Your Complete Guide to Online PhD Nursing Programs

The nursing profession, by its very nature, is filled with ways to help. From treating patients to running a hospital floor to diving into administration, there are many ways to turn your nursing education and experience into much-needed action. Given the drive that many nurses feel to help in every way they can, it’s no surprise that so many are interested in earning a PhD in nursing, where they can continue to advance the field through research, teaching and other professional paths. Online PhD nursing programs cater to those who need flexibility the most – working nurses who are seeking to enhance their careers and broaden their horizons. Let’s take a look at what students can expect from PhD nursing programs online, where to find the best ones, and what career options are available.

Top Online PhD Nursing Programs: 2019

There are many high-quality, accredited online PhD nursing programs available. In times past, students were often limited to choosing programs near where they live and work. Today, online learning allows students to enroll in a program that might be thousands of miles away, which broadens the options in choosing a school. Our spotlight of PhD nursing programs online for 2019 looks at a variety of factors that all students should consider, such as tuition and fees, length of the program, the potential for specializations and more. To give you a good overview of top nursing PhD programs, let’s look at three selections below.

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt-University

The PhD in Nursing Science program at Vanderbilt University is designed to prepare students for careers in research and academia. Students can choose between the Clinical Research or Health Services Research tracks. Both are available in full-time or part-time formats.

In both programs, students encounter mostly asynchronous courses throughout their tenure, as well as weekly synchronous classes that require the cohort to learn together at a particular time. In addition, students will engage in three on-campus intensives lasting three to four days each, during which they will attend classes with their cohort in a traditional school setting. To help ensure the best possible educational experience, classes are kept small and strong mentorship is offered.

Competitive admission requirements for the program include completion of a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing or a closely related field with a minimum B average, as well as a B average in the field of expected graduate concentration. Three letters of recommendation, GRE scores, an essay, and writing samples are also required. To graduate, students must complete all advanced coursework, complete a paper and oral examination, and successfully defend their dissertation.

Vanderbilt University takes great care to match a student with faculty who work in the area of research the student is interested in; Therefore, even a great student might be denied placement at the school if the faculty there at the time is not engaged in similar research.

University of Arizona

University-of-Arizona

The fully-online PhD in Nursing program at the University of Arizona offers four options with individualized plans of study, including the BSN-PhD, the MS-PhD, the PhD/DNP Dual Degree and the Post-DNP PhD. It takes an average of four years to complete the program when attending as a full-time student, and part-time options are also available. Concentrations include Precision Science, Data and Systems Science, and Health Determinants Science.

Those who have not completed a graduate statistics course within the previous five years must enroll in one as a prerequisite to the program. In addition, students are required to attend a mandatory orientation on campus once per year. They also spend one week on the main campus in Arizona for the Resident Intensive Summer Experience (RISE).

Admission to the program requires an active nursing license, three letters of recommendation, transcripts and resumes, and an application. Top applicants then participate in a telephone interview. Aspiring students are also required to complete the applicant-faculty mentoring match, during which they must choose a mentor from among the faculty. Keep in mind that those who do not have strong research ties to the university might not be accepted into the PhD nursing program.

University of Central Florida

The PhD in Nursing Program at the University of Central Florida is offered in two primary tracks: the BSN to PhD, a full-time program, and the PhD in Nursing, which is either a full-time or part-time program. The full-time option requires 11 semesters, while the part-time option requires 14. Though the programs are fully online, the school does require two intensives per year to be completed on the UCF campus. Students can expect the program to take three years, plus an additional year for a dissertation and defense.

To gain admission to the program, students must meet all requirements for general UCF admission, as well as present GRE scores (completed within the past five years), an undergraduate or master’s degree transcript, an active RN license in the state where the nurse intends to practice, and research interests that match the expertise of the faculty.

Just as with many other programs, UCF tries to ensure applicants will find a welcoming home for their particular research interests. Those who don’t have a research match with a faculty member at the school might not gain admission. In addition, once students do gain admission, they are strongly encouraged to attend research conferences and events with members of their cohort and faculty in hopes of increasing collaboration and dialogue.

What’s the difference between a PhD, DNP, and EdD Nursing Degree?

When it comes to advanced degrees in nursing, the three most common programs are the PhD, the DNP and the EdD. Each is a very different program that offers different outcomes for graduates. Here’s what you need to know about these three options.

PhD in Nursing

Program-Overview

Program Overview
This degree has a strong emphasis on research, theory, and applying new concepts to the nursing profession. Some might also use this degree as a way to move into academia and teach other nurses.

Length-of-Study

Length of Study
Depending upon the program, this can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years of full-time study, including the time for dissertation and defense.

Clinicals-Required

Clinicals Required?
None

Final-Project

Final Project
PhD students must complete a dissertation, then successfully defend that dissertation before a panel of educators, peers, researchers, and other interested parties in the nursing field.

Common-Career-Outcomes

Common Career Outcomes
This degree often leads to academic pursuits, including research or education.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Program-Overview

Program Overview
Just as the name suggests, this doctorate focuses on nursing practice, with coursework focused on evidence-based care practices for patients, communities, and certain populations.

Length-of-Study

Length of Study
Five to six semesters of study are common for those who enter with a master’s degree.

Clinicals-Required

Clinicals Required?
Clinicals are often required, but the amount of hands-on study varies by program. In most cases, clinicals are required for a much shorter period of time compared to lower degree levels; 400 hours of study under supervision is a common number.

Final-Project

Final Project
A final scholarly project replaces the dissertation. This project can take many forms, depending upon the student’s focus, but usually includes a look at how nursing practice can be improved for various populations or areas.

Common-Career-Outcomes

Common Career Outcomes
Those who earn this degree are likely to continue working in a patient-facing role.

Doctor of Education in Nursing (EdD)

Program-Overview

Program Overview
With a focus on the educational aspects of nursing, this degree prepares students to teach others through evidence-based research, practice, and real-world scenarios.

Length-of-Study

Length of Study
Students who enter the EdD program with a bachelor’s degree can often complete the program in three years of full-time study.

Clinicals-Required

Clinicals Required?
None

Final-Project

Final Project
The final capstone project usually consists of applying educational theories to real-world scenarios faced by nursing students or nurses in practice.

Common-Career-Outcomes

Common Career Outcomes
Though this degree might lend itself to clinical or research work, the most common career pathway takes graduates into nursing education.

How Do Online PhD Nursing Programs Work?

Online PhD nursing programs are almost fully online. That’s because, by the time a nurse reaches the point of earning their PhD, they already have many years of work experience behind them; thus, the use of clinicals at the doctoral level is minimal. Most programs allow students to take all their courses online, though some might take a hybrid approach, requiring a few courses to be completed in a campus setting.

Some programs include “intensives” or in-person clinical sessions that occur over the span of a few days every semester or so. These sessions require online students to travel to a physical location, usually at the campus of the school they are attending, to meet with their cohort and perform a variety of tasks under the supervision of instructors. These periodic visits to the campus are usually mandatory, so online students need to be aware of this requirement and willing to meet it.

Degree Pathways to Earn a PhD in Nursing

No matter where you are in your nursing career and education, there is an option that allows you to earn your doctoral degree in nursing. Here are the most common pathways to obtain a PhD.

BSN-to-PhD in Nursing

Designed for those who have already earned their bachelor’s degree in nursing, this pathway awards students a master’s degree as well as a PhD. If you think that might take more time than other pathways to reach the PhD, you’re right: this requires at least three to four years of full-time study. Since many nurses want to continue working while they pursue their education, part-time study can push that timeframe up to six years or more.

Post-Master’s PhD in Nursing

This program is for those who have already earned their master’s degree and intend to move forward with their career into academia or research. The PhD program takes about three to four years to complete, and is typically designed for students who have already earned a master’s and have several years of experience behind them.

Post-DNP PhD in Nursing

Some might choose to receive their Doctor of Nursing Practice in the hopes of working with more in-depth clinical and policy issues, but then find that they need something a bit more to work on the academic and research side. This PhD program is meant for those who already have a doctorate, so many of the core courses have already been completed. Therefore, refresher courses are a mainstay. Students can complete this program in about three years.

PHD/DNP Dual Degree

This program is effective for those who can handle the pressures of pursuing two degrees at once, which allows for a shorter amount of time to complete. However, keep in mind that this degree path is very intense, which means students will likely not have the time to continue working while studying. This degree often takes about six years to complete.

Sample Curriculum for Online Nursing PhD Programs

Though each online nursing PhD program has a unique structure, many of the core courses will be quite similar. That’s because students need to learn key points about nursing that are the same across the board, such as the finer points of research and theory. Here’s a look at some of the common courses you can expect to find in any nursing PhD program online.  

Measurement in Healthcare Research

This course looks at the various ways researchers can quantify their findings. Students will learn how to create a strong research framework, how to conduct research with firm controls that help ensure the end results mean something, and how to collect and analyze the data. It is then applied to a real-world scenario in which the research might be used for the greater good.

Grant Writing

A great deal of research relies on getting the funding to keep projects going. This is usually achieved through the use of grants and similar funds. Learning how to find grant opportunities, write grant proposals, and follow the proper procedures to obtain the grants is the focus of this course.

Legal and Ethical Accountability in Nursing

This course looks at the legal issues nurses, healthcare facilities, and administration might face, as well as the ethical considerations that might confront nurses and their coworkers on a daily basis. Understanding these concepts helps ensure better patient care and the well-being of facilities, administrators, nurses, and staff.

Leadership and Management in Nursing Practice

This course focuses on decision-making and leadership skills, management of groups, the use of evidence-based practice and research to make informed policy decisions, quality control and improvement, resource allocations, and more.

Critical Thinking and Communication in Nursing

Students learn how to evaluate and engage in various levels of scholarly inquiry when addressing problems relating to nursing theory and practice. This course also gives students a firm grasp of the theoretical and research foundations that are used in evidence-based nursing practice.

Nursing PhD Sample Timeline
Term Course Name # Credits
Year 1, Fall Measurement in Healthcare Research 3
Year 1, Fall Theories in Nursing 2
Year 1, Fall Health and Health Behaviors 2
Year 1, Fall Statistics 2
Year 1, Spring Research Design and Statistics 2
Year 1, Spring Foundations of Clinical Research 3
Year 1, Spring Statistics II 2
Year 1, Spring Ethical and Legal Issues in Nursing Practice 3
Year 1, Summer Statistics III 3
Year 1, Summer Qualitative Research Methods 4
Year 2, Fall Quantitative Research Methods 4
Year 2, Fall Grant Writing 3
Year 2, Fall Clinical Interventions Testing and Design 3
Year 2, Fall Research Practicum 2
Year 2, Spring Research and Public Policy 2
Year 2, Spring Doctoral Seminar 3
Year 2, Spring Leadership and Management in Nursing Practice 3
Year 2, Spring Critical Thinking and Communication in Nursing 2
Year 2, Summer Research Practicum 2
Year 2, Summer Advanced Doctoral Seminar 3
Year 2, Summer Research Practicum 6

FAQs About Earning a Nursing PhD Online

What are the admissions criteria?

In most cases, admission to a graduate nursing program begins with meeting all admission requirements for the school itself. That includes holding the appropriate degrees (bachelor’s or master’s) and having a suitable GPA. Requirements include proof of the degrees you hold as well as proof of a current nursing license. Each school’s requirements might vary, but most ask for three letters of recommendation, work experience, clear research interests, a personal statement or essay, and GRE test scores. (Keep in mind that some programs don’t require the GRE at all; these schools instead look at a wider range of potential admission criteria, such as a GPA above a certain level or years of experience.)

What concentrations or specialization tracks are available?

The PhD is strongly focused on theory and research, and most concentrations focus on these points. Specializations might include specific types of research; for instance, research into clinical work, emerging medications, or evidence-based outcomes. Another specialization option focuses on administration and policy, designed for those who intend to work in management, run hospitals or other facilities, or work to change and update public policy. Other concentrations might include clinical work or nursing education.

How much does the typical online nursing PhD cost?

The costs among PhD programs can vary widely. However, financial aid awards can bring down the cost quite a bit. The following PhD programs provide a brief overview tuition costs at some schools in the country.

1 1. Walden University, PhD in Nursing $26,978/yr. or $745/credit
2 2. University of Nevada Las Vegas, Doctor of Philosophy: Nursing $8,858.25/yr. or $285.75/credit
3 3. University of Colorado Denver, Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing $21,803/yr. or $1,055/credit

Remember, there is much more to tuition than meets the eye. To learn more, visit our financial aid guide: https://www.edumed.org/financial-aid/

Accreditation for PhD Nursing Programs

When searching for a school or program to meet your needs, accreditation status should be at the top of your “must have” list. Accreditation means a school or program has been evaluated by an independent body and found to meet the high standards of a quality education. In other words, accreditation means that the degree you receive will be respected and valuable.

When it comes to online nursing PhD programs, there are two types of accreditation. The first is institution accreditation, which comes from a regional accrediting agency. This accreditation focuses on the school itself. Programmatic accreditation looks at an individual program, such as the PhD in nursing, to ensure that it meets the same standards as similar programs across the country.

When looking for accreditation for nursing programs, make sure the program has been approved by one or both of these agencies: the Commission on Collegiate College Nursing (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACNE). When determining whether a school is accredited, look for one of these two designations on the school’s website. If you don’t find them, don’t hesitate to call the school to verify their accreditation status.

Career Options and Salary Potential for PhD Nurses

Curious about what you can do with a PhD in nursing? Here are a few career options for those who work their way up to a terminal degree.

Nursing Professor

Along with the shortage of practicing nurses in the United States, there is a shortage of seasoned, PhD-trained nurses to teach those who are just coming into the profession. Postsecondary teachers of nursing work in colleges and universities. They create lesson plans, conduct classroom lectures, hand out assignments, and work closely with students to help them reach their full potential.

Job Outlook:
9% growth from 2016-2026

Salary (Median):
$73,490 as of May 2018

Medical Scientist

These scientists conduct in-depth research on critical points in healthcare, such as developing clinical trials, testing new medications, and looking into public health matters. They work in offices or laboratories. Depending upon where their focus lies, they might work with medical samples, conduct investigative research, create medical devices, develop programs for certain populations, write grant requests, and more.

Job Outlook:
13% growth from 2016-2026

Salary (Median):
$84,810 as of May 2018

Healthcare Administrator

Those with a strong research background are a good match for working in healthcare administration or management. These individuals work in a wide variety of facilities, from large hospitals to small nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, where they help ensure the organization runs smoothly and provides top-notch patient care. Duties include everything from recruiting and training to monitoring budgets and finding new sources of funding.

Job Outlook:
20% growth from 2016-2026

Salary (Median):
$99,730

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics: 1; 2; 3; 4