How to Get a PhD or EdD in Nurse Education

The PhD in Nurse Education is a relatively new degree, born into a crisis: not enough nurses, and not enough nurses to teach nursing. Making the crisis more acute, nursing itself has become a much more complex field, creating additional demand for doctoral degrees in nursing.

The nursing community is moving aggressively to expand nursing education. Led by the National League for Nursing, the industry has pushed for more advanced nursing education programs. The PhD in Nurse Education is the crown jewel of that nascent effort. A PhD in Teaching & Education with a specialization in Nurse Education signifies wide and deep mastery of the practice of nursing, the theories at work in that practice, and the research that underpins it all. In addition, a PhD in Nurse Education aims to nurture the teaching and leadership skills that enable nurses to teach in a systematic way.

Nurses with PhD in Nurse Education are building an educational infrastructure that is badly needed. Obtaining an EdD degree in nursing education, typically a less research-intensive degree than a PhD in Nurse Education, is an alternative path to becoming a nurse educator.

Online PhD in Nurse Education programs are available but in the early stages of development.

Why to Apply for a PhD Program in Nursing Education

The shortage of nurses is well-publicized. The shortage of nurse educators is less widely known, but perhaps more troublesome. Every year, thousands of young people who would choose nursing as a career are turned down due to the lack of qualified teachers of nursing.

In the past, training of nurses beyond basic certification was done on a somewhat ad hoc basis. Nurses were taught by fellow nurses through mentorship programs both formal and informal. This system is not capable of handling today’s nursing education needs. The nursing industry organizations pushing for an overhaul of the nursing education system, especially with respect to doctoral-level nursing education programs, have noted that:

  • Senior nurses are too busy with patients to mentor new nurses sufficiently
  • The quality of advanced education varies greatly when mentorships are the main tool
  • Nursing as a profession needs scholars, teachers, and researchers
  • Many expert nurses are nearing retirement age, and may want to share what they’ve learned with a new generation of nurses
  • Thousands of potential nurses are being turned away from college programs due to a shortage of qualified nurse educators

Clearly, the time for nursing education to graduate to the next level has come. Your decision to consider obtaining an EdD or PhD in Nurse Education is well-timed. Career planning strategies and tools can help you make the most of the opportunity before you. To search for an on campus doctoral degree in nursing near you, search schools by location. If you want schools to come to you, fill out a simple form and receive multiple responses from multiple schools.

The PhD in Nurse Education: This Area for Expert Nurses Only

Pursuing a PhD or EdD in Nurse Education assumes and requires that you already possess extensive knowledge of the practice of nursing.

You must have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing or a related field to qualify for a PhD degree program in nursing education. If you are not yet at that level, search for schools by degree level to find an education program that meets your needs.

If you have achieved an advanced level of nursing knowledge, you may be a good candidate for the PhD degree in nursing education. This degree will build on your past education and experience by focusing on turning you into a great nurse and a great nurse educator.

How to Apply for a PhD Program in Nursing Education

Befitting a doctorate-level degree program, the PhD in Nurse Education teaches you about not only the how of nursing but the why. Doctoral degree programs in nursing teach you a potent mix of theory, research, and teaching.

Nursing Theory

Nursing theory is examined in detail in hopes that those who graduate with a PhD degree in nursing will contribute to the ongoing shaping of nursing education at the classroom, school, and system-wide level.

Students who pursue a PhD degree in nursing education follow in the footsteps of the nursing profession’s greatest theorist, Florence Nightingale, whose Notes on Nursing remains the fundamental theoretical examination of what nursing is and should be.

As the healthcare system changes, nursing must adapt and, thus, so must nursing education. Theory-related questions abound and are largely unanswered:

  • How many patients can one nurse treat per day?
  • How many patients should one nurse treat per day?
  • How can nurses avoid “burn-out”?
  • How can nurses better treat each patient as an individual?
  • What is the distinctive function of nurses in society at large?
  • How can “holistic” care exist and thrive in busy modern hospitals?
  • What role should technology play in nursing?

If you are the kind of nurse who wants to formulate nuanced but actionable answers to a collection of extremely difficult questions, a PhD or EdD in Nurse Education may provide you with the understanding to make that leap.

Nursing Research

Theory without facts is largely useless–especially in practical fields like nursing. For that reason, expect that a doctorate in nurse education will entail constant reading, research, and challenging of assumptions.

Perhaps, for example, as part of your master’s degree, you took a class that examined the work of Ramona T. Mercer, whose theories on motherhood and the maternal role have affected the care given to mothers and their children tremendously over the past 30 years. As part of a PhD degree in nursing education program, you might be asked to go beyond merely reading Mercer’s work to testing it against new studies, emerging statistics, and the work of other scholars. This pattern of not only taking in but talking back is a key aspect of a doctorate in nurse education.

Teaching Nursing

Above all, a doctorate–especially an EdD–in nurse education teaches you to teach. Curriculum development, pedagogical techniques, and leadership are going to be just as important to your success as a nurse educator as knowing the science of the human body. The PhD degree in nursing education is predicated upon that reality from day one.

The formal validation of your ability to participate in nursing education comes when you pass the Certified Nurse Educator (CNR) exam. If you get nervous during tests, be sure to take a glance at the tips for acing any test offered by Test-taking advice is one of many advice territories covered in the Education Resources section of

Another, Rarer Option: The EdD in Nursing Education

Your other option, if you know you want to teach nursing, is to pursue an EdD in Nurse Education. The EdD degree focuses more on educator-related subjects, as opposed to the PhD degree in nursing with its emphasis on theory and scholarly research.

The EdD in Nurse Education is not a widely developed and formalized degree program at many schools, so locating a program may be difficult. Put out a query to see what schools offer you the ability to combine an EdD with nursing education. Some campus schools provide students with the ability to access both the education and nursing departments of the school to build a customized EdD in Nurse Education.

Criteria for Choosing a PhD in Nursing Education

As noted, the National League for Nursing (NLN) has taken the lead in calling for a revolution in nursing education. In fact, the “Core Competencies of Nurse Educators” report put out by the NLN in 2005 is the most influential document in current nursing education circles.

The individuals who collaborated to produce “Core Competencies of Nurse Educators” are the exact crowd that you want to impress by achieving a PhD in Nurse Education. If you can build all eight core competencies listed by the NLN, you might expect a bright future in nursing education. Consider using this seminal document as a guide. And consider, at all stages of your research on possible schools, how each school you’re considering stacks up against the measurements outlined by the NLN.

Core Competency 1: Facilitate Learning

A nurse educator is, first and foremost, an educator. You must therefore be able to, among other things:

  • Communicate clearly both orally and in writing
  • Use information technology to support the learning process
  • Create a collegial environment among students and faculty

Not all nurses have those qualities and skills. You must develop them if you are to become an excellent nurse educator.

Core Competency 2: Facilitate Learner Development and Socialization

Again the emphasis is on creating a learning environment that is a community. Desire a PhD degree in nursing education that practices this preaching. Contact schools directly to request information about how they build community among students and faculty.

Look for signs that faculty members belong to professional associations, speak at conferences, and have worked at prominent hospitals. Contact former students to see if and how the school you’re considering is an active member of the nursing community. Even online graduate degree programs build community, but they do it through discussion boards, emails, and the occasional classroom meet-ups.

Core Competency 3: Use Assessment and Evaluation Strategies

Measuring and defining success is a major part of teaching nursing, and your PhD degree program in nursing education must address that fact. Classes in statistics, records management, and data analysis indicate that a PhD degree in nursing education meets NLN standards.

Core Competency 4: Participate in Curriculum Design and Evaluation of Program Outcomes

Nursing education needs leaders now. The worker-bee mentality is simply insufficient for the overwhelming task of overhauling the nursing education system. In order to be a productive member of the nursing education community, you must be ready and willing to participate in the thinking, planning, and tweaking that make effective learning programs tick. Look for a doctorate in nurse education that encourages you to think big and bold.

Core Competency 5: Function as a Change Agent and Leader

The PhD and EdD degree holders that formulated this list of core competencies all agree on the type of nurse educators they want to see come out of PhD and EdD degree programs in nursing education: bold thinkers and doers who are up for a challenge.

Your PhD or EdD degree in nursing education should work towards that goal.

Core Competency 6: Pursue Continuous Quality Improvement in the Role of Nurse Educator

The best way to test this quality in a school you’re considering is to ask questions about faculty dedication to teaching. Questions that may help you crack that code include:

  • Do faculty members mentor other faculty members?
  • What changes to teaching methods have been implemented over the past three years?
  • How responsive to questions are faculty members during nights and weekends?

Core Competency 7: Engage in Scholarship

Yet another faculty-centered area of inquiry. Contact schools directly to find out what and where faculty members have published and current research projects underway at the school. Scholars interact with other scholars; to be one, be among some.

Core Competency 8: Function within the Educational Environment

Consider PhD degree programs in nursing education that have created a full-scale learning environment, not just a few extraordinary professors. Does the doctorate degree program you’re considering host guest speakers, offer internships, and encourage peer interaction?

The PhD in Nurse Education Is a Challenge from Every Angle

Addressing the eight core competency requirements cited by the NLN is a challenge for both on campus and online PhD degree programs in nursing education. But it is a challenge that can and must be met. Standards have been set, now it’s time to measure up.

Online PhD degrees in nursing education may end up being the means by which PhD programs in nursing education are widely distributed. Online PhD programs in nursing may allow you to continue working either full or part-time as you pursue your online doctorate degree. That’s important. Always choose distance education that is quality assured through credible accreditation. Because nurses are so in demand, encouraging nurses to quit their jobs seems a bad idea. If an online PhD program can enable a working mother to enter this exciting field while still meeting her obligations to provide for her family, for example, that is a win for everyone.


  • Capella University, Nursing Education specialization
  • Journal of Nursing Education
  • National League for Nursing, Core Competencies of Nurse Educators with Task Statements
  • Nursing Education: An International Perspective, by T. G. Mashaba, Hilla Brink
  • Nursing Education Consultants
  • Nursing Web Journal, Formulating Nursing Theory, by Sharon L Van Sell and Ioannis A Kalofissudis
  • San Diego University, Nursing Theory Page
  • University of Northern Colorado, Ph.D. in Nursing with Education Emphasis
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