Like a Koala Bear Hanging Out in a Tree: Anxiety and Excitement as a Nurse Starts Her PhD Journey

Jan 26, 2015, 9:00 AM, Posted by Laren Riesche

Laren Riesche, MSN, RN, is a nursing PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. With clinical experience in neonatal nursing, her research focuses on the role of the placenta in fetal programming and its effect on health and disease throughout the life span. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Careers in Nursing alumna and an RWJF Future of Nursing Scholar

I have been extremely fortunate to have had great leadership development opportunities throughout my nursing education, thanks in part to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). I have been privileged to be selected for two RWJF nursing education scholarship programs which are not only helping build my leadership skills, but also shaping my perspective on the importance of nurse leaders.

I am one of 16 nurses in the inaugural cohort of the Future of Nursing Scholars program, which supports nurses earning their PhDs. This August, we all participated in a leadership development workshop that was part of the very first scholars’ Boot Camp. The event was intended to help us prepare to complete our nursing PhDs in three years.

One of the activities involved choosing and then discussing a picture that represented our fears; we chose from more than 200 picture-cards that bore a wide range of images, from nature scenes to cityscapes, family events to individual athletes, and everything in between. I chose a picture of a koala bear hanging out in a tree. What I saw was a koala, all alone with nothing to hold onto but a single tree branch. It tapped into my fear that I was throwing everything I had into my PhD program, pushing my family and friends away, and losing myself in order to stay focused on finishing in three years—and maybe, in the end, the only thing I would have to hang onto was my degree.  

I got a bit choked up as I shared that feeling in my small group, where we each discussed our fears and challenges. The emotional exposure that came with expressing our vulnerabilities served not only as an opportunity for self-discovery, but it also brought us closer together. We also discussed our dreams, our work, our education, our passions, our families, our friends, and everything else. We were bonding, we were growing, and we were all dreaming of becoming leaders.

Prior to becoming a Future of Nursing Scholar, I received a New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) scholarship during my master’s-entry program. NCIN gave me my first experiences in leadership development. I attended workshops, was assigned a peer mentor and a faculty mentor, and the following year began to serve as a mentor for the incoming cohort of NCIN scholars. Both being mentored and the opportunity to act as a mentor were amazing experiences for me. As an NCIN scholar, I developed a substantial support network that has had a lasting impact on my nursing career and my life.

My NCIN faculty mentor recommended me to participate in the Bridges to the Doctorate program, which helps students transition directly from a master’s level program into a PhD program—a path that is not very common in nursing education. As a Bridges student, I completed courses to prepare me as a nurse researcher, as well as courses in international leadership. Through this program I was connected to additional mentors, advisors, and nurses pursuing a similar path. 

As my university’s first Future of Nursing Scholar, I will continue to receive support throughout my PhD journey in a variety of forms, including mentoring, leadership development, and networking opportunities.

All of these experiences have ignited my passion for creating and integrating leadership development opportunities into nursing education. The self-discovery, reflection, vision, and bonding with fellow nurses that I have experienced undoubtedly changed my education, my career, and my life.

Currently, less than 1 percent of the nation’s more than 3 million nurses hold doctoral degrees. As the nursing profession evolves and strives to increase this number, I can only imagine the dramatic transformations in nursing and health care that would result if all nurses receive valuable leadership development opportunities similar to mine. This is what the nursing profession needs. It needs quality investment in developing leaders—investment that takes place on an individual level, and investment that takes place at all degree levels. We need to provide the resources and opportunities for all nurses to discover their passions, discuss their fears, dream big, and develop long-lasting synergistic relationships. We need to embrace a growing diversity of ethnicity, experience, and education within our profession. 

The outcome of this investment will be passionate nurse leaders at all levels and in all nursing roles who will positively influence our profession, our health care systems, and our patients—beyond our expectations. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.