Less than one percent of all American nurses have a doctoral degree. But if the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has its way, that will soon change. Last year, the IOM, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released The Future of Nursing, a summary of its two-year study of nursing and healthcare. The report says nurses need to take on greater responsibility in healthcare – and recommends doubling the number of doctorally-prepared nurses by 2020. One way to do that? Ensure that 10 percent of all new BSN grads move into a MSN, PhD or DNP program within five years of graduation.

Higher education can sound a bit like alphabet soup, but the truth is that the demand for doctorally-prepared nurses has never been higher. An acute shortage of nurse faculty is delaying the education of thousands of would-be nurses each year, and national nurse organizations, including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, are calling on advanced degree nurses to step up their education to keep pace with a healthcare environment that requires highly-educated clinical care providers.

Unsure if a PhD or DNP is right for you? Check out these five reasons to get a doctorate. You might be surprised to find out that you’d be a great doctoral candidate!

  • Reason #1: You want to teach the next generation of nurses It’s clear that the nurses of tomorrow will need to be clinically competent, quick on their feet and adept at adapting to a variety of situations and practice settings. That’s where today’s nurses come in: tomorrow’s nurses need experienced nurses to show them the ropes, to ask probing questions, and to model critical thinking. But too few nurses are stepping up to the challenge. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), U.S. nursing schools turned away over 67,000 qualified applicants in 2010 because there simply aren’t enough instructors to teach them. Nursing schools report close to 1,000 open faculty positions – and the vast majority of those positions (90.6%!) require a doctoral degree. Not sure if nursing education is for you? Try mentoring a new nurse. If that goes well, apply for a position as a clinical instructor; a Master’s degree and work experience will typically qualify you to lead a clinical group. And if you find you enjoy working with students, go all the way. A PhD will qualify you for most nurse educator positions and provide you with a lifetime of job security. Plus – no weekends or holidays!
  • Reason #2: You have a passion for top-notch clinical care The DNP – Doctor of Nursing Practice – is a relatively new degree. In the past, advancing your nursing education meant stepping away from the bedside. The further you climbed up the academic ladder, the further you retreated from hands-on clinical care. But increasingly, nurses and others are recognizing the value of having highly educated nurses in clinical practice. That’s why the DNP was created. According to the AACN, the DNP is “designed for nurses seeking a terminal degree in nursing practice and offers an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs. DNP-prepared nurses are well-equipped to fully implement the science developed by nurse researchers prepared in PhD, DNSc, and other research-focused nursing doctorates.” Over the next few years, you’ll see a shift in degrees held by advanced practice nurses (APNs) such as nurse midwives, nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists. Currently, those positions require a Masters’ degree. But by 2015 or so (the date has yet to be set in stone), those positions will require a DNP. Why? Listen to the AACN again: “Nurses are constantly working with individuals who have a high level of preparation in their respective fields-physicians, pharmacists, and other health providers. Nursing educational preparation and the time commitment ought to be analogous to other health professions e.g., PharmD, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy. The DNP provides a clinical option for advanced preparation in nursing practice that is more comparable to other intraprofessional education.” Don’t fret if you already have your MSN; there will be a mechanism in place to grandfather in current advanced practice nurses. But if you’re thinking of continuing your clinical education, why not opt for a DNP program?
  • Reason #3: You want to move the profession forward All too often, nurses on the front lines are the ones who see what needs to be done. If you’re a bedside nurse, you can probably list 16 reasons why lower nurse/patient ratios are advantageous to care. But without hard data to back up your claim, hospital administrators aren’t likely to increase nursing staff. That’s where nurse researchers come in. Renowned nurse researcher Linda Aiken, for instance, has spent her career studying nurses and nursing practice. She’s dedicated her career to improving healthcare for both patients and nurses, and she does that through her research. One of her oft-cited studies demonstrated a clear link between nurse/patient ratios and patient mortality. Aiken discovered that patients at hospitals with the highest nurse/patient ratios (8 patients/nurse) had a 31% greater risk of death. That’s the kind of data that makes hospital administrators sit up and pay attention. Most nurse researchers are affiliated with colleges or universities, but some are connected to academic medical centers or healthcare organizations. The average salary for a nurse researcher is $95,000 – $100,000 per year. 
  • Reason #4: You want to improve healthcare While the U.S. healthcare system is often touted as the best in the world, it’s no secret that our healthcare system leaves a lot to be desired. Too many people still lack basic healthcare coverage, and all in all, our system is still more focused on disease than on health and wellness. That’s why the Institute of Medicine recommends increased involvement of nurses in efforts to improve healthcare. A doctoral degree (either a DNP or PhD) will help you stay at the forefront of these exciting changes. And these aren’t just some pie-in-the-sky pipedreams. Twenty-eight states have already proposed legislation to remove barriers that currently inhibit nursing practice.
  • Reason #5: You’re cost-conscious Yes, a doctoral degree requires a huge commitment of time, energy and financial resources. But given the current healthcare climate, you’re probably better off enrolling in a BSN-to-PhD program, for instance, than completing a Master’s degree before your PhD. That’s especially true if you’re interested in a career as an advanced practice nurse. Why mess around with a separate Master’s program when you can enroll directly in a BSN – to – DNP program, given the fact that a DNP will soon be the preferred degree? Besides, there are a multitude of resources out there to help you finance your education. The AACN maintains a list of funding resources for future nurse educators. The Affordable Care Act includes loan repayment options for nurses who choose to work in underserved areas as primary healthcare providers; some states have their own loan forgiveness programs. Various healthcare organizations (such as the American Cancer Society) offer scholarships and grants for doctoral nursing students as well. And don’t forget your current employer. Many hospitals and healthcare organizations provide at least partial tuition reimbursement. Besides, the investment pays off in the long run. According to indeed.com, the average salary for doctorally-prepared nurses is $95,000 per year.