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PhDs & Doctorates for Nurses

by Roger Watson, Professor of Nursing, University of Hull


The best known type of doctorate is the PhD or Doctor of Philosophy and this can be taken in most countries; albeit that the PhD varies greatly between them. The PhD is designed for people who wish to undertake a prolonged period of research with a view to becoming an independent researcher. It is a fact that most people with PhDs eventually work in universities.

In the UK the full-time PhD traditionally takes three years with a maximum time of four years. While some formal study is usually required alongside the research project, the main mode of study is by independent but supervised research leading to the production of a substantial thesis (50-100,000 words) and an examination by an oral examination or viva voce - a process involving interview by at least two examiners; one external to the university where the PhD has been taken and this is a process whereby the student 'defends' their work. There are variations on this model of PhD in the UK such as PhD by publication, but they are very rare. Rarely is the PhD completed at the viva voce; examiners may ask for substantial revisions and allocate some more time to complete them.

In some parts of Europe - principally The Netherlands and Scandinavia - PhDs are undertaken by publication. This involves undertaking independent but supervised research, sometimes several small but interrelated projects, leading to the publication of several papers in refereed journals and writing up a small thesis to show how the work fits together. This type of PhD can take many years to complete as it is dependent on achieving good publications. The final examination involves a judgement by a panel in the university and then a public defence - which anyone may attend - involving an external examiner; this can be a daunting prospect.

The North America PhD usually takes five years to complete and includes a lengthy period of study and assessed courses which have to be passed. The research work is closely supervised by a committee and the final thesis is quite small compared with a UK PhD. There is a final oral examination but there are also several steps along the way involving oral examination, therefore, the final examination is not as daunting as the UK viva or the European public examination.

Australian PhDs are very similar to the UK in the style in which they are undertaken and in the substance of the final thesis. However, the final examination is not by viva; the thesis is sent out to several experts in the field and it is marked and the university decides the outcome based on these marks.

Professional taught doctorates

The range of professional taught doctorates is large and growing across the world. The precise details of each need to be examined carefully as these differ with the nature and purpose of the taught doctorates. This type of doctorate leads to the award of a variety of degrees with the title of 'doctor' in them and nursing is now at the forefront of their development. Taught doctorates are usually taken part-time and are designed for professionals who wish to undertake some research but mainly to undertake advanced study in their field of work and to seek career advancement. Such people are usually quite senior in their field. Therefore, the period of study in a taught doctorate is formal and has to be passed before going on to the research component. The latter is usually shorter than a period of PhD study and the kinds of problems investigated are usually directly relevant to the work of the person undertaking the doctorate. Some taught doctorates are specifically for nurses and others are for a range of health professionals.

In the USA some universities are running the Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP) and this has been developed specifically for nurses in practice who do not wish to undertake a PhD but who wish to remain in practice and to undertake study and gain accreditation that is directly related to their work and which allows them to remain in work. There are many taught doctoral programmes in the UK and they are rapidly being developed in Australia.

The next steps

If you are a nurse and you wish to undertake doctoral level study you should:

  • Think very carefully about it
  • Ask yourself why you wish to study and have a degree at the doctoral level
  • Decide if you want to have a career in research or to remain in practice
  • Find out as much as you can about a range of doctorates
  • Investigate, in detail, what specific programmes of interest offer

Finally, in addition to educational and professional considerations, make sure that you have considered the personal and financial consequences of committing yourself to several further years of study and hard work.

Roger Watson is a Professor of Nursing at the Faculty of Health and Social Care, University of Hull

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FindAPhD.

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