Research-Focused Nursing Doctoral Programs and Nursing Knowledge Development

by VickyRN VickyRN, MSN, DNP, RN

Specializes in Gerontological, cardiac, med-surg, peds. Has 16 years experience.

This paper discusses the maturation of research-focused nursing doctoral degrees and their pivotal influence on the development of nursing knowledge. Similarities and differences in the different types of nursing doctoral degrees are discussed, as well as their impact on theory, research and the generation of a knowledge base unique to the discipline of nursing.

Research-Focused Nursing Doctoral Programs and Nursing Knowledge Development

Research-focused doctoral programs: their influence on nursing knowledge development

The maturation of research-focused doctoral degrees in nursing has been an instrumental step in the development of nursing knowledge, especially in the realm of nursing theory. These programs are comparatively new to the discipline of nursing and have an emphasis on research and scholarly inquiry unique to nursing science (american association of colleges of nursing [aacn], 2001).

The knowledge required for the profession of nursing is very broad, comprising knowledge from the natural and human sciences, law and ethics, and nursing theory (pilkington & bournes, 2005). In the earlier stages of knowledge development in nursing, there was little emphasis on a unique body of knowledge to direct nursing practice. Knowledge was frequently "borrowed" from other professions (rodgers, 2005).

This "patchwork quilt" method of gathering knowledge from related fields outside of the realm of nursing may have been expedient, but it is also a precarious habit. If nurses do not develop their own substantive knowledge base, they will eventually become practitioners of other disciplines (mitchell, 2005). They will be "other-discipline based" rather than "nursing based" (alligood, 2006a, p. 5). Nursing also runs the risk of disintegration as a clearly defined profession (donaldson & crowley, 1978). Borrowed theories may lack the conceptual frameworks necessary to satisfactorily capture significant factors in complex nursing care situations. Theories need to be crafted from a nursing perspective and tested within nursing practice settings in order to adequately strengthen nursing's knowledge base (chinn & kramer, 2008).

Research-priority doctoral degrees in nursing are critical to the development of a solid knowledge base that is unique to the discipline, in order to define and guide nursing practice. (hinshaw, 2001; aacn, 2006). These nursing doctoral programs prepare scholars, skilled researchers, and educators to expand nursing science and contribute to the continued development of the nursing profession (aacn, 1997; aacn, 2001; blais, hayes, kozier, & erb, 2006).

Doctoral preparation is essential for the formulation of cogent nursing theories. Doctorally prepared nurse scholars are equipped to develop nursing theories through a variety of philosophical and scientific methods. They construct, test, and utilize frameworks for understanding sources of knowledge in nursing, modes of inquiry, and paradigmatic models. These scientists are invested with the expertise to develop conceptual and philosophical perspectives that undergird nursing theories. They explore meanings, significant themes, ontological orientations, and epistemological implications of nursing theory (alligood, 2006b; johns hopkins university school of nursing, 2009). In doing so, they question and revise the structure (i.e., substance and syntax) of the discipline (donaldson & crowley, 1978).

The premier importance of nursing theory to the development of nursing knowledge cannot be overstated. Theory is "essential to the existence of nursing as an academic discipline" and "vital to the practice of professional nursing" (alligood, 2006a, p. 10).

Besides the scholar role, the researcher and educator roles are invaluable for knowledge development in nursing. Doctorally prepared nurse researchers independently conduct and disseminate original nursing research for the purpose of expanding knowledge and improving health outcomes. High-quality research furnishes scientific knowledge that is translated into nursing practice (aacn, 1997; hinshaw, 2001; university of california regents, 2008). "as a branch of knowledge, the discipline embodies more than the science of nursing and requires researchers who employ a variety of approaches from nursing's perspective" (donaldson & crowley, 1978, p. 119).

Doctorally prepared nurse educators are equipped with theoretical frameworks and tools to develop innovative methods of education to meet the demands of contemporary nursing practice environments (aacn, 1997; blais et al., 2006). Their primary role in academia is to develop and disseminate knowledge about best practices concerning teaching and learning (smith & fitzpatrick, 2006). Nurse educators use this knowledge to shape future generations of nurses and advance practice clinicians, as well as mentor faculty for the full spectrum of academic responsibilities (i.e., teaching, scholarship, service, and research) (blais et al., 2006; smith & fitzpatrick, 2006). One identified weakness in many doctoral nursing programs is the relatively low level of nursing education concept requirements, such as a practicum in education or instruction in curriculum development (mcewen & bechtel, 2000; minnick & halstead, 2002).

Research-focused doctoral degrees in nursing include the academic doctorate, the doctor of philosophy (phd) degree, and the professional doctorate, the doctor of nursing science (dns, dnsc, or dsn) degree (aacn, 2004). The focus of both the phd in nursing and the dns is to prepare students to build nursing knowledge through independent research and intellectual inquiry (aacn, 2001). The difference between the two degrees is minimal. The phd is considered the top-of-the line degree for academic work. It generally places greater emphasis on theory construction and research methods, specifically the development of expert knowledge within the scholar's special area of interest. The dns, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on clinical content, nursing issues, and nursing science (mcewen & bechtel, 2000; aacn, 2001; finn, 2005; blais et al., 2006). Both programs possess a common core of theory, science, and research. These terminal degrees provide the prerequisite knowledge and expertise for the development, evaluation, and testing of theories in nursing (aacn, 2001).

The practice-focused doctoral nursing degree (doctor of nursing practice or nd), by way of contrast, prepares graduates for clinical practice or administration, but is not research-focused (aacn, 2001; edwardson, 2004; blais et al., 2006). Practice doctorate programs emphasize advanced practice nursing roles. They produce expert nurse clinicians who provide primary patient care and direct clinical policies (aacn, 2004).

The overall development of phd education in the u.s. Paralleled the development of professional organizations overseeing standards and licensure (aacn, 2001). Research doctoral programs in nursing were beginning to be established by the 1960s (chinn & kramer, 2008).

The evolution of doctoral education in nursing has spanned four generations:

1990-1940 edd or other functional degree

1940-1960 phd in basic or social science with no nursing content

1960-1970 phd in basic science with minor in nursing

1970-present phd in nursing or dns (aacn, 2001, 9)

The first nursing doctoral programs originated in the years 1920 and 1934 within the schools of education at teachers college, columbia university, and new york university, respectively (lambert & lambert, 2005). Early doctoral degrees were primarily in schools of education that focused on teaching methods rather than essential nursing content. Nurses were attracted to colleges of education because these programs met their need for academic training and were receptive to their attendance (edwardson, 2004). The educational doctorate (edd) remained the most common type of doctoral degree among nurses until the late 1970s and 1980s (minnick & halstead, 2002). After the second world war, more nurses entered programs in the natural or behavioral sciences, in order to qualify for federal scholarship funding from the nurse scientist program. Since 1970, the majority of new doctoral nursing programs have offered phd in nursing degrees (edwardson, 2004). Many dns programs have been transformed into phd programs, as these have gained the preeminence in academic circles (mcewen & bechtel, 2000; aacn, 2001).

Although the growth of doctoral programs was extremely slow at their inception, the growth has accelerated since the 1960s (lambert & lambert, 2005). By 1980, there were nearly 2000 doctorally prepared nurses in the us (chinn & kramer, 2008). Fifty-two doctoral programs were added during the 1980s and 1990s (aacn, 2001). There are presently over 90 comprehensive nursing doctoral programs in existence in the us (lambert & lambert, 2005). This number, however, is insufficient, considering the alarmingly high proportion of doctorally prepared nursing faculty who are close to retirement age (edwardson, 2004).

The evolution of research doctoral nursing programs has also mirrored the graduate education (1960s and 1970s) and the theory (1980s and 1990s) eras in nursing. During the graduate education era, curricula for preparation at the master's level in nursing were proposed and standardized. Only three doctoral programs in nursing existed at the onset of this era. Nurses with doctorates from many related disciplines, however, were being educated for teaching and research roles. The american nurses association (ana) began promoting the development of nursing theory and doctorally prepared nurses met together in conferences and symposia to exchange ideas concerning the nature of knowledge needed for the discipline of nursing. By the end of this area, doctoral education was flourishing, with 21 nursing doctoral programs in existence. Many nursing theorists arose during this time, including johnson, king, levine, neuman, orem, rogers, and roy (alligood, 2006b).

The theory era witnessed a phenomenal growth of nursing scholarship, along with the opening of new nursing doctoral programs. During this period, fawcett proposed the metaparadigm for nursing, middle range or practice theories were developed, and a firmer connection was made between nursing theories and models of nursing. Nurse scientists prepared in the discipline of nursing were able to clarify the direction needed for the development of nursing knowledge (alligood, 2006b).

In conclusion, the advent and maturation of research-focused nursing doctoral programs has greatly spurred knowledge development in nursing. Doctorally prepared nurse scientists are critical for the continued development of theory and generation of nursing knowledge that is so essential for the progression of nursing as a professional practice discipline.

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4 Comment(s)



Specializes in CICU-Cardiology/Open Heart. Has 1 years experience. 17 Posts

Excellent overview! Thank you~


patrick1rn, MSN, RN, NP

Specializes in Family Nurse Practitioner. 1 Article; 420 Posts

All good and well, but if and when I go for my DNP, I dont want to get into

research at all... I want to focus on clinical aspects, I am not interested in nursing research. If I get my DNP, how is it going to make me a better nurse practitioner ?


Specializes in Gerontological, cardiac, med-surg, peds. Has 16 years experience. 105 Articles; 5,349 Posts

All good and well, but if and when I go for my DNP, I dont want to get into

research at all... I want to focus on clinical aspects, I am not interested in nursing research. If I get my DNP, how is it going to make me a better nurse practitioner ?

Thank you for your comment.

The DNP is not research-focused - it is practice-focused. The DNP debate is not the focus of my article. This subject has been extensively discussed in this thread:

My article discusses the research-focused nursing doctoral programs - the PhD in Nursing and the DNS. I only "touched" on the DNP, to let the readership know that the DNP is not a research-focused doctoral degree.


Specializes in ICU, trauma, gerontology, wounds. Has 34 years experience. 3 Articles; 194 Posts

I'd like to add to Vicky's reply that the DNP will make you a better NP by improving your thinking skills, your ability to critique and synthesize the literature and your ability to carry out process or quality improvement initiatives. DNP students produce a portfolio, versus a dissertation, at the end of their programs that speaks of their accomplishments as a writer, change agent, thinker and clinical expert.

Additionally, if nurses want equity with other health care providers, we must have equal educational credentials. Physical therapists, for example, are going to master's and then doctoral preparation for entry into practice. Nurses are WAY behind in improving our educational requirements, as if we think education makes no difference. (Would you want your physician to have a 2-year degree?)