (such as hospitals) to see if they offer scholarships or financial aid opportunities.
April—Choose your three references and talk to them about your goals and the areas you see as your strengths.
May—Finalize your goal statement and begin to seek feedback on it.
June, July, August—Make campus visits. Evaluate the nursing program, the campus and housing and employment opportunities.
September—Finalize and submit your application packet. Submit scholarship forms and applications for graduate assistantships.
Where to Start
Here are some resources to get you started on your road to graduate school. Most of them should be available at your campus library or local public library.
The National League of Nursing’s Official Guide to Graduate Nursing Schools. Published by Jones and Bartlett.
Nursing Programs: Peterson’s Guide to Nursing Programs. Published by Peterson’s Guides.
Guide to Undergraduate and Graduate Health Programs in the USA. Published by Education International Publishing.
NLN’s Guide to Scholarships and Loans for Nursing Education. Published by Jones and Bartlett.
Another highlight of the 2004 convention was a special reception commemorating the 30th anniversary of the ANA’s Minority Fellowship Program (MFP), established in the 1970s to increase the number of doctorally prepared minority nurse researchers and clinicians working in the field of mental health and psychiatric nursing. Originally known as the Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program, MFP funding and support has helped more than 266 Fellows earn their doctorates since the program’s inception.
To celebrate the MFP’s rich history, the reception honored the exceptional achievements of seven minority nursing leaders who can truly be called trailblazers. In addition to their landmark contributions to the nursing profession in general, each of these distinguished nurses of color also played a key leadership role in the MFP during its formative years and beyond. Listed alphabetically, they are:
Elizabeth Allen, PhD, RN, who has made substantial contributions to the field of psychiatric nursing and attained such leadership positions as state director of nursing in the Republic of Vietnam and coordinator of continuing education at the ANA. In that capacity, she helped to develop the foundation for the MFP and articulate its goals to potential stakeholders.
ANA Hall of Fame inductee M. Elizabeth Carnegie, DPA, RN, FAAN, a pioneering scholar, researcher, educator and advocate for the educational advancement of black nurses. The author of more than 72 scientific publications and the award-winning book The Path We Tread, she served as chair of the MFP National Advisory Committee.
Internationally known educator and consultant Hector Hugo Gonzalez, PhD, RN, FAAN, the first Mexican-American nurse to earn a PhD and the first male president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. He devoted his time and expertise to the MFP by actively recruiting minority nurses into doctoral programs focusing on mental health.
Ruth Gordon, PhD, RN, FAAN, the first full-time director of the MFP, who energetically rose to the challenge of developing and implementing this new doctoral study fellowship program designed to prepare minority nurses for leadership roles in research, education, practice, administration and public policy. She has been indispensable in shaping the MFP into one of the nation’s most successful models for educating minority nurses to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.
Mary Starke Harper, PhD, RN, FAAN, DSc, LLD, the MFP’s first project officer. She was also a major force in implementing the National Fellowship Program, which has enabled more than 8,000 minority scholars to obtain advanced degrees. During her long career with the federal government, she initiated the National Institutes of Health’s National Research and Development Mental Health Centers for minority populations and advised four U.S. presidents on mental health issues.
Martha Compton Primeaux, MSN, RN, FAAN, one of the founding members of the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association and recipient of many awards for her history of advocating for nursing education and improved health services for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Her advocacy on the need for more doctorally prepared minority mental health nurses helped nurture the MFP in its early years.
Public health nurse, educator and international leader Gloria Smith, PhD, RN, FAAN, whose career has been devoted to eliminating minority health disparities and advocating for better health services for the poor and underserved. She has served as director of public health for the state of Michigan, vice president for programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and as a member of the MFP National Advisory Committee.
A revolution is occurring in the worlds of advanced practice nursing and graduate nursing education. And it’s one that many nursing leaders believe is long overdue.
In October 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) issued a landmark position statement endorsing a new type of terminal degree: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). As the name implies, this new doctoral degree option—unlike the traditional research-focused PhD in nursing—is a practice-focused doctorate designed for advanced practice nurses (APNs), such as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse-midwives and nurse anesthetists.
Until recently, most practicing APNs received their educational preparation at the master’s degree level. If they then went on to pursue doctoral degrees, it was usually because they wanted to teach and conduct research, rather than focus on clinical practice. But now, AACN and its member educational institutions are calling for moving the level of preparation necessary for advanced nursing practice from the master’s degree to the doctorate by the year 2015.
According to AACN, “the changing demands of the nation’s complex health care environment require that nurses serving in specialty positions have the highest level of scientific knowledge and practice expertise possible. Research. . .has established a clear link between higher levels of nursing education and better patient outcomes. In 2005 the National Academy of Sciences called for nursing to develop a non-research clinical doctorate to prepare expert practitioners who can also serve as clinical faculty. [Our] work to advance the DNP is consistent with this call to action.”
While the DNP is still a relatively new concept, a handful of these programs already existed well before the AACN published its position statement. The association notes that the first such program was established in 1979 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Other early DNP programs were offered by the University of South Carolina, the University of Colorado, Rush University, the University of Kentucky and other institutions.
At last count, 68 schools of nursing across the country currently offer DNP programs, and over 100 more are considering starting them. Most are hybrid programs, blending online learning with classroom time on campus. Others are 100% on-campus programs while a few are completely online.
Raising the Standard
What exactly is the DNP—also known as the practice doctorate in nursing—and how does it differ from the PhD? According to AACN, the practice doctorate is designed to prepare graduates for the highest level of nursing clinical practice by enhancing their skills in areas that will improve patient outcomes, such as evidence-based practice, quality improvement and systems thinking. The DNP also teaches APNs the business skills they need to successfully manage their practice and prepare for leadership careers that support clinical practices, like organizational management and health care administration.
The AACN made its decision to advocate for a higher standard of educational preparation for advanced practice nurses after commissioning a task force to study the issue. One of the key benefits of the DNP is that it raises APNs to the same level as other clinical practitioners, explains Jeanette Lancaster, PhD, RN, FAAN, immediate past president of AACN and the Sadie Heath Cabaniss professor and dean at the University of Virginia School of Nursing.
“Dentists, pharmacists and other [clinical] professionals have terminal degrees that are doctorates, [such as DDS, PharmD, etc.],” she points out.
“In nursing, the curriculum has been moving to a higher level, even though [advanced practice] nurses still graduate on the master’s level,” Lancaster continues. “To meet the demands [of today’s health care environment], additional courses were added, [to the point where] many master’s programs in nursing required 50 hours of coursework. The fact was that [the nursing profession] was giving a master’s degree for the same amount of work that earned a doctorate degree in many other disciplines.”
Does this mean that if you are already an advanced practice nurse, you will be required to go back to school and earn a DNP degree? No, says AACN. Although the profession is preparing to transition to the DNP by 2015, current APNs holding only a master’s degree will be allowed to continue their practice as long as state laws do not change. Individual state legislatures or state boards of nursing could mandate that clinical practitioners hold a DNP, but so far no states have introduced such proposals. And master’s degrees in nursing will still be available after 2015, although their focus may change as more institutions begin offering the DNP.
Nevertheless, Lancaster believes many current master’s-prepared APNs will choose to enhance their professional credentials by earning a practice doctorate. “I think a lot of [them] will go back [to school to get their DNP],” she says. “Any time the profession moves the standard to a higher level, nurses want to get that. Many [APNs] could attend part-time [so that they can still devote time to their practice].”
DNPs for Educators
One minority advanced practice nurse who did go back is Michael E. Zychowicz, DNP, RNFA, NP-C, FAANP. He was also one of the earliest, earning his DNP in 2006 from Case Western Reserve University’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. And he is also one of a surprisingly large number of DNP graduates who hold positions as nursing faculty.
Zychowicz is a nurse practitioner who maintains a private practice. But he is also an associate professor at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., where he teaches nursing and nurse practitioner courses. Why did he choose the practice doctorate as his terminal degree instead of the more traditional PhD? The answer is simple: He wanted a doctoral degree that would benefit both aspects of his career.
For More Information To learn more about the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, visit the DNP section of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Web site at www.aacn.nche.edu/DNP. There you’ll find: • The complete AACN Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing. • The DNP Roadmap Task Force Report, which outlines the process for transitioning the level of preparation necessary for advanced nursing practice from the master’s degree to the DNP by the year 2015. • A list of nursing schools that offer Doctor of Nursing Practice programs. • Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the DNP.
“I am a full-time educator, so I had to get a terminal degree as part of my obligation to teach. At that time, I had to do a lot of reflection on what my professional career goals were. I had to decide which one of all the different terminal degree options was the best for me,” Zychowicz says. “After I researched the options, I felt the DNP was in alignment with my goals to continue both teaching and being an advanced practice nurse. The courses helped me both as an educator and a clinician.”
Another attractive benefit of the DNP, he adds, was that “the program recognized the work that I had already done on my master’s and the level I had already achieved. That’s somewhat different from the structure of a PhD. Typically, PhD programs do not recognize any [previous] courses you have completed. Students start from square one.”
Zychowicz says the program at Case Western Reserve offers a choice of two tracks to the DNP for candidates who already hold a master’s degree. One is designed for clinical leaders and the other for educational leaders.
“I chose to go through the clinical leadership track because I am teaching clinicians,” he explains. “The program included several research courses. These were doctoral-level research courses that prepared me for my dissertation. The curriculum also had courses geared toward practice management issues.”
Zychowicz attended the hybrid program “just short of full time.” Some classes required him to travel to Cleveland to attend intensive week-long sessions on campus with follow-up study online. As more students from the New York area began to enroll in the program, the university actually sent a professor to New York to teach the class.
Although Zychowicz completed his program in three-and-a-half years, the amount of time it takes to earn a DNP degree varies, depending on such factors as the structure of the program, whether students attend full or part time, and whether or not students already have master’s degrees and experience as clinical practitioners. A number of schools offer a fast-track BSN-to-DNP option, which takes longer to complete than a stand-alone DNP program, but does have the advantage of getting minority nurses into the DNP pipeline sooner.
“From a clinical perspective, I think if I had entered into the DNP program right after earning my bachelor’s degree, it would have allowed me to enter practice at a more advanced level,” Zychowicz believes.
How does he weigh the benefits now that he’s earned his practice doctorate? “It has enhanced my research level,” he says. “The DNP also gives me more visibility [in the practice setting]. Now, I have a doctoral degree. People don’t just call me Mike. They call me Dr. Zychowicz. It gives an implied respect within the clinical arena.”
Choosing a DNP Program
With more and more nursing schools adding practice doctorates to their graduate-level offerings, students have a wide variety of DNP programs to choose from. Zychowicz, for example, interviewed with one school where the DNP was designed to train nurses for hospital administration positions. Some DNP programs have clinical specialty options, such as pediatrics or geriatrics. And a growing number of DNP programs—such as those at the University of Washington School of Nursing, the University of South Alabama College of Nursing and Thomas Jefferson University—have courses or entire concentrations that focus on cross-cultural health and providing care to medically underserved populations.
How do you decide which type of program will best meet your needs—or if a DNP degree is even right for you in the first place?
“Students really need to think about what they want to be in their career,” Lancaster answers. “When [the University of Virginia] started [our] DNP program last August, many students were asking, ‘Do you think I should get a DNP or a PhD?’ Both are positive moves, but that choice really depends on what you want to do. If you want to spend your career in funded research, then you definitely need to get the PhD. If you are committed to clinical practice and you enjoy teaching and direct patient care more [than research], you may want to get the DNP.”
Because most educational institutions prefer to hire faculty who are doctorally prepared, earning a DNP would enable more APNs with an interest in teaching to attain faculty positions. Not every nursing school is a research-focused school that requires tenured faculty members to produce new research, Lancaster points out.
“Even research institutions have a percentage of faculty who are highly prepared master’s-level nurses,” she adds. “In the future, these will be DNPs.”
Zychowicz strongly advises nurses who are shopping around for a DNP program to visit several campuses. As you’re being interviewed, he says, take the opportunity to interview the school as well. “[Look at] how the program will fit your individual goals. Look at the courses offered. I would ask [admissions committees] how they think the program would help me meet my career goals.”
Because many recently established DNP programs are still so new, accreditation procedures are just beginning and most programs have few or no alumni to speak with. Therefore, prospective students may have to do a little extra research to determine the quality of various programs. If the nursing school is fully accredited, chances are the DNP program will also be accredited.
One way to assess whether or not a particular DNP program would be a good fit for you is to look at the faculty, says Zychowicz. “Do some research on the faculty members. Find out what their background is. Does that background fit well with the goals you have as a student? Just looking at the faculty can be very interesting. Some faculty members are really the quiet heroes of nursing and those are the ones you want to find.”
For many students, however, the choice may come down to simple logistics. Where is the program located? Is a part-time or online program available? How long does it take to complete the program? And, because graduate school tuition can be expensive, how much does it cost?
DNP vs. PhD
For APNs whose careers are focused solely on clinical practice, there’s no question that earning a DNP will help them advance to a higher level of responsibility and professional respect. But for those who, like Zychowicz, want to balance their careers between practice and teaching, the degree may have one possible disadvantage, Lancaster cautions. Even though the practice doctorate is designed in part to train APNs to become clinical faculty, DNP-prepared educators may finder it harder to land tenure-track positions than those who have PhDs.
Zychowicz admits to experiencing some prejudices when he was interviewing for teaching positions. “Many institutions may not fully accept the DNP as being equal to the PhD,” he explains. “[During one interview,] I did have some concerns about how they viewed the degree and my ability to do research. I have done research, both in my teaching position and in my doctoral program. Still, it was questioned.”
Those doubts will begin to subside, Zychowicz believes, as the nursing profession becomes more familiar with the concept of the practice doctorate. If you look at the content and rigor of DNP curricula, he argues, it is very similar to that of other terminal degrees. The word just needs to spread among educators.
“As more is known about the degree and as more universities have a DNP program in place, attitudes will change,” Zychowicz says. “After all, who is going to teach the DNP students? As more DNPs graduate and become both educators and practitioners, the [bias against DNPs] will go by the wayside.”
We recently received this thought-provoking letter from Marie L. Lobo, RN, PhD, FAAN, a professor at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing in Albuquerque:
“I was recently given a copy of Minority Nurse and it had information about the scholarships your magazine gives to BSN students,” she writes. “I would like you to consider scholarships for master’s and doctoral students. If we are ever to increase the number of [nursing] faculty members who are African-American, Native American, Hispanic, etc., we need to be able to indicate where there is support for them to go to school.
“I lived in South Carolina before moving to New Mexico. I had successfully recruited African-American students into doctoral study in the past, but saw little emphasis on graduate education in the local African-American newspaper. I am being confronted with the same issues in New Mexico, particularly among Native American students.
“Perhaps Minority Nurse could help with community information to encourage families, churches and other institutions centered in the communities of people of color to be supportive of students going on for graduate degrees,” Dr. Lobo continues. “Many of my students who announced to their family and friends that they had been accepted into MSN or PhD programs were confronted with the response: ‘You already have a job for life. Why would you want to go back to school?’ I was not surprised at the financial lack of support, but I was surprised at the emotional lack of support.”
Editor Pam Chwedyk responds: The Minority Nurse Magazine Scholarship Program focuses on helping students of color complete BSN degrees because this has historically been the prerequisite that makes graduate study possible in the first place. However, given the growing popularity of master’s entry nursing programs–e.g., accelerated RN-to-MSN programs that bypass the traditional BSN degree–we are currently considering expanding our scholarship eligibility criteria to include students enrolled in these programs. In the meantime, we will continue to publish articles that encourage minority nurses to pursue advanced degrees and we are printing your letter in the hopes that it will inspire our readers to initiate this dialog in their own communities.
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