Nurse Historian Helps Build “Nest” for Nurse Scholars

    • July 10, 2013

Problem: The nation needs more nurses with PhDs to assume leadership positions, conduct nurse-led science and discovery, and train the next generation of nurses. But nurses who aspire to earn PhDs face a number of barriers to the degree.

Background: Julie Fairman came of age in a small farming town in rural Pennsylvania during the 1960s and 1970s, when professional options for women were often limited to fields like teaching and nursing. She chose the latter, but then wound up becoming the former too—and much, much more.

A nurse, a nurse educator, a historian of nursing, and a nurse administrator at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Fairman, PhD, RN, FAAN, is now adding another title to her lengthy resume: co-director of the Future of Nursing Scholars program, a new initiative launched by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that will support some of the best and brightest nurse scholars as they pursue research-focused doctorates in nursing. Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, RWJF’s senior adviser for nursing, will also lead the program.

Fairman was inspired to become a nurse during her adolescence, when she saw the wounded returning from the Vietnam War. She earned her baccalaureate, and practiced for a while before turning her sights to teaching. She enrolled in a master’s program and then went on to earn her doctorate in nursing, with a concentration on the history of nursing.

For her dissertation, Fairman studied the critical role nurses played in the development of the intensive care unit. After graduation, she became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she now directs the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing.

In 2006, Fairman won an RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research to explore how nurse practitioners shaped health care in the United States. Three years later, she was named the IOM Distinguished Nurse Scholar-in-Residence and commenced a year-long fellowship at the Institute of Medicine (IOM), where she worked on a landmark report about the future of the nursing profession. It was released in 2010 and forms the basis of a national campaign backed by RWJF and AARP to transform health care through nursing.

Solution: One of the report’s key recommendations is to double the number of nurses with doctoral degrees; doctorate-prepared nurses, the report argues, are needed to take on leadership roles, conduct nurse-led science and discovery, and prepare the next generation of nurses.

Yet nurses with doctoral degrees are few and far between. Fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s 3 million nurses have doctorates, and many of those who do focus on practice rather than on research and teaching. The number of nurses enrolled in doctor of nursing practice programs has skyrocketed in the last decade, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, but the number of nurses enrolled in PhD programs has grown much more slowly.

As co-director of the Future of Nursing Scholars program, Fairman will be supporting nurses who want to get their PhDs. “I’ve always believed strongly in the need for nurses to develop their education, and particularly to develop their scientific skills and leadership abilities,” she says. “I saw this program as a real opportunity to help move the IOM report forward and to do something we haven’t been able to do in the last 10 years, and that is to significantly increase the number of nurses with PhDs.”

RWJF has invested $20 million in the program and is reaching out to other donors to expand its reach. The Independence Blue Cross Foundation was the first to sign on, and has committed $450,000 over three years to support the program. In its first two years, the program will provide up to 100 participants with scholarships, stipends, mentoring, leadership development, and dedicated post-doctoral research support. The first cohort of scholars will commence their studies in 2015 with an anticipated completion date of 2018.

The Future of Nursing Scholars program will help aspiring nurse PhD candidates overcome the many barriers in their way, Fairman says. Many nurses aren’t able to step out of the paid workforce for the three-to-five years it takes to earn doctoral degrees, especially if they are also managing child care and other responsibilities. Aspiring nurse doctoral students may also have difficulty accessing a PhD program, as they are not available at every college and university nursing program.

Nurses, in fact, wait longer to get their PhDs than other health care professionals, which limits the amount of time they are able to utilize their degrees and advance their careers. The average age at which nurses get their doctorates in the United States is 46, which is 13 years older than PhD earners in other fields.

The Future of Nursing Scholars program will help nurses overcome those barriers. Comparing the program to a “nest” for new students, Fairman says: “We’re creating a package of offerings that will surround them, that will make their transition to doctoral education easier.” The program will eventually create a cadre of well-trained, well-connected nurses who can move the discipline forward—and that, she says, will ultimately improve the quality of care.

Thanks to the Future of Nursing Scholars program, in the not too distant future, this new group of fledgling nurse scientists will be flying high.

RWJF Perspective: RWJF, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to improving health and health care, has a longstanding commitment to nurses, the largest health professional group in the country. The Future of Nursing Scholars program “joins the list of esteemed nursing programs RWJF has funded over its 40-year history and builds on the successes of those programs,” said John Lumpkin, MD, MPH, senior vice president of RWJF and director of the Health Care Group.