Work, Life, School, Balance

Juggling undergraduate nursing studies with a full-time job and six children at home constantly challenged Shayla Morales Robinson of Philadelphia. But the petite go-getter held firm to her decision to earn a B.S.N. from La Salle University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences to secure a brighter future for her family.

Even after her mother and babysitter were both diagnosed with cancer and her abusive marriage ended, Morales, 34, kept moving forward in an alternative evening program designed for working parents.

“You just have to do it, literally! You have to want it,” says Robinson, who graduated last year. “I wasn’t going to let the fact I had children, that I was going through a divorce and working full time, and being the sole provider, get me down. A lot of it was trial and error.”

From studying at their children’s soccer games and enrolling in online programs to arranging classes around a flexible work schedule and developing a master family calendar, nurses who resume their studies while raising families use a variety of strategies to cope. They say other nurses who return to school can adapt or modify their methods.

More nurses are returning to school to meet the challenges of the “increasingly more complex health care needs of a multicultural and aging population,” says American Nurses Association (ANA) spokesman Adam Sachs. Other reasons include the shortage of nursing faculty and a limited cadre of nurses from which to draw. The benefits of earning a B.S.N. or more advanced degree include higher job satisfaction and more opportunities for growth. Research shows advanced education can also benefit patients by lowering mortality, he says.

ANA supports nurses advancing their education and endorses the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) call for 80% of nurses to obtain a B.S.N. by 2020, a goal included in the IOM report The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.

Be prepared

Realistically assess your situation before returning to school, nurses and nursing professors say. Consider taking some practical measures such as seeking employers offering flexible scheduling and tuition assistance, exploring online or distance learning, and finding programs that combine online learning with on-site clinical and classroom experience.

Nurses who may be on the fence about returning to school “need to think about their physical condition. Will they be able to juggle these three things [family, work, and school] in their lives?” asks Nellie C. Bailey, Ed.D., P.H.C.N.S.-B.C., Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at SUNY Downstate Medical Center College of Nursing in Brooklyn, New York. “Your whole life changes, and it is very good to have family support.”

Nurses resuming their studies after a long gap need to review the required time commitment. Financial adjustments may need to be made as well. While family and your employer’s support are crucial, so is the support of your professors. “Take some time to go to the college and talk to the faculty about how supportive [they are] and will they be flexible?” Bailey says. For nurses planning to add to their families, inquire about maternity leave policies as well, she advises.

Your degree options

With hospitals and academic health centers requiring or preferring the B.S.N., such degree programs are thriving. There are 633 R.N.-to-B.S.N. programs nationwide, including more than 400 programs that are offered at least partially online, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

The ANA advises people entering a nursing education program to make sure the program is accredited by a recognized nursing education accreditation body and that the program meets their learning and programmatic needs.

Whether nurses are considering an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral degree, make sure you are clear about your goals and ready for the commitment, says Melissa Gomes, Ph.D., R.N., an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Nursing. “The balancing can be tough for students, especially the adult learner. They have to make sure they can set aside time for studying. They have to always carry their work with them, so at a child’s game they can study.”

Online programs allow current and aspiring nurses more flexibility as they try to balance family and work commitment. Excelsior College, an online institution with the largest nursing education program in the country, enabled Monica Muamba, M.S., R.N., an Education Specialist at Albany Medical Center Hospital in New York, to earn her master’s degree in nursing education in April 2012. Online classes allowed her to work full time, take care of her family, and lead a nonprofit organization, she says.

“My question to every nurse out there is ‘Do you have a dream?’ Don’t let it fade! It is never too late to open doors of opportunity in your life,” says Muamba. An online program “opens the floodgate of career opportunities for nurses who could not attend traditional campus education.”

Your work-life balance

For Audrey R. Roberson, M.S., R.N., C.P.A.N., C.N.S.-B.C., family comes first. So when she decided to pursue her Ph.D., she says she discussed with her husband at length, because she knew she would need his full support—in a way, it was going to be a “dual” Ph.D. “It would have my name on it but it would be 50-50,” Roberson says chuckling. To test the waters, the nurse clinician at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit took one course in 2009. Still, the workload was intense; she organizes a master schedule so she could manage her time, even though that still meant staying up until 1:00 a.m. some nights doing homework.

When considering school, assess your support systems, Roberson says. “You need double the support system if you have children involved. If you are lacking support, reconsider. Entering this without support is not an option.”

Roberson advises nurses to communicate with supervisors and colleagues about any school-related schedules or projects that may interfere with job duties. She is still responsible for her work but she has learned to do more delegating and collaborating, she says. A helpful work environment is crucial. “I have support from my boss who encouraged me to get a Ph.D. She was supportive of me taking the same journey she had taken,” Roberson says.

Once committed to furthering your education, stay focused, says Isaac L. Smith, M.S., R.N., associate professor and Director of Human Patient Simulation at Prairie View A&M University College of Nursing in Houston. Smith, who has two sons, is working on his Ph.D. online at Capella University. “I am finally at the dissertation level. It has required real will. I have worked as a nurse manager for many years. I thought the best way to contribute to the profession of nursing is to give back by teaching other students,” he says.

Another strategy busy nurses use is scheduling time to relax. “Find something that feeds your soul,” says Paulina Marfo-Boateng, M.S.N., R.N., a staff nurse at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, who earned her master’s degree in part to be a role model for her three children. She relaxes by volunteering in her church.

For nurses wary of losing their equilibrium if they return to school, Marfo-Boateng advises studying at one’s own pace. “You can take one class at a time and it goes a long way. I did not do it full time. I did it part time, two classes here and a class there. If you take one class, just don’t give up,” says Marfo-Boateng, who plans to earn her Ph.D. once her daughter enters high school in a couple of years.

A can-do attitude is what led Robinson to add college to her jam-packed to-do list. A team assistant for Penn Wissahickon Hospice and Caring Way at Penn Home Care and Hospice Services in Philadelphia, she returned to school with five of her six children under the age of four, including two sets of twins. “My only motivation has been my children and the fact that so many women give up at their dreams when they are a single parent,” Robinson says.

However, not long after she started classes, Robinson felt overwhelmed and exhausted. Her marriage crumbled, a horrible custody case ensued, and her babysitter was battling breast cancer. Sometimes she missed class to watch her children and had to use class notes and recordings from classmates to keep up with her work. She also borrowed thousands of dollars to pay for babysitters and bills.

“I’d leave work at 4:00 because I had class at 6:00. I’d pick the kids up and go home. I’d put dinner on and do homework with them while I was cooking, then feed them and throw everything into the sink and then kiss them goodbye.” Some nights she stayed up until 3:00 a.m. with homework only to rise again at 6:00 a.m. to start another day.

With such a tight schedule, Robinson had to make adjustments. She called her children’s teachers and asked for an extension on homework on the two nights she had class. She made sure everyone was caught up by the end of the week. She modified her work schedule and asked professors to allow her to take day classes, even though she was in an evening program. She also requested weekend clinicals although she was taking a weekday class.

No matter what the obstacle, Robinson found a way pass it. “I tell people if you really want to do it, you will figure a way.”

Her fierce drive and resilience impressed the faculty so much that after Robinson graduated they took the thank you letter she had written to the university and had it published in the Philadelphia Daily News (May 2011). The response from readers to her accomplishment in the face of tremendous odds touched Robinson, especially the regular updates from three nurses she inspired to return to school.

Robinson passed her National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) in June on her second try and is now a registered nurse torn between seeking a job as a psychiatric nurse or a maternity nurse. Her children are doing well. And she’s in a new, healthier relationship.

Out of school a little over a year, Robinson is already prepared to further her education. La Salle University has a dual M.S.N. and M.B.A. program that meets on Saturdays for two years.

“I started looking into this,” she says chuckling, “so I can conquer that.”

Scholarships for Nurses

If you think scholarships are just for baby-faced college freshmen, think again! There are plenty of nursing grants and scholarships offered at every level. Here’s just a sampling.

AETNA/National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations Scholars: $2,000
Sponsor: National Association of Hispanic Nurses Scholarships and Awards
Applicant must have a minimum 3.0 GPA, demonstrate financial need, be a member of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, have two letters of recommendation from two faculty members, and be enrolled full time in a four-year or master’s degree nursing program.

Eight and Forty Lung and Respiratory Nursing Scholarship: $5,000
Sponsor: American Legion
Applicant must be a registered nurse seeking advanced preparation for a full-time position in supervision, administration, or teaching with a direct relationship to lung and respiratory control.

Estelle Massey Osborne Scholarship: $2,500–$10,000
Sponsor: Nurses Educational Funds, Inc.
Applicant should be a black registered nurse who is a member of a professional nursing association and enrolled in or applying to a full-time master’s degree program in nursing approved by the National League for Nursing and CCNE. Applicant must be a U.S. citizen or have declared official intention of becoming one. Applicant must submit GRE or MAT scores. Selection is based upon academic achievement and evidence of service to the profession.

Ethnic Minority Master’s Scholarship: $3,000
Sponsor: Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Foundation
Applicant must be an R.N. with an interest in and a commitment to oncology nursing and be of a minority racial/ethnic background.

NAPNAP-McNeil Scholarship: $2,000
Sponsor: National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
Applicant must be a registered nurse with previous work experience in pediatrics, have documented acceptance at a recognized program, have no formal nurse practitioner education, demonstrate financial need, and state rationale for seeking a pediatric nurse practitioner education.

Neuroscience Nursing Foundation Scholarship: $1,500
Sponsor: Neuroscience Nursing Foundation
Applicant must attend or plan to attend a NLN accredited institution.

Regents Professional Opportunity Scholarship: $5,000
Sponsor: New York State Education Department
Applicant must be beginning or already enrolled in an approved degree-bearing program of study in New York State that leads to licensure in a particular profession. Purpose of award is to increase representation of minority and disadvantaged individuals in New York State–licensed professions.

Scholarship in Cancer Nursing—Master’s: $10,000
Sponsor: American Cancer Society
Applicant must show intent to develop clinical expertise and a commitment to cancer nursing. Relevant personal and professional experience is required.

Source: CollegeXpress. Use CollegeXpress to find nursing scholarships and programs

Winning the Grad School Game

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.

Decisions, Decisions

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 ( 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

score possible.

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.

On the Fast Track

Are you one of the growing number of minority students who are entering nursing school later in life, or returning to school mid-career to continue your education by earning a baccalaureate or post-graduate degree? If so, you may be wishing there was a way to make up for lost time, a way to somehow earn your advanced degree just a little more quickly than usual so that you can put it to work for you as soon as possible.

Happily, fulfilling this desire is not impossible at all. Enrolling in a so-called “fast-track” nursing program—i.e., a program that allows students to earn two degrees concurrently or even bypass one degree level altogether—could be the perfect solution for your needs.

The fast-track approach to advancing your education means that you don’t have to follow the traditional route of first gaining basic registered nurse (RN) preparation in hospital-based (diploma), associate (AA/AD/AS) or baccalaureate (BSN) programs and then sequentially attaining master’s and doctoral degrees. Fast-track programs are a more customized alternative in which, to cite just two examples, a student with an AD degree can go directly to a master’s degree without having to separately earn a baccalaureate, or a nurse with a BSN can go directly to a PhD, bypassing the MSN.

If this approach sounds appealing to you, one of the first and most important decisions you will need to make is choosing the nursing program that will best facilitate your career goals within a fast-track context. With at least 600 nursing programs available throughout the United States, you will find many that offer contemporary options that are far more flexible and non-linear than traditional nursing programs.

When perusing a program’s literature, look for phrases like “individualize your program,” “may be required” and “flexible options.” These phrases signal that the traditional degree sequence may be circumvented or combined, depending upon the student’s needs.

Which Lane is Right for You?

For a closer look at how fast-track degree programs work, and to give you an introduction to the many different possibilities available, here are just a few examples of successful programs from around the country.

Non-Nurse with BS or BA to RN with Master’s Degree. Even if you are not a registered nurse, it is possible to graduate as an RN with a master’s degree in nursing. For example, the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing offers the Masters Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN), a three-year program leading to an MS degree for persons without previous nursing preparation but with a baccalaureate degree (BS/BA) in another field. For more information, see the university’s Web site (

About 60 students are admitted to the MEPN program each year. The first year of study, which spans four quarters, provides a general foundation in nursing and qualifies the student to take the California Board of Registered Nursing licensure examination. The final two years of the program are more individually paced.


RN with Diploma or Associate Degree to RN with Master’s Degree. Several universities offer accelerated coursework for RNs with two-year degrees who wish to earn a master’s degree in nursing, bypassing the BSN. The Department of Nursing at California State University, Los Angeles (, currently offers two different fast-track MS degree options. The first program is for RNs with non-nursing baccalaureate degrees; the other is for RNs without a baccalaureate degree. The admission requirements, program length and coursework vary depending on the educational track entered. Both programs offer basic and advanced nursing study.

The University of Michigan School of Nursing ( is another school that offers an RN-to-MS degree program; however, this option is available at the Ann Arbor campus only. You can complete the RN-to-MS pathway as a part-time student in three to four years, depending on your master’s specialty. The program integrates your prior education and experience into the curriculum by using your transfer credits and by allowing you to earn credit through examinations.

RN with BSN to RN with PhD. If you are an RN with a baccalaureate degree, you can earn a PhD in Nursing Science without having a master’s degree. For instance, at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle (, an RN with an bachelor’s degree can either earn a master’s degree while also pursuing a PhD degree, or graduate with a PhD without going for the master’s.


Other schools, such as Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore ( have programs where an RN with a BSN can earn a combined MSN/PhD concurrently. Both the Seattle and Johns Hopkins programs are highly selective, have an integrated course of study and allow students to develop their own research programs with faculty guidance.

Can You Handle the Speed?

Fast-track educational options have both benefits and limitations. Because these positives and negatives are interrelated, it’s important to consider them carefully within the context of your career goals. The benefit of completing the required coursework for two degrees in an accelerated format, for instance, is coupled with the fact that the coursework is more intense and time-consuming. The shorter length of fast-track programs requires you to learn more information in less time than a student enrolled in a traditional program in which each degree is earned sequentially.

There are also financial considerations. If you are enrolled in a fast-track option, you may find it impossible to work part-time because of your heavier academic schedule. Therefore, your need for ongoing financial aid is more critical and substantial.

In a fast-track program, you may have fewer opportunities to benefit from educational diversity. For instance, a student earning two separate degrees at two different universities may experience different curricula and teaching styles, while a student earning a fast-track or combination degree will more than likely learn in similar environments with a select group of faculty. On the other hand, students in a fast-track program may be able to form more substantial relationships with their professors over time, building stronger collegial networks which may be beneficial in the future.

One major limitation of earning a PhD without a master’s degree in nursing is that many state boards of nursing, as well as schools of nursing, recognize the master’s degree as qualification for undergraduate- and graduate-level clinical teaching, while the PhD is seen as a research-focused degree. Thus, without the master’s degree, you may not be technically prepared to teach clinical-level coursework—a significant drawback if your desired career plan involves becoming a faculty member.

Getting On the Road


If you are interested in entering nursing with an advanced degree, or are an RN seeking to increase your career potential by continuing your professional education, now is an excellent time to learn more about fast-track degree programs. Use the Internet as a resource to explore the flexible educational options available to you. Many of these programs are tailored to recognize your abilities and talents while capitalizing on your prior educational and clinical experience.

Earning advanced degrees helps you hone your critical thinking and decision-making skills while introducing you to emerging, innovative areas of nursing. Your career options as an RN will multiply as you discover exciting new areas for professional growth and advanced competency.

Minority Fellowship Program Celebrates Seven Nursing Trailblazers

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 Reader Speaks Out: “Why Don’t Minority Communities Encourage Graduate Education?”

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.