The Pros and Cons of Earning a PhD in Nursing

In contrast, the nursing PhD is tailored to nurses who want to work in research and/or have long-term careers in academia as nursing professors. However, before you start applying to PhD nursing programs because you’re interested in conducting original research or teaching the next generation of nurses, you should consider the advantages and disadvantages of earning a Doctor of Philosophy in nursing degree.

Advantage #1: Helping Train New Nurses

Nursing schools are turning away tens of thousands of future nurses each year. In 2021 alone, more than 91,000 qualified applicants were rejected from undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. This occurs even though the United States continues to endure a critical shortage of nurses.

There are several reasons why nursing schools turn away so many promising students. Some of these reasons include insufficient classroom space and too few clinical sites. But the biggest reason is that there’s a shortage of nursing faculty, especially those who have a doctoral degree.

By earning a PhD in nursing, you’ll enjoy a fulfilling career imparting skills and knowledge that your students will use to improve (and even save) the lives of others.

Advantage #2: Less Stress

Depending on what you choose to do with your PhD degree, there’s no guarantee that your new career will have less stress. Yet nursing professors and researchers often enjoy less stress and pressure than when in clinical practice. Part of this is because nurses are more likely to have patients in life and death situations. There’s also the fact that they are potentially liable for malpractice and open to getting sued.

It’s nice to be able to come home from work and know that the next call on your phone is more likely a telemarketer and not your supervisor saying they think you might be responsible for your patient taking a turn for the worse. Less stress can also mean a reduced chance of nurse burnout.

Advantage #3: More Reasonable Working Hours

Due to the nature of their work, many nurses don’t have traditional 9 to 5, Monday through Friday jobs. Some nurses, especially the newer ones, can expect more inconvenient work schedules. This includes working 12-hour shifts, weekends, holidays, and in the middle of the night. Even veteran nurses can find themselves missing an important holiday, anniversary, birthday, or a child’s school event because they have to work.

If you have a PhD in nursing, it’s far more likely you’ll not just have weekends, evenings, and holidays off but you’ll also have a more predictable schedule. Perhaps you’ll be working long hours because of exam week or to finish up an important research project, but at least you’ll know this well in advance.

Advantage #4: Excellent Job Prospects

If you graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy in nursing, you can expect plenty of opportunities to work as a nursing instructor or faculty member. There are many community colleges and universities desperate to hire nurse educators.

One caveat to add about this benefit for getting a PhD in nursing is that while finding a job after graduation shouldn’t be too difficult, what may be difficult is finding the ideal nurse faculty position. Whether it’s getting the job offer for the assistant professor position at a prestigious university or getting tenure, not all positions or promotions in academia are easy to get.

Advantage #5: Career Flexibility

If you earn a PhD in nursing, you’re most likely going to work in research or academia. That being said, there are plenty of PhD nursing programs with specializations in management and administration. Because of this, you also have the option to use your PhD degree to take a leadership role in your organization.

Disadvantage #1: Less Pay . . . at Least Initially

If you’re thinking about a PhD in nursing to work in research or teaching, there’s a fair chance you’ll make less than if you work in clinical practice. To illustrate, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median income for a registered nurse (RN) is $81,220 while the median income for a nurse practitioner (NP) is $121,610. If you work as a PhD-prepared nurse faculty member, your median income will be $78,750 and if you become a medical scientist, your median income will be $99,930.

These differences are noticeable, especially in light of the higher education requirements for the lower-paying jobs. But to keep things in perspective, understand many nursing instructors and faculty members don’t get paid by their school during the summer when they’re not teaching classes. As a result, they find other sources of income, such as stipends from research grants or working as a part-time nurse during the summer months. This additional compensation isn’t reflected in the above data.

Finally, don’t forget that nursing professors (and many researchers) enjoy a better work-life balance than those who work as clinical nurses.

Disadvantage #2: Stress from Work is Still Possible

Earlier we mentioned how a PhD in nursing can lead to a less stressful job. But working as a professor or researcher can still have plenty of stress. For example, if you became a nursing professor, you’d have to learn how to survive department politics and you’ll face consistent pressure to publish high-quality research that gives you, your department, and your school plenty of recognition. The “publish or perish” lifestyle is very real and not for everyone.

Disadvantage #3: Earning a PhD in Nursing Can Take a Long Time

How quickly you earn a PhD depends largely on how much time and effort you can put on completing your dissertation. It’s possible to earn your PhD in as little as three years, but doing this while working full-time will be very challenging. What’s more common is for students to take four to six years to earn their PhD. This can feel like a slog resulting in some doctoral nursing students never earning their degree.

Disadvantage #4: A PhD Can Make You Overqualified for Certain Positions

Depending on what you want to do after you earn your degree, a PhD might not be necessary. For instance, you don’t have to have a doctorate to teach future nurses. Some schools hire MSN-prepared nursing instructors, although these tend to skew more towards community colleges.

These positions are usually easier to obtain, but pay less than university professorships. However, you’ll spend more time teaching and less time worrying about getting published or becoming tenured. So if teaching is your primary passion, this type of teaching position might be the perfect fit for you. Getting a PhD could potentially make it more difficult to get this position as a school might consider you to be overqualified.