Career advice

Why registered nurses should consider a PhD

Rose Webster describes the challenges of undertaking a doctorate and how studying can help to develop skills, as well as being academically satisfying

Rose Webster describes the challenges of undertaking a doctorate and how studying can help to develop skills, as well as being academically satisfying 

Rose Webster
Rose Webster considered a PhD at three different points in her life

In the academic world, doctorates are seen as routes to developing ideas and improving understanding through the creation of knowledge. This level of study is part of an established clinical pathway for professions such as doctors, but not yet for nurses.  

I have worked as a registered nurse in acute NHS hospital settings for more than 35 years and have had lots of experience undertaking research-based study. My PhD, which I was awarded in January, explored the lived experiences of newly-appointed healthcare assistants to roles in an acute NHS trust.

Doctorates have been described as training for a career and in other disciplines they are often undertaken immediately after full-time study, following a first or masters degree. Many nurses undertaking PhDs, however, are in their forties and fifties and are studying part time.

When is best to commit to a course?

I considered undertaking a PhD on three occasions during my nursing career. 

The first was after I graduated with a degree in nursing sciences in 1981, when I would have had the opportunity for full time study, robust supervision and no distractions from a family or demanding job. But I was eager to start a staff nurse role and, as I felt that leaving clinical practice for a university setting was a requirement for developing an academic career, I declined the offer.

‘My primary motivation for doing a PhD was curiosity around a subject relevant to clinical practice – I wanted to generate knowledge which had the potential to make a difference to patients and colleagues’

Today, Health Education England (HEE) supports the idea of developing future academic leaders early in their careers. Strategies emphasise the importance of building research skills across the nursing workforce, with opportunities for academically minded, practice-based nurses to be supported to follow structured clinical academic career pathways.  

It is likely that these career pathways, including apprenticeship opportunities, will encourage relatively junior nurses to start on a journey to doctoral study, and that this will become an accepted path for nursing.  

My second opportunity to work towards a doctorate was at the mid-point in my career. I was working as a clinical nurse specialist in coronary care and enrolled for a PhD to study the experiences of South Asian coronary patients. 

The data collection part of the study went well, but I struggled with the feeling of working in isolation and it was hard to find the time and energy to complete the writing element while in a demanding job with a hectic family life. Although I had to abandon this academic study, my research findings were published and I used some of them for my masters dissertation.   

If you are thinking of undertaking a PhD

  • Look around, ask questions and choose the subject that suits you best
  • Speak to others who have completed a PhD or are undertaking one. They may be able to offer guidance and advice
  • Do not attempt to start a PhD unless you have realistic expectations of what is involved, along with the resilience and determination to succeed and robust support mechanisms  
  • Doctoral study does not bring quick results. Managing the expectations of others – and yourself - is vital, but it will all be worth it in the end

 

I eventually achieved my doctorate over a seven-year period as part of a formal study programme. This time I was established and settled in my role and my personal circumstances meant I was able to put in the necessary hours of study and stay focused. 

 I have fed back the findings to practice colleagues, presented at conferences and intend to publish my work, but I do feel that waiting until late in my career has potentially limited how I can use my doctorate.

The future for nurses and doctoral study

My primary motivation for doing a PhD was curiosity around a subject relevant to clinical practice – I wanted to generate knowledge which had the potential to make a difference to patients and colleagues. I also embraced the academic challenge and learned a lot about myself.

As I am semi-retired, I now have the opportunity, along with the knowledge, skills and energy, to support others undertaking study at this level.  

The future looks bright for nurses and doctoral study and there are now a range of routes to take to reach this goal. While not yet the gateway to career progression, the skills you develop are likely to put you in a good place to achieve your potential throughout your nursing career.


Rose Webster is education and practice development sister, University Hospitals Leicester
 

Dr Webster will present a seminar ‘Registered Nurses and PhD Study – why bother?’ at the RCNi Nursing and Careers Jobs Fair in Leicester on 5 November.

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