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.

D.N.P.s and Ph.D.s: Your Questions Answered

There’s no sugarcoating it: pursuing a doctoral degree is tough. Balancing a clinical job with classes and homework—not to mention family time and your social life—takes determination and sacrifice. But if you’re prepared for the challenge, that hard-won degree may be the best investment of your life.

That intimidating introduction aside, keep in mind that hundreds of nurses proudly graduate with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) or another doctoral degree every year. So what does a D.N.P. program really entail? We asked two experts some common questions surrounding doctoral study, from the admission process to program requirements. Both doctoral-prepared nurses, they can speak to their personal experiences as they now guide other nurses as university administrators.

Q. D.N.P. or Ph.D.: How should nurses choose between them?

TORRES: Ph.D. and D.N.P. programs differ both in their goals and in the competencies of their graduates. The decision to pursue a D.N.P. or Ph.D. depends on your career goals. While a Ph.D. student generates and develops new knowledge, a D.N.P. student translates research already done, evaluates it to see if it works for a specific problem or project, and then puts it into practice.

Ph.D. programs focus heavily on scientific content and research methodology, so if you want to be a nurse scientist/scholar with a research-centric career, you should pursue a Ph.D. The D.N.P. is designed for nurses seeking a terminal degree in nursing practice and offers an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs.

Generally, a D.N.P. is the choice for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, or Nurse Midwives) or nurses in other areas of specialized nursing practice (nursing administration, informatics, public health) who want to continue practicing in their area of expertise and are interested in gaining advanced knowledge and skills.

In recent years, there has been a growing demand for D.N.P. programs and degrees. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), currently there are 153 D.N.P. programs, and between 2009 and 2010, the number of students enrolled in these programs increased from 5,165 to 7,034. In the same period, the number of nurses graduating with a D.N.P. doubled.

RODRIGUES FISHER: The increasing need for practitioners with D.N.P.s stems, in part, from hospitals and health systems looking for skilled nurses who can provide primary care to many people and, in particular, to those in low-income communities. There is also a move to increase the number of Latino and African American nurses who have advanced practice degrees because patients want primary care providers who have the same understanding of cultural beliefs and health care issues.

In order to determine which advanced degree is best for you, it’s important to decide if you want to continue practicing or if you wish to pursue research and teaching.

TORRES: Rather than concentrating on dissertations or research, D.N.P. programs help nurses build upon their current practice, learn new skills, and conduct applied research. Many doctoral students also find great value in completing a project that they can readily apply in practice.

Q. How should nurses prepare for the doctoral program application process?

RODRIGUES FISHER: Start by brushing up on your writing, language, and math skills. They will serve you well. In my personal experience, because English is not my first language, it was important for me to study and brush up on my writing and math skills. I struggled until a professor in my master’s program recommended I take an English course; it was truly the best decision I could have made. After bolstering my language and writing abilities, I felt prepared to take the GRE for my doctoral program.

You should also generate a list of organizations you support, either as a member or otherwise. For example, if you participated in a fundraiser for the American Heart Association or did something to engage members of your community to encourage minority students to continue their education, be certain to list those activities in your application. If you are out in your community doing good deeds, institutions will recognize you as someone who would represent them well.

Make sure someone else reviews your application before you send it in! It’s important to submit a polished application. It should shine a light on you and your achievements, but any mistakes will be blinding.

TORRES: Some schools require Ph.D. and D.N.P. applicants to write an essay about why they want to earn a doctoral degree, what their career goals are, and what they hope to accomplish with the degree. The essay needs to be well-written, with no spelling errors and good grammatical structure.

Many doctoral programs also request written references. Be especially careful who you ask to provide a reference—preferably it should be someone in your area of practice or a faculty member who teaches in that area—and make sure they know you well. Check with the institution if you have any questions about the application or the process.

Q. What are admission counselors looking for in nurses’ applications?

TORRES: Counselors evaluate applications based on a variety of factors, including academic record, essays, and prior experience. Requirements may include a master’s degree or its equivalent, a 3.0 minimum GPA in that master’s program, an active R.N. license, two or more professional references, and official transcripts of highest course work completed, plus the completed application and fee.

RODRIGUES FISHER: Yet, it’s not just about the applicant’s individual grades. Admission counselors look at the whole person, and they want people with broad, varied experiences.

Some questions admission counselors will be asking themselves as they review applications are “What have they done?” “What committees have they served on either in their community or in their health care facility?” and “Have they demonstrated they will be successful in the program?” It’s important to list all activities and committees you are involved in and specifically what your role was on those committees.

TORRES: Doctoral programs may also prefer (or require) a number of years of professional nursing experience. International students may need to demonstrate equivalency via an additional evaluation from the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS).

The D.N.P. requires 1,000 post-bachelor’s clinical hours, of which 500 must be at the D.N.P. level. Admission counselors will obtain information on how many clinical hours the entering students had in their master’s program.

Q. What does the typical doctoral program entail?

TORRES: A typical D.N.P. program is developed based on AACN’s The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice and covers both course work and clinical hours. The publication outlines the curricular elements and competencies that must be present in programs conferring the Doctor of Nursing Practice.

Doctoral course work is very rigorous. Time management is important, and you will need to closely examine how you are going to complete the course work and use your time to your advantage.

An integral part of the D.N.P. program is the final D.N.P. project, which is usually based on an issue or problem at the student’s institution or facility. It’s important for students to work closely with their schools to ensure the institution supports the project’s implementation. During this project, the student will typically accrue the practicum hours needed. In some ways, the D.N.P. project is similar to a dissertation since it requires approval of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and includes a committee to guide the project.

RODRIGUES FISHER: All doctoral programs require a lot of reading and library research. Once you get through your core course work, it will be important to identify your research area and possible mentors. One additional piece of advice: focus your course work in the direction of your research.

Q. How might doctoral course work impact a working nurse’s personal life?

RODRIGUES FISHER: Going back to school to pursue your doctorate will definitely impact your personal life. I worked full time, went to school, and had a family to take care of, but the great support from my family made it all possible. My husband made sure the children were taken care of and the housework was done. The house wasn’t always as clean as it could be, and I missed some of my children’s games, but because of the partnership with my husband, we made it work.

TORRES: Before you start a doctoral program, talk with your family so they understand what’s involved, how it may impact them, and how they can help you succeed. You will soon discover how many courses you can manage at a time and whether you can handle a full- or part-time commitment, based on your family, work, and other commitments.

Online programs typically offer nurses more flexibility to work their classes around individual schedules. But even if the delivery method is online, course work still takes time, and doctoral students quickly realize they won’t be able to continue to do all they were doing before deciding to pursue a doctorate. On average, each course is a minimum of 15 hours of work per week.

RODRIGUES FISHER: They say if you educate a woman, you educate a family, and I believe this to be true. Yes, going back to pursue my doctorate took away from some of the other things in my life, but my children benefited as they saw me working hard to achieve what I wanted, both for myself and our family. I was proud to be that kind of role model for them. Work hard and you will be rewarded.

Q. How will a nurse’s duties change after obtaining his or her D.N.P.?

TORRES: Most nurses pursue their D.N.P. because they want to advance in their careers and increase their income. According to the 2009 salary survey conducted by ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners magazine, D.N.P.-prepared NPs earned $7,688 more than master’s-prepared NPs.

Many graduates move into a new job or position where they can use the skills they learned while acquiring their D.N.P. Others decide to take on additional responsibilities in their current jobs or go into teaching.

RODRIGUES FISHER: The biggest change is more responsibility. As a nurse with a D.N.P., you will be put into leadership positions supervising other nurses. You will also have a more familiar relationship with physicians at your facility. In short, a D.N.P. means increased opportunity.

Q. What do you think about the AACN’s push to have nurses earn a D.N.P.?

TORRES: I support the movement toward the D.N.P. In the transition to the D.N.P., nursing is moving in the direction of other health professions such as medicine (M.D.), dentistry (D.D.S.), pharmacy (Pharm.D.), psychology (Psy.D.), physical therapy (D.P.T.), and audiology (Aud.D.) to provide their professionals with a practice-oriented degree. Nursing is advocating having more nurses obtain their D.N.P., so we are headed in the right direction. In fact, the AACN membership approved a target goal for transition of Advanced Practice Registered Nurse programs to the D.N.P. by 2015.

RODRIGUES FISHER: It’s not just a push from the AACN, but also from the Institute of Medicine to have more educated nurses out there to deliver needed health care to the nation. We are an aging population that is living longer and needs more care. However, with a shortage of health care providers, we need to have nurses who are prepared to practice, are well educated, and can work in a colloquial role with physicians.

Many nurses who choose Walden University do so to advance their careers and become better practitioners. Colleges and universities are looking to develop lifelong learning programs, such as associate to master’s programs and B.S.N. to D.N.P. programs, in order to quickly meet the increased and growing demand for more educated nurses.

Q. What advice do you have for nurses debating whether or not they should pursue a doctorate?

RODRIGUES FISHER: My number one piece of advice is to think about what you are willing to give up for a short period of time in order to pursue your doctorate. I had to give up some of my personal and family time to advance my education and career. For me, the end results—making contributions in the quality and delivery of care and giving patients the best health services they can receive—are truly worth it.

TORRES: Know your career goals, assess your personal life, and identify your passion. Where are you in your career, and what do you want to do? Do you want to concentrate on research and academia, or do you wish to advance your practice?

Timing is everything, so ask yourself: Is this the right time in my life to do this? If not now, when?

Nurse, Teacher, Trailblazer

Randolph Rasch, PhD, FNP, RN, is passionate about nursing. And he’s also passionate about teaching.

“When you practice as a nurse, you provide care as an individual. If you teach, you are helping multiply the number of nurses who are able to provide care. Your efforts are multiplied and you help shape the future of clinical practice. That’s very rewarding,” says Rasch, who is a professor and the director of the family nurse practitioner program at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rasch’s love of both nursing and teaching are spotlighted in the current “Nursing

Education…Pass It On” promotional campaign put together by Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow (, a coalition of 43 national nursing and health care organizations working together to address the nursing shortage. The campaign is designed to encourage nurses and students to consider teaching careers in hopes of slowing the country’s growing shortage of nursing faculty.

While Rasch is new to his role as celebrity spokesman, he has long considered it part of his job to look for and recruit future nursing professors–and his efforts aren’t limited to just the university students in his classes. Before accepting his current position at Vanderbilt, he was a faculty member at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was involved in offering continuing education programs for nurses across the state.

“I made a point to always tell those nurses where I went to school and all of the different roles I had enjoyed as a nurse,” he says. “I was very honest. I said, ‘I am telling you this because I know that some of you are interested in doing different things as nurses and I want you to see the type of things you could do.’”

Rasch would always stay after these education programs to meet one-on-one with
RNs who were interested in career advice. He gave out his contact information freely. Hearing from some of these nurses years later, after they’ve made the transition to a new career specialty, is still one of his biggest rewards.

A History of Firsts

Rasch is featured in two print advertisements developed by JWT Specialized Communications for the “Nursing Education…Pass It On” nurse educator recruitment campaign. He is shown standing in front of a classroom full of students, smiling. His words urge others to join him in training future nurses. “By sharing my story of nursing firsts, I am able to demonstrate how individuals from a variety of backgrounds can succeed,” the ad quotes him as saying.

Rasch does indeed have a long history of firsts. He was the first African-American man to graduate from the nursing program at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He then became the first African-American male public health nurse (PHN) in his native state of Michigan. He followed that by becoming the first male African American to complete an MSN as a family nurse practitioner (at Vanderbilt in 1979). Finally, he became the first African-American man to earn a PhD in nursing when he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1988.

But Rasch insists he didn’t enter nursing with the goal of being a trailblazer. Instead, he just wanted to provide good patient care.

“I was always interested in health care,” he emphasizes. “I really didn’t know what was involved in nursing, so I originally thought about going to medical school. As I learned more, it was clear that nursing was the right choice for me.”

It was nursing’s holistic approach that appealed to Rasch. “Nursing focuses more on the whole person,” he explains. “You can get to know people and help them improve. You do need to know about diseases and treatment, but you also need to learn who this individual is. You have to know about their lives and families so you can plan care that is appropriate for that person.”

Encouraging Future Faculty

Rasch’s approach to encouraging the next generation of nurses to consider careers as professors is very simple. He does it through one-on-one conversations with students. After all, that was how he himself was recruited into teaching.

“When I first became a nurse, I only saw myself working in a clinical setting,” Rasch recalls. “When I graduated from my undergraduate program, I went to work in a hospital. The director of my program said for me to go ahead and do that, but she thought I would grow to become interested in other things.

“She was right,” he continues. “I did enjoy working in the hospital, but I wanted to do other things. So I went to work as a public health nurse in Benton Harbor, Michigan, went back to school for my MSN and became a family nurse practitioner. Then I wanted to learn how to identify problems and solve them, so I entered a PhD program.”

It was while he was pursuing his doctoral degree that the idea of teaching came up. “Almost all of my classmates were nursing professors,” he says. “Along with the faculty, they talked me into [becoming a professor].”
Rasch believes an encouraging word from a trusted faculty member is often all it takes to cause a nursing student to consider teaching. “Most of the people that I talk to haven’t thought about becoming a teacher,” he notes. “When my professors said they could see me teaching, that was enough reason for me to consider it. It’s very encouraging for someone to say to you, ‘we’ve been watching you and we see what you can do. Let’s talk about this.’”

Rasch is careful never to become too pushy in his efforts to recruit future faculty. “No one ever told me to become a professor, but they did ask me to think about it. That’s what I do with my students now.”

When nurses become professors, he adds, they make a lifelong commitment to learning as well as teaching. That begins with the basics of research. “I never saw myself as a researcher with a big ‘R,’ but it is an integral part of my work.”

Rasch’s research expertise is in HIV/AIDS and men’s health issues. He believes that the ability to read, understand and apply research is becoming more important to all nurses. Future nurses need that interpretive skill, he feels.

“Nowadays, anybody who watches the evening news is constantly hearing about new developments in health care,” Rasch says. “Patients will come in and say, ‘I saw this on the news.’ As a nurse, you need to be able to look into it, find and read some of the most current research and then get a sense of whether a change [in the patient’s treatment] should be made.”

Not Always an Easy Journey

Rasch’s long list of barrier-breaking firsts means, of course, that he was often the only male African American in the class or on the job. Yet he says he didn’t experience the loneliness that some men of color feel in nursing. He credits his outgoing personality with helping him avoid isolation. However, he did experience discrimination, although it wasn’t always intentional.

“Some things happened where I realized that my teachers or fellow nurses were discriminating, but [it was usually because] they didn’t stop to think,” he explains. “Sometimes they would almost try to protect a patient from having a male nurse without realizing that it wasn’t an issue with the patient.”

Rasch hopes that by featuring an African-American male professor in the campaign, the “Nursing…Pass It On” advertisements will draw nurses from a variety of backgrounds into the field of teaching.

“I think it’s important to have a very diverse faculty,” he stresses. “We each have our own cultural experience. If you just have people with the same experiences, you narrow the perspective. You get people that look at everything the exact same way and there’s no growth. With a diverse group, you can look at things more creatively and come up with a wider range of possibilities and solutions.”

This trailblazing teacher knows the journey from nurse to professor isn’t easy. He offers several pieces of expert advice for minority nurses interested in making the transition from practicing nurse to nursing educator.

“The first thing to do is look at what graduate programs are accessible,” he says. “Look at where the program is located and how it is offered.” Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three programs, get information on the faculty–specifically, find out about their nursing expertise and their teaching philosophies.

Rasch also recommends putting together a portfolio of nursing accomplishments. This will help you document your successes, something that may be needed to impress graduate school admissions officers. “Remember that students and faculty both add something to the learning process,” he points out. “Show the admissions officers what you can contribute as a student.”

Finally, don’t think it’s too late to consider teaching. Rasch himself worked as a nurse for several years before going back to school to pursue an MSN. “If you’ve been out of school for a while, highlight the things you have done in your career” is his advice for nontraditional students.

Minority Nurse Retention in Doctoral Programs: What Works and Why

The literature from professional nursing organizations is full of recommendations that nurses continue to advance their education by pursuing doctoral degrees, either in clinical practice or in research. In 2004 the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), after studying the issue for two years, published a position paper recommending the advisability of obtaining a terminal degree even if a nurse’s career focus is on nursing practice rather than research or teaching.

The doctorate is seen as a necessary credential for nurses who hope to move into leadership and change-agent positions, whether in the area of patient care, administration and management, nursing education, nursing science or health policy making. But who is responding to these recommendations? And even more importantly, who is finishing these doctoral degrees?

Minority nurses cannot afford to walk away from this one. In the nursing literature, article after article repeats the theme: A culturally diverse population needs culturally diverse nurses at every educational level.

In my 29 years of nursing, I have seen great changes in the nurse’s role in clinical practice, health care regulation and research. We nurses are becoming more autonomous. We have become decision makers–whether we like it or not–on both a small and large scale. New trends and best practices are constantly emerging from advances in research and technology. As a result, the knowledge base for many of us is no longer the same as when we first became RNs, and much of it is most likely obsolete. We need to keep abreast and constantly sharpen our expertise, which is at higher level now than even before.

Do minority nurses need doctorates? Yes, I strongly believe we do. Without them, how can we spearhead the movement for cultural responsiveness in patient care? How are our issues going to be included if we don’t have a seat at the policy-making table? How will we be able to educate the next generation of culturally diverse nurses as the current generation of nursing faculty moves into retirement? We must earn this level of academic preparedness in order to exercise leadership in all of these key areas–for our patients, for ourselves and for those who follow.

A bridge is needed for currently practicing minority nurses to access these terminal degrees, and we will have to join hands to form that bridge. Where will the physical, mental and emotional energy, as well as the money, come from to enable these nurses to not only pursue doctoral degrees but to actually complete them? The best way to answer these questions is to look at some examples of proven strategies for assuring retention of minority nurses in graduate programs.

What Works for Us

Thad Wilson, PhD, APRN, BC, associate dean of graduate nursing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), says the personal touch has contributed to his institution’s success in retaining minority graduate students. Feelings of exclusion, loneliness and alienation cannot be allowed. Outreach efforts such as counseling, student support services, mentoring, reorganization of faculty responsibilities and other institutional measures can open channels of communication that prevent minority doctoral students from drifting away.

Maithe Enriquez, PhD, ANP, RN, an assistant professor who earned her doctorate from UMKC School of Nursing in 2002 and now teaches in the PhD program herself, is a perfect example of a minority nurse who has benefited from the school’s nurturing approach. When asked to name the most important factors in retaining minority nurses in graduate programs, she readily answered, “For me, it was having two great mentors, family support and funding.”

Dr. Enriquez, who began her career as an operating room nurse, has become an outstanding leader in her profession. In addition to her faculty position at UMKC, she also works in the clinical setting as a nurse practitioner and is an award-winning researcher specializing in the management of chronic illness in vulnerable populations. From 2002-2004, she was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing.

Examining the career paths of role models like Dr. Enriquez can help minority nurses understand the steps involved in the process of completing doctoral study. Her curriculum vitae includes over 21 published articles, 11 professional presentations, six research grants and seven program grants.


Mentoring is no longer the exclusionary practice it often was in the past. “Fitting in” with the majority culture has been replaced with appreciating and valuing the perspectives of minority cultures and the ability to relate to diverse populations. For this reason, many graduate programs are actively recruiting more mentors to overcome the mentor shortage that once created obstacles to minority nurses’ retention rates. California State University at Chico, Prairie View A&M University, the University of Florida, the University of Mississippi, the University of Northern Colorado and the University of South Dakota are all mentioned in the literature as participating in new and successful mentoring paradigms.

Encouraging minority graduate students in nursing to be involved in community partnerships, collaborations, professional organizations and social networks is another effective retention strategy. Returning to our example, in 2005 Dr. Enriquez was the recipient of a Mentor Award from the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations. She is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care and the nursing honor society Sigma Theta Tau. She received UMKC’s Community Service Award in 2001 for service to the HIV/AIDS community. Dr. Enriquez has also received many other awards, has given numerous community health presentations and her CV lists 18 other community service activities.

Opportunities to participate in forums, leadership development programs, peer networking and role modeling can also help minority doctoral students stay the course and finish their degrees. Sharing stories of personal journeys helps increase confidence and promote realistic goal setting. Nurses tend to be highly idealistic and may be harsher critics of themselves than others. Mentoring and networking programs can help reestablish a perspective for measuring progress. The key is cultivating an active sense of involvement and acceptance from faculty and other students.

Support Systems: Family and Financial

In today’s fast-paced society where multitasking has become the norm, many minority nurses pursuing graduate degrees can easily become overextended in their commitments of time, energy and money. Juggling the demands of relationships, family, community, work and school may seem impossible.

Nurses who are highly self-reliant may find it hard to ask for help. Often the decision to pursue graduate work is made alone, but the goal cannot be achieved without support. Family members must agree to a plan to help the graduate nursing student.

To save time and money, some nurses have taken advantage of shared childcare expenses, academic research services, support groups and other forms of assistance to help them in completing their degree requirements.

If family support is scarce, especially from spouses, other support systems must be in place to assist these students, and the university should know about it. Providing access to childcare, financial assistance, housing, transportation, counseling and cohort support groups can help nursing schools retain doctoral students who do not already have a functional support network.

In recent years, federal, state and private entities have dedicated unprecedented funds to encourage minority nurses to complete graduate work and assume faculty positions. Many new programs, grants and scholarships are now available to provide financial and career support. Some of these programs fund career ladders or tuition and fees for graduate work beyond the normal financial aid packages.

For example, the California Endowment/AACN Nurse Faculty Scholarship provides $18,000 plus mentorship and leadership training to underrepresented minority graduate students in California who intend to pursue careers as nurse educators. On a national level, the federal Nurse Reinvestment Act, signed into law in 2002, established a faculty loan cancellation program to allow rapid completion of advanced degree studies by nurses who agree to take on faculty positions at schools of nursing.

We cannot say that the opportunities are not there. Monies have been allocated nationally to meet the need for minority nursing leadership.

What Else Is Working

There are a number of other effective strategies that schools of nursing can implement to improve retention of minority students in advanced degree programs. UMKC School of Nursing’s Strategic Plan for 2005 specified expanding the availability of distance learning options, which provide more flexible time frames for students to complete their coursework. This flexibility is especially important for minority nurses, who are more likely to be employed full time than majority nurses.

Another successful tactic universities can adopt is to sponsor activities that will increasefaculty members’ familiarity with the cultural needs of their students, such as cultural differences in learning styles and communication styles. Faculty with high student failure rates can learn to modify their instruction to increase students’ chances of success without sacrificing standards. An academic environment where ethnic and cultural differences are understood and accepted is empowering and encouraging to minority students.

University libraries should also make sure they subscribe to multicultural nursing journals, such as the Journal of the National Black Nurses Association, Journal of Transcultural Nursing, Journal of Cultural Diversity, The Journal of Multicultural Nursing and Health and Minority Nurse, to name just a few. 

In some cases, doctoral programs may need to reexamine some of their admissions policies. Minority nurses who overcome great odds to achieve their nursing education and practice are more severely challenged when additional layers of preparation are mandated. One possible strategy would be to allow nurses with high levels of clinical experience to be grandfathered into programs after establishing a way to translate their skills into equivalencies for the doctorate.

Providing pre-entry programs and orientation to graduate work are approaches that have worked well for some schools. Likewise, establishing more public and community partnerships would help promote access to doctoral programs for minority nurses. Opportunities for minority students to practice leadership must be available within the program, rather than being viewed solely as an end or goal of the program.

Networks of exchange can help expand access from linear to lateral connections. Leaders in the minority nursing community could advise nursing schools on policies that aid retention. Quality candidates could be given opportunities to shadow administrative and faculty participation in the doctoral program.

Investing in Our Future

Today, minority nurses are in a position to leverage our knowledge and expertise as never before. We cannot afford to pass up this opportunity to access institutional support for our future by pursuing doctoral degrees.

While we can and should make use of the financial, academic and community resources available to help us accomplish this goal, we must also be our own advocates. We are our own best mentors, support systems and cultural ambassadors within our institutions. Together we can raise funds to help a university library purchase a subscription to a multicultural journal. Together we can form support groups. Together we can hold forums to address our unique issues and challenges.

Whatever it takes to help minority nurses bridge the gap between enrolling in doctoral degree programs and successfully completing those degrees, it is our hands together that will form the bridge. By sharing the unique strengths of our community, we will cross over together, helping to keep each other afloat.