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As a profession, nursing is often viewed as both an art and a science. On the one hand, there’s the art of communication, connection, emotional and relational intelligence, and navigating the multifaceted aspects of the nurse-patient relationship and the collaborative nature of care delivery.

On the other hand, we have the science of nursing and the deep well of intellectual savvy and scientific insight that serve as the underpinnings of evidence-based care and a constantly expanding body of nursing literature.

For nurses who seek opportunities beyond the clinical space, being a nurse scientist is a career that captures the imagination of certain nurses who love nothing more than diving deep into questions that can be addressed through intelligent and well-organized research.

Career Options Beyond the Clinical Space

Many nurses are unaware of career options beyond the bedside. However, there’s much to be excited about for nurses open to alternative career pathways.

Danielle Sarik, PhD, APRN, CPNP-PC, is a nurse scientist and pediatric nurse practitioner with an inspiring career history. While she has cared directly for patients in China, Botswana, Nicaragua, and the U.S., Dr. Sarik’s current focus is research on healthcare evaluation, with an emphasis on the factors that influence safety, health outcomes, healthcare delivery, and the nursing workforce.

Sarik, who directs nursing research and evidence-based practice for a stand-alone pediatric hospital, is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a Senior Policy Service Professor at George Washington University. She is an active member of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners and the Institute of Pediatric Nursing (IPN), where she serves in a leadership role. She loves connecting with nurses interested in starting research, building their evidence-based practice skillset, or exploring health policy issues.

When asked about career possibilities for nurses, Dr. Sarik is enthusiastic about the range of choices they enjoy.

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“One of the really exciting things about a career in nursing is the vast range of positions and settings,” Sarik shares. “While many nurses provide direct care in hospitals or clinics, alternative careers include working in administrative or leadership roles, faculty positions, or as a nurse scientist. A great resource to explore some of these possibilities is the Institute of Pediatric Nursing’s Career Pathway Tool, which highlights training and education for different nursing careers.”

What is a Nurse Scientist? 

In describing what nurse scientists do, Dr. Sarik says the title nurse scientist refers to an individual who has studied and become certified as a nurse (RN, APRN) and then pursued additional doctorate education (PhD, DNP) to gain advanced research training and expertise.

She continues, “A nurse scientist is often an expert in developing and conducting studies, analyzing outcomes, and disseminating knowledge through writing and presentations. Many nurse scientists will have an area of research expertise, such as the nursing workforce, symptom management, or health disparities.”

In terms of the settings where nurse scientists are employed, Sarik comments, “Nurse scientists can practice in many environments, with the most common being healthcare facilities and academic institutions. Because the role is not narrowly defined, you can find nurse scientists with different day-to-day focus and long-term goals. However, most are involved in conducting research, supporting scholarship, teaching, publishing, and providing leadership.”

Improving Patient Care Delivery

Improving patient care is often top of mind for many nurses and healthcare professionals, and nurse scientists are no exception. 

“Nurse scientists can play a critical role in improving patient care and supporting and advancing innovation in the clinical setting,” Sarik observes. Because nurse scientists are clinically trained and often embedded in clinical sites, they can identify challenges in real-time and partner with interprofessional teams to create solutions.”

Sarik shares, “The combination of clinical and research training helps nurse scientists quickly identify and address potential issues and facilitates meaningful collaboration with diverse stakeholders (e.g., nurses, physicians, patients, families, therapists).”

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In terms of nurses embracing the scientist role, Sarik observes, “Health systems are increasingly recognizing the value of nurse scientists, and demand for the role is expanding.” She continues, “National organizations such as the National Pediatric Nurse Scientist Collaborative (NPNSC) exist to help these specialized nurses collaborate and share lessons learned.”

Becoming a Nurse Scientist

Dr. Sarik has extensive experience and knowledge of navigating the role and career path of the nurse scientist.  

“To gain research training and expertise, most nurses will need to pursue a PhD in nursing or a related field,” she advises. “PhD coursework is focused on creating and evaluating new knowledge and requires many research and statistical classes. Nationally, few nurses have a PhD, with estimates at less than 2 percent. If you’re interested in creating, implementing, and evaluating your research, publishing, and applying for large federal grants (e.g., NIH), the PhD is likely the path for you.”

When it comes to the DNP avenue, Sarik states, “The DNP is a doctorate that has seen huge growth in recent years. Unlike the PhD, which focuses on research, DNPs often focus on translating research to evidence-based practice. Some DNPs will pursue additional training in research, and in some settings, they may lead research as well.”

Sarik continues, “Other differences include whether these programs can be completed remotely/asynchronously (most PhDs are at least partially in-person), and the associated cost (most PhDs are funded, while DNPs are not). Talking to people who have gone through both types of programs can be helpful in your decision-making process.”

Is Being a Nurse Scientist for You? 

“For nurses interested in this field, a first step would be to see if your setting has a nurse scientist,” states Dr. Sarik. “Setting up time to talk about the career path and potentially shadow can help provide meaningful information. Additionally, organizations such as IPN and NPNSC are great resources.”

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Sarik adds, “While a PhD is a large time commitment, many programs are fully funded. This means that a stipend will be provided to the student [in addition to free tuition], sometimes in exchange for research or teaching support. This is different than most MSN or DNP programs, which require that students pay out of pocket or with loans.”

Nurse Scientists Gain Traction

Sarik is enthusiastic about the growth of the nurse scientist discipline.

“The clinical nurse scientist role is gaining traction and recognition, allowing nurses to combine their clinical expertise, research training, and desire to improve patient and health outcomes at the point of care. It’s the best of all the different pieces of me, and every day is a bit like a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience.” 

Dr. Sarik concludes, “I feel incredibly fortunate to work closely with dedicated nurses and clinicians, provide infrastructure and education to create the next generation of nurse scientists and use my research expertise to improve transitions of care for pediatric patients and families. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine a better role.”

Keith Carlson
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