More nurses with advanced education and skills are needed to care for the nation’s growing and graying population as well as to step into leadership, research, and teaching roles.
Given the expected growth of advanced practice roles, the nurse faculty shortage, and the Institute of Medicine recommendation to double the number of nurses with a doctorate by 2020, it’s more important than ever for nurses to obtain graduate degrees.
To join the ranks of these advanced practice nurses, you already know that you want to pursue a graduate degree. So, one of the first steps in planning for graduate school is to be honest with yourself. Are you clear on what you want to do and ready to make personal sacrifices, which include time and money to pursue your goals? Are you objective about your own skills and willingness to learn? Have you assessed your strengths and weaknesses?
Answer those questions before deciding that graduate school is on the agenda, nursing experts advise.
“Unlike matriculating from a bachelor’s in business to an MBA, there aren’t any benefits to going to graduate school in nursing unless you have a specific goal in mind,” says Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN, and author of How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School). “ADN, BSN, and MSN nurses still have to wipe butts if they work on the floor or unit, even if a hospital provides salary differential.”
While assessing your readiness for graduate school, maximize your current learning opportunities. “Nurses can work in surgery to learn if first assistant or anesthesia type careers would fit their skills and interests, or shadow advance practice nurses to learn more about their jobs,” Angelis says.
Timing is Personal
In planning for graduate school, often the first decision nurses must make is whether to wait a few years after receiving a BSN or go to graduate school immediately after.
The answer depends on your circumstances and mindset, nursing experts say. “This is really more of an individual decision,” says Jan Jones-Schenk, DHSc, RN, NE-BC, national director of College of Health Professions and chief nursing officer at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It depends on time, money, and goals. My advice to all nurses is to not wait for long periods of time before pursuing your academic advancement goals. It’s so difficult to get started if you wait 10 years or more between degrees. The best plan is to get a time frame in your mind so you can be working towards it. For people who have clear ideas of their next steps, going right to grad school is a great step,” says Jones-Schenk. “For people who have lots of debt, complex lives, or are just exhausted, [they] may need to think more about next steps. It is worth thinking about a time horizon that is visible even if it isn’t immediate.”
Some nurses are focused at a young age and want to pursue a graduate degree right away, says Susan Alexander, DNP, ANP-BC, ADM-BC, DNP coordinator and clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. For these students, going immediately into graduate school is a good choice. However, other students may benefit from working.
“What we are seeing now is a lot of students that pursue bachelor degrees are second degree students,” says Alexander. “And they frequently move on to master’s programs immediately after completing their BSN. They have identified a goal and they are prepared to move directly forward. It depends very much on the student and what their interests and goals are. I teach in the doctoral program presently, but I also work with the master’s students, and I work with some of the younger BSN-prepared students who have come into the MSN program, and they are great students.’’
To determine when it’s time to advance your education to advance your career, take specific actions. Consult mentors, stay engaged with contemporary trends, and take advantage of every growth opportunity that presents itself, Jones-Schenk suggests.
”I do think doctoral preparation for nurses is important, but not everyone will need a doctorate. I do think more and more nurses will need at least a master’s degree for certain roles, and education can be an important way of differentiating yourself. It isn’t just about career progression either; it can be enormously satisfying and can give you a different way of viewing situations and responding to them. Education is a great thing. There isn’t one academic path that is right for everyone, but lifelong learning is fundamental for every nurse,” says Jones-Schenk.
If undecided about how far to take your education, ask yourself: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? “If you see yourself in leadership, you need to think about graduate education,” says Alexander. “If you see yourself in an advanced clinical practice role, you need to think about graduate education. If you want to teach in an academic setting, you definitely need to think about graduate education.”
“The PhD program is great if you know you want to be a researcher or educator. The MSN program is great if you want to be in leadership, in the clinical practice. These are the programs that prepare you to do that. There is even a combined PhD and DNP program,” says Alexander.
“I’m a DNP-prepared nurse and I chose that because I always thought of myself as being very clinically based. I have been a nurse practitioner. I’m in education now because I wanted to teach, and teaching full-term wasn’t necessarily one of my goals; it’s something I had an opportunity to do and I’m glad that I had an opportunity. I wouldn’t have that opportunity without the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. I worked with lots of students as a nurse practitioner with a MSN. I had an opportunity to precept other nurse practitioner students, but I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to be a full-time faculty member without the DNP degree. I’ve had lots of opportunities as a faculty member. It’s been very rewarding.”
Choosing a Program
Cost, support system, and quality of education are the three major factors influencing decisions for NP, CRNA, or other graduate school choices, says Angelis. “For example, a cheap program seven hours away loved by previous graduates may be difficult without any family or friends nearby or any connections at local hospitals.”
If only top-ranked schools land on your list, reconsider, experts say. Ample literature exists that makes it clear that where you go to school isn’t the most important factor.
“If you wish to be a nurse practitioner, you obviously want to go to a program that offers the options you need,” says Jones-Schenk. “That said, if you attend an accredited program that has good outcome metrics and that current students and recent graduates speak highly of, that can be a very good choice. At the end of the day, students should be wary of incurring a bunch of debt or feeling pressured to go to ‘a top ranked school.’ Ranking of a school is not what makes a successful career. Graduate well-being studies tells us a good solid education is part school, part student, and part life fit.”
Whether your program leads to a MSN, DNP, or BSN-to-PhD, program outcomes exist that you should ask about. These include: graduation rates, retention rates, costs, student debt, graduation satisfaction, and placement rates. Don’t rely only on information from managers, or friends and family, says Jones-Schenk. Do your own research, collect data, and “align your findings with your personal and professional goals and you simply cannot go wrong.”
Explore financial ideas and resources to avoid financial ruin or decades of debt, experts say. In addition to keeping debts to a minimum and living frugally, seek grants to save money. Also, explore side gigs, advises Angelis, who knows a nurse who worked at a nice restaurant on the weekends for tips that exceeded the money he’d get working as a nurse for the same hours.
Make sure that you know your monetary needs and goals. “None of your financial plans should take into account ‘the money I’ll make while I’m in Anesthesia school,’ because it’s just not going to happen, although some nurse practitioner schools and other graduate degrees may afford some part-time work,” he says.
Another tip is to consider cheaper schools. The prestige factor is a small part of your health care success. “You’ll take the same boards after you graduate as someone at a more prestigious school, so the cost difference between graduate nursing programs is a major factor,” says Angelis. “What previous students tell you about a school’s reputation means more than rankings by U.S. News and World Report or other entities. And don’t overlook the power of tuition reimbursement if you can pursue that option to help lessen the cost of graduate school, he says.
Financial aid, especially federal funds, is frequently available, says Alexander. “When students are searching for programs, pick up the phone and call, send e-mails. I promise you that the faculty and admission coordinators will respond. And ask… about financial aid that is available.”