Academics have defended the important contribution nurse PhDs make to healthcare practice, following suggestions that they are often “interesting academically” but not always useful.
They were responding to comments made by Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies at a conference in the North West at the end of April, which prompted a strong reaction among nursing academics on social media.
Nursing professors said that while PhDs do not directly influence nursing policy, they do add to university programmes of research which have a wider impact.
Doctorate degrees also change the practice of the individual nurses who complete them, they told Nursing Times.
“In most universities PhDs have to be pitched as part of a broader work programme by academics and they are adding to those programmes,” said Anne Marie Rafferty, professor of nursing at King’s College London.
“So they’re helping to intensify and deepen and extend the reach of those programmes by asking a question…It’s not my experience that PhDs are not geared towards enhancing impact,” she told Nursing Times.
Professor Alison Leary, chair of healthcare and workforce modelling at London South Bank University, echoed her comments, saying: “The question of whether something can be academically interesting but not useful is moot point.”
“The academically interesting stuff might be where the research questions, the really important practical research questions of tomorrow, come from,” she told Nursing Times.
“We should be supporting and encouraging PhDs because they are training programmes for nurses to become better researchers”
Professor Leary noted her own PhD and research on lung cancer altered the way she as an individual practised. “They [PhDs] may have less impact on policy but we need a critical mass of people that can generate research questions and enable other people to do and understand research,” she said.
Meanwhile, Elaine Maxwell, associate professor in leadership at London South Bank University, added: “There is a bit of a strand of anti-intellectualism in nursing.
“It’s important to remember we should be supporting and encouraging PhDs, because they are training programmes for nurses to become better researchers – to critically appraise the evidence that is there,” she said.
“The RCN should be supporting nurses to do doctorates, rather than describing them as academically interesting but not useful,” she said.
“We need to better understand and demonstrate the impact of [PhDs] on professional practice”
However, in response to other claims made by Ms Davies that some existing evidence – such as that on safe staffing – was difficult to find, the professors agreed academia had a responsibility to make their work more accessible.
But they also warned there was a danger in “dumbing down” research findings, and that instead more nurses should be equipped to better understand evidence by encouraging more to take on research activities, such as doctorates.
“It does need to be accessible but it also needs to be robust and rigorous… It’s not about dumbing down research, because we won’t be able to argue our case in other arenas – particularly with public policy makers if we do that,” said Professor Leary.
Last week Ms Davies issued a statement in response to her original comments, which she made at a nurse conference in Manchester last month.
“Doctoral level education has an important contribution to make to enhancing nursing research, but we need to better understand and demonstrate the impact of this contribution on professional practice,” she said in the statement.
Ms Davies re-iterated the need for a co-ordinated approach to identify the evidence in nursing required at a national level.
She also said the profession needed to build its capacity in nursing research, noting that research funding was dominated by the medical profession.