Career advice

Further study for further development: the primacy of postgraduate studies

Since nursing became an all-graduate profession, undertaking a master's degree has become an increasingly popular choice, says University of Edinburgh nursing professor Tonks Fawcett.

Since nursing became an all-graduate profession, undertaking a master's degree has become an increasingly popular choice, says University of Edinburgh nursing professor Tonks Fawcett


Postgraduate programmes focus on the improvement of patient and client outcomes
and of nursing care. Picture: iStock  

In the 1970s, only about one in 20 nurses in the UK had a degree, and the necessity of such an academic requirement was often viewed with derision. Now, as an all-graduate profession, the importance of a master's degree for career progression takes on greater potency. 

The master's degree is the most common postgraduate degree, and a master's programme should equip nurses with what are often referred to as 'higher order' skills: critical evaluation; clinical decision-making; problem-solving and research endeavour demonstrated within theoretical frameworks. 

However demanding this may sound, at the heart of all such master's programmes is the improvement of patient and client outcomes and of nursing care. 

A master's degree opens up career opportunities and enhances clinical practice. It also improves nurses' sense of personal growth and leadership through the acquisition of academic skills, intellectual sharing, the broadening of outlooks and greater reasoning skills.

Flexible study

There are a range of master's degrees on offer, so it is important to select the appropriate programme for your individual career aspirations and talents. Study can be intense but rewarding, and can be undertaken face to face, online or with a combination of the two. A master's degree can be completed in one year's full-time study, but many nurses choose to study part-time and while working, which can take two to three years.

Programmes usually start in September, but sometimes January entry is offered. Compared with the pre-registration degree programmes, master's programmes can give more flexibility in terms of study options. If an applicant is uncertain about this level of study, a single course or module may be offered by a university as a continual professional development 'taster'. The credit then contributes to the degree if it is subsequently undertaken.

All postgraduate degrees involve writing a dissertation or submitting an equivalent portfolio. A research degree may be at master's or doctoral level and will show that the individual has aspirations for a career in research, whether in academia or in the NHS, be it leading on a research project or as an integral part of a research team. 

Caring through research

For doctoral work, the purpose of study is to make, in an original and scholarly way, a significant and independent contribution to nursing knowledge. 

It is unfortunate that nurses who pursue a research career are often considered by their peers to have left nursing. On the contrary, they make important contributions to the practice and understanding of nursing care by 'caring through research', and those who gain a doctorate are achieving the highest academic award a university can offer.

To pursue further study as a registered nurse can be costly, but sources of funding are available in the form of student loans or scholarships from charitable trusts, societies or universities. 

With multiple pathways available for nurses to learn about high standards of patient-centred and compassionate care, underpinned with critical thinking and research-based evidence, the importance of postgraduate education is becoming increasingly evident.


About the author 

 

 

 

Tonks Fawcett is a member of the RCNi editorial advisory board and professor student learning (nurse education) at the University of Edinburgh

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