Considering a Doctoral Degree?


The following is a guest post by Catherine Pantik, DNP, APRN. Catherine is a member of the Graduate Student Nursing Academy and also serves as Leadership Council Chair. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Read on for her thoughts on pursuing a doctoral degree.

Do you hear that? No, not the sound of falling leaves. I hear opportunity knocking. Despite the progress that the nursing profession has made towards the challenge posed by the National Academies – formerly the Institute of Medicine, to double the number of doctorally prepared nurses by 2020, we still have considerable work to do. According to the most recent data tracking the progress towards The Future of Nursing goals, enrollment and graduation rates for Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) continues to rise, while enrollment in nursing-focused PhDs has decreased after peaking in 2014.

Unfortunately, we cannot increase these numbers without available faculty. Nursing schools report close to 1,000 open faculty positions with over 90% of those positions requiring or preferring a doctoral degree. The result – many qualified students are being turned away. With well over 50% of GNSA members enrolled in master’s degree programs, and many expressing interest in pursuing a doctoral degree, I thought I would share some lessons learned by doctoral nursing program survivors.

The most frequently cited roadblock to pursuing a PhD is the dreaded dissertation. After all, no one wants to put in years of blood, sweat, and tears and end up with an “ABD degree – All But Dissertation”. Completing your PhD is not easy, nor should it be. As Thomas Paine said, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.”

First, you must know yourself and your support system – there will be some sacrifice such as time, energy, and finances. Now that you have assessed your situation and are ready to begin the doctoral journey, remember you are not alone. Many have traveled the dissertation path and reached the summit. Knowing the common hazards along the way will help you prepare.

  1. Select your committee wisely. In addition to bringing specific knowledge and experience to your “brain trust”, they are people you should like to be around since you will be spending a lot of time with them.
  2. Choose a topic that is manageable. Do not make your dissertation research unmanageable. Consider the time frame for funding, recruitment, analysis, and write up. In fact, a secondary data analysis sounds like a great idea, saving time and money. Ask about data that your advisor might have or can connect you to.
  3. Learn to say no. Most doctoral students work and have families, often part of the sandwich generation, caring for their children, significant others, and their aging parents. Too often when you are in the dissertation phase of your doctoral program, others will put demands on your time, as they don’t understand that WRITING is your JOB at that point. If you allow it, everything in life will expand to fill up your writing time.
  4. Procrastination. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. I find that procrastination is really a disguise for something else. Perhaps self-confidence is waning, and it is easier to pick up an extra shift or commit to something else that is within our comfort zone. Literature review, writing time, data collection, and data analysis are all components of your research that need to be scheduled on a calendar and they, like your shift at the hospital or wherever you work, cannot be moved on a whim. Breaking your tasks into smaller chunks and scheduling them often alleviates feeling overwhelmed.
  5. Writer’s block. I find that writer’s block is often code for perfectionism rearing its head. “If I cannot write it perfectly today, I will just wait until I have two whole days to think about it.” If you have scheduled two hours today to write, then write something! Once you start you will find momentum. Writer’s block also can be thwarted by having a thorough outline. If you get stuck on one part you can easily move to another section.
  6. Doctoral student support group. Whether you are in a synchronous or asynchronous program, surrounding yourself with people who are experiencing the same trials and tribulations is comforting and bring the added benefit of accountability.

I hope I provided a little food for thought to those of you considering the doctoral journey.