Apr 06, 2023
If you’re considering a career in nursing, you’re probably aware of the severe shortage of nursing professionals that’s negatively impacting healthcare services in the U.S. today. This shortage not only includes nurses who work with patients on a daily basis, but it also extends to the top of the nursing profession. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, despite the growing demand for nurse faculty, scientists, and top-tier leaders, less than one percent of the nursing workforce today has earned a PhD.
There’s been a steady decline in the number of nurses pursuing PhDs over the last 10 years, which makes this an optimal time to obtain your nursing doctoral degree. Colleges are stepping up to the challenge of fulfilling this demand by offering flexible and affordable online PhD in nursing programs.
Before jumping into an online nursing doctorate program, though, it’s important to get the answers to several questions, including:
- Is earning a PhD in nursing worth it?
- Will I save money in an online nursing PhD program?
- Can I earn my degree while keeping my full-time job?
This guide answers these questions and more. Here you’ll find our take on the best online nursing PhD programs available for 2023, along with degree timelines, a breakdown of tuition and fees, and program outcomes you should expect. Now is a great time to get started on mapping out your path to earning your nursing doctoral degree at a top online nursing PhD program.
Best PhD in Nursing Online Programs for 2023
To get you started on your degree search, we’ve spotlighted three of the best online doctoral nursing programs currently available. Our choices are based on a survey of important program elements, including quality academics, a highly respected faculty, study convenience, affordability, and access to valuable student support services.
These spotlights will give you a good idea of what you should expect from the programs you consider. They also offer a preview of our full rankings of PhD in nursing online programs coming out later this year, so be sure to check back.
The online PhD in Nursing Science program at Indiana University prepares graduates for top-level careers in clinical science, education, health systems, and research. Students have the choice of working on research in either clinical nurse science or health systems, which includes nursing education. The program is presented in a hybrid format that combines online classes attended synchronously via livestream with two intensives attended in-person on IU’s Bloomington campus. During the intensives, students meet with faculty mentors, interact with peers, attend professional development sessions, and enjoy networking opportunities at several informal receptions. Earning the PhD requires completion of 90 credit hours. Both BSN-to-PhD and MSN-to-PhD tracks are available. Students in the MSN-to-PhD track transfer in 30 credits of MSN coursework relevant to their chosen research area.
The program’s application requirements include a bachelor’s or master’s in nursing earned from a CCNE- or ACEN-accredited program. Applicants must demonstrate a capacity for original nursing research and scholarship through reports, a thesis, or published or unpublished papers. The current per-credit tuition rate (not including fees) is $625 for Indiana residents and $1,664 for out-of-state residents.
University of Arizona
Study flexibility and generous program options are major features of the online PhD in Nursing program offered by the University of Arizona. The program is delivered entirely online with the exception of week-long Resident Intensive Summer Experiences (RISE) attended on UA’s Tucson campus each summer. Most online coursework is asynchronous, although some courses may include synchronous elements. Four study tracks are available. The BSN to PhD track is presented in a four-year, full-time course of study and requires completion of 79 credit hours. The MSN to PhD track requires completion of 64 credits and is designed as a full-time, three-year program. DNP/PhD dual degree and post-DNP to PhD tracks are additionally offered. Part-time study options are also available for all tracks. Early stages of the program focus on coursework in nursing and other sciences. Increasing time is given to research activities as the program advances. Students choose one of three areas of excellence to guide their program’s research work: data and systems science, health determinants science, and precision science.
The current per-credit tuition rates for UA’s PhD in nursing program are $900 for Arizona residents and $1,835 for out-of-state residents. Students living in Western Regional Graduate Program (WRGP) states may be eligible for tuition discounts.
The PhD in Nursing program at private, Catholic-affiliated Villanova University is designed to prepare graduates to become teachers of diverse student populations in a range of clinical and classroom settings. The program is presented in a hybrid format that combines online coursework in the fall and spring semesters with summer semester classes attended in-person on the school’s southeast Pennsylvania campus. Online courses are delivered synchronously via live stream and scheduled during two weeknights (4:00 pm to 9:30 pm) each week. The program is designed to require completion of 46 credits. However, total credit requirements vary from student to student depending on his or her previous education and individual needs. Both full-time and part-time study options are offered. A three-year, full-time accelerated track is also available to qualifying applicants.
The current tuition rate (not including fees) for the PhD in nursing program is $1,450 per credit. Admission requirements include an MSN or equivalent from an accredited school of nursing. Admission is highly selective and based on a consideration of the applicant’s previous academic achievement, performance on standardized admissions tests, employment experience, and career focus. Exceptionally qualified applicants with a baccalaureate degree may also be admitted with the expectation that they will complete MSN degree requirements while working on their doctorates.
Benefits of Earning Your PhD in Nursing Online
We posed this question in the introduction: “Is earning a PhD in Nursing worth it?” If your career goal is to become a nurse educator at universities or major healthcare facilities, the answer is an unqualified “yes.” The answer is also “yes” if your goal is to conduct cutting edge research leading important breakthroughs in nursing scholarship. On top of the benefits you’ll enjoy by earning your nursing PhD, there are also a number of important benefits to earning that degree in an online program. Here’s a look at some of the biggest:
- Convenience of attending classes online. Classes in online PhD nursing programs are delivered either asynchronously or synchronously. Asynchronous class sessions are prerecorded, allowing students to logon and attend to them at anytime. Synchronous classes are livestreamed and require attendance at specifically scheduled times. Either way, students can attend their classes without the major cost and hassle of traveling to and from campus.
- Choice of study pace. Online doctorate programs are typically offered with both full-time and part-time options, and some allow students to study at their own pace. This is particularly advantageous for nurses who need to continue working full or part time while pursuing their degree.
- Access to additional valuable course and program features. As an online PhD in nursing student, you’ll be able to access a wealth of course and research materials online. You’ll also participate with faculty and fellow students through online discussion groups, communicate with instructors and peers via email and videoconferencing apps like Skype and Zoom, and much more.
Types of Online Nursing PhD Programs
Before enrolling in an online PhD in nursing program, it’s important to understand the differences in how programs deliver their online content. You’ll find that most describe themselves as being either hybrid (partially online) or fully online. It’s critical to look beyond these general terms that are sometimes used interchangeably and gain a full understanding of the specifics of how programs deliver their online content. For hybrid programs, you should know how online and in-person content is structured and balanced.
Online nursing PhD programs that bill themselves as fully online offer all classes and coursework entirely online. Students will not have to attend on-campus classes. Still, that doesn’t mean that there are no face-to-face components. Many (but not all) of these programs include one or more on-campus elements, with the most common being orientation workshops at the beginning of the program, candidacy exams, and dissertation presentations and defenses.
Hybrid-formatted PhD in nursing programs combine both online and on-campus class sessions. On-campus sessions may be scheduled several times each semester or presented as multi-day intensives attended two or three times over the course of the one-year term or once for several days, typically each summer. Hybrid programs often include in-person orientations, candidacy exams, and dissertation presentations and defenses.
Timeline for Your Online PhD in Nursing
Program lengths for online nursing PhD programs vary due to several factors including study pace (full-time or part-time), starting point (BSN to PhD, MSN to PhD, etc.), the need to complete any prerequisite courses prior to starting the PhD curriculum, and how long it takes the doctoral candidate to complete the research and writing of their dissertation. In most cases, students will complete all degree requirements with three to four years of full-time study or four to six years of part-time study. However, programs commonly provide generous maximum program lengths of six or seven years, and sometimes longer, for students who need more time.
The timeline below offers an example of how full-time students in MSN to PhD programs might progress year to year through their courses of study:
In the first year, students concentrate on core degree coursework addressing advanced nursing knowledge such as nursing philosophy and theory, research (design, qualitative and quantitative research methods, and data collection and analysis), nursing systems and organizations, and leadership. Students also complete any remaining prerequisite coursework they have.
During the first semester, students will begin to explore their potential research or dissertation area of interest and establish their relationship with their faculty advisor or mentor. Students will continue to develop their area of interest through the second and third semesters. Second semester activities will also include the selection of the student’s dissertation committee and development of the dissertation plan of study.
In their second year, nursing PhD students will complete any remaining core coursework along with elective courses in their specialization or area of interest. However, the major focus of the course of study shifts to the development of the student’s dissertation proposal and preparation for advancement to candidacy. Students will additionally work closely with their faculty advisor or mentor on focused research in support of their dissertation proposal development.
Near the end of the second semester, students typically will take their qualifying exam for PhD candidacy. The third semester is primarily devoted to the presentation and defense of the student’s dissertation proposal, dissertation topic approval, admission to candidacy, and IRB approvals.
Year three and beyond
Students who haven’t yet done so will complete all pre-candidacy requirements such as dissertation approval and comprehensive exams. Then, the focus for all nursing PhD candidates shifts to the implementation and completion of the research, writing, submission, and approval of the written dissertation and the oral dissertation defense. Upon successful completion of the dissertation defense, students submit their dissertation to the graduate school, obtain their approval page, and celebrate the achievement of earning their degrees.
Online Nursing PhD Learning Outcomes
If you’ve spent time looking at college degree websites, you’ve probably come across lists of program learning outcomes. These lists describe the substantive knowledge and skills students should expect to gain in earning their degrees. A program’s learning outcomes constitute the backbone of its curriculum. Below are descriptions of five learning outcomes common to many online nursing PhD programs.
- Research: Develop the ability to design, conduct, evaluate, critique, and integrate original research that advances and expands nursing knowledge and scholarship. Demonstrate a commitment to theory development and application of rigorous methods of disciplined, evidence-based scientific inquiry resulting in the continued improvement of patient care and the advancement of the broader nursing profession.
- Leadership: Demonstrate skills in the leadership of interdisciplinary research teams and in the career and mentorship of others in the nursing profession. Possess and continue to develop a comprehensive understanding of the evolving roles and responsibilities of the nursing scholar. Act as a professional nurse leader and role model.
- Communication and Dissemination of Research and Scholarship: Effectively communicate complex research findings and implications that positively contribute to nursing science and practice in a clear, concise, and understandable manner. Ability to disseminate research and scholarship through peer-reviewed publications and presentations to professional, interdisciplinary, and lay audiences alike.
- Ethics and Professional Responsibility: Demonstrate knowledge and application of professional codes of ethics, obligations, and relevant institutional policies and procedures guiding nurse research, scholarship, and practice. Demonstrated ability to identify ethical issues in all professional situations and environments, and the capacity to seek professional guidance and access to appropriate resources regarding ethical principles and accepted professional norms to resolve moral dilemmas.
- Area of Specialization: Demonstrate in-depth knowledge in the students chosen substantive area of specialization. Ability to apply the knowledge and skills gained in the student’s specialization to nursing practice and in the education of others.
Specializations for Your Nursing PhD
Specialization is a key to graduate nursing study in master’s and doctoral degree programs, as well as post-baccalaureate certificate programs. Many online PhD in nursing programs feature specialization or concentration track options. Faculty members in these programs are involved in conducting research in their own specific areas of the nursing field. As you search for the right online PhD in nursing program for you, be on the lookout for faculty members doing research in the field that corresponds with your own research interests.
Here are examples of five specialization areas popular with nursing PhD programs and students:
Leadership and Administration
The leadership specialization prepares students to take on administrative positions in all sectors of nursing services. Course topics include leadership and organizational theory, organizational dynamics in healthcare, theory development and evaluation in nursing science, and legal and ethics issues in nursing organizations.
Students in the nursing education specialization develop the knowledge and skills needed to facilitate effective education and training of professional nurses in the classroom and in clinical settings.
The interdisciplinary health specialization allows students to create their own unique field of study by completing coursework and pursuing research that combines two or more other nursing specializations.
This specialization is for students interested in driving the conversation when it comes to big-picture issues of institutional, governmental, and public policy as it relates to nursing practice.
Community and Population Health
The community and population health specialization allows student to pursue research leading to improvement in healthcare outcomes in local communities and larger geographic, ethnic, and economic populations.
Accreditation & Online Nursing PhD Programs
Postsecondary accreditation is the process through which U.S. colleges and universities, and the programs they offer, are vetted for academic quality. There are two basic types of postsecondary accreditation: programmatic and institutional.
Programmatic accreditation concerns the vetting of individual nursing programs. Most undergraduate and graduate nursing degree and certificate programs in the U.S. are accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). This includes Doctor of Nursing programs. However, it is not the practice of specialized accreditors to accredit research doctorates. Therefore, neither the CCNE nor ACEN accredits PhD in nursing programs.
Institutional accreditation refers to the accreditation of entire colleges and universities. Institutional accreditation of U.S. colleges and universities, including those offering accredited PhD in nursing degrees, is performed by a group of independent accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Applying to an Online Nursing PhD Program
Admissions requirements for online PhD in nursing programs vary somewhat from program to program depending on the specific academic goals and research focus areas of the program and the applicant’s educational background and professional experience. Along with typical admissions requirements such as a previously earned BSN or MSN degree, letters of recommendation, and the resume or CV, applicants will be required to submit one or more of the items described below. Nursing doctoral program admissions are competitive, so be sure to take considerable care in your application submissions.
- Research/Dissertation Subject: The PhD in nursing is a research-focused credential. Its main function is to provide students with the knowledge and skills required to carry out original research to add to nursing scholarship. Therefore, almost all online nursing PhD programs require applicants to identify (typically in their application essay or statement of purpose) the specific topic or area of research they intend to pursue in their doctorate studies. In many cases, applicants are also required to identify at least one program faculty member whose research area would likely match their own.
- Demonstrated Capacity to Conduct Advanced Research: Applicants to online nursing PhD programs, such as the Indiana University program spotlighted above, may be required to provide evidence of their capacity to conduct research and produce scholarly work. This is usually evidenced by the submission of published or unpublished papers or reports, journal articles, book chapters, or the applicant’s master’s thesis or project.
- Interview: Nursing doctorate program applicants meeting foundational requirements for admissions will likely be required to sit for an interview with one or more program faculty members. Interviews may either be face-to-face or via videoconferencing. The importance of the interview cannot be overstated as it may be the final and determining factor in the selection of program candidates.
Tuition & Fees
Pursuing a nursing doctorate, online or otherwise, is an expensive proposition. It’s critical to develop a clear understanding of all of the costs involved in taking on a nursing PhD program before you enroll. Below are current tuition costs for four online PhD in nursing programs. These and the other rates shown in this guide will give you a general idea what you might expect to pay for your program. Bear in mind that your total degree price tag will be higher once you factor in additional program fees and the cost of books, supplies, and internet access. On the other hand, as an online student, you’ll save money on things like the transportation costs and parking fees you’d pay by attending on-campus classes.
|School||Cost per Credit||Total Credits||Subtotal|
|George Washington University||$1,395||57 (MSN to PhD)||$79,515|
|Oakland University||$839||80 (BSN to PhD); |
60 (MSN to PhD);
48 (DNP to PhD)
|$67,120 (BSN to PhD); |
$50,340 (MSN to PhD);
$40,272 (DNP to PhD)
|University of Colorado – Anschutz Medical Campus||$690 (Colorado resident); $1,190 (out-of-state resident)||60 (MSN to PhD)||$41,400 (Colorado resident); $71,400 (out-of-state resident)|
|Wilkes University||$1,024||47 (MSN to PhD)||$48,128|
NOTE: PhD in nursing programs can look expensive at face value, but practically all colleges and universities offering online nursing doctoral programs provide several financial assistance resources to their students. These include loans, grants, scholarships, research assistantships, and more. Students may also be able to tap into funding help from their employers in the form of tuition reimbursement programs. What all of this means is that you’ll likely be able to substantially reduce the out-of-pocket cost of your online PhD in nursing program.
To find out about financial assistance opportunities for your online PhD in nursing program, be sure to contact the financial aid offices at each of the schools you’re considering. And to learn more on funding your degree, check out PhDs.me’s own scholarships and grants and financial aid guides.
Salaries for Nursing Professionals with a PhD
Whether you use your nursing doctorate for career advancement in scholarly research, as a nurse educator, or to fill a top position in health services administration, you’ll find generous salaries to meet your move up the career ladder. Median salaries for PhD holders are generally in line with those of nurses with only an MSN degree. However, professionals with a PhD in nursing enjoy particularly robust salary growth with the further career advancements that come with more professional experience.
To illustrate the point, below are current median and top-90% estimated base salary figures for several career titles common to PhD in nursing graduates. Keep in mind that these are base salaries and do not include such items as bonuses, and profit sharing.
|Career Title||Annual Median Salary||90%|
|Assistant Nursing Manager||$88,000||$121,000|
|Associate Professor of Nursing||$67,000||$90,000|
|Chief Nursing Officer (CNO)||$138,000||$211,000|
|Dean of Nursing||$113,000||$156,000|
Source: Payscale.com (accessed January 2023)