Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing: Nurse Scientists Advance Health and Patient Care

Featured Article | July 19, 2016 | By Robin Lally, PhD, RN, AOCN; Assistant Dean, PhD Program; Associate Professor

As the assistant dean for the UB School of Nursing PhD Program, I am often asked, “Why should I get a PhD in nursing?”  

I do not care for patients one at a time – I am privileged to care for patients thousands at a time as nurses in the field implement the findings of my research
Robin Lally, Assistant Dean, PhD Program; Associate Professor
University at Buffalo School of Nursing

It is a puzzling question for me because I almost thought of doing nothing else.

I recall in the first grade, while reading about a lost civilization, the teacher said, “We don’t know what happened to these people.” I stared at the page in the book. Prior to that, I thought everything was known, that I just didn’t know everything yet. When I learned there were still things to be discovered, I was hooked! From then on, it did not matter what kind of science – I was into it.

My passion became the human body and all its complexities. When I saw “PhD in Nursing” listed in a university catalog – something I did not know existed* – I set my sights there and never looked back.

The desire to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree in any discipline, and nursing is no exception, comes from perpetual curiosity and a love of learning. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, philosophy is “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life.” In nursing, we focus on the interaction of people, health, and their internal and external environments. Individuals with PhDs in nursing develop knowledge about the nature and meaning of people, sick or well, and the environments that contribute to these outcomes.

It is important that as a practice profession, nursing has a science on which to base practice. Nurse scientists conduct studies that create and test hypotheses derived from our own and others’ theories to evaluate, document and disseminate findings; they also critique and debate their own and others’ findings so that the best science can be used to improve the lives of people receiving nursing care.

I am also frequently asked, “But don’t you miss taking care of patients?”

That is an easy answer – I am taking care of patients.

I’m taking care of them by doing the best science of which I am capable and disseminating that to nurses throughout the U.S. and the world.

Without my science and that of other PhDs in nursing, nursing care would be based on hearsay and practices passed down over the years. While some of these practices are fine, the way we care for people needs to be verified and new discoveries made as time moves on.

A greater emphasis is now being placed on the dissemination and implementation of our science. It is my hope that the profession of nursing will become ever stronger because of our scientists and the communication and use of our scientific findings that guide nursing practice to improve patient care and outcomes. Nursing science is also used to advocate for people before they become patients to improve screening and to change unhealthy behaviors and our environment. 

I do not care for patients one at a time – I am privileged to care for patients thousands at a time as nurses in the field implement the findings of my research.

So, do you have the curiosity, perseverance and love of knowledge it takes to earn a PhD in Nursing?  

*The first Doctor of Philosophy degrees in nursing were granted in the United States in the 1950s.

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