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Future of Nursing Scholars: Reflections on Forward-Thinking Nursing Doctoral Education

As the distinguished Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholars (FNS) program ends, a special section of an issue of the journal Nursing Outlook offers an in-depth review from University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Penn Nursing) leaders about the program’s success and its long-lasting impact on nursing scholars, faculty, and institutions.

April 21, 2023

The FNS Program Overview

During the course of the FNS program, nurses from 46 schools pursued their PhDs as Future of Nursing Scholars and more than 180 scholars graduated. In the article “Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholars Program: An Overview,”(available online), the authors describe the state of the field at program launch, the program development, and operations.

“Preliminary results suggest accelerated PhD programs featuring intensive mentoring and financial support can produce well-prepared nurse researchers ready for post-doctoral positions and leadership roles,” says Heather J. Kelley, Deputy Director of the RWJF Future of Nursing Scholars Program and the article’s lead author. “Given the critical need for more PhD-prepared nurses in the United States and the concerns about the length of time required to complete a PhD, it is essential that innovative approaches like the FNS model be integrated into nursing education.”

Co-authors include Amanda Bastelica, Associate Director, RWJF Future of Nursing Scholars, McKenzie Boschitsch, Program Coordinator, and Julie Fairman, PhD, RN, FAAN, Endowed Chair, Nightingale Professor in Honor of Nursing Veterans and Director of the RWJF Future of Nursing Scholars, all of Penn Nursing; Maryjoan Ladden, Senior Program Officer, 2008-2019, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Nicholas Giordano of Emory University; and Susan Hassmiller, Senior Advisor for Nursing Emeritus, Director Emeritus, RWJF Future of Nursing Scholars.

The FNS Program Impact

The FNS program prepared the next generation of nursing leaders, strengthened nursing education, and led transformational change in health care. In the article “The Impact of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholars Program on Scholars, Schools and Nursing Science,” (available online), the authors describe the program’s impact on the scholars and schools that participated and the perceived impact on nursing science.

“The FNS program provided a large-scale demonstration, across academic environments, for the success of implementing three-year PhD programs to prepare the next generation of nurse leaders,” says Fairman. “The program also provided proof-of-concept “on high-quality accelerated PhD education for nursing students well matched with mentors, and elevated the national conversation on PhD education.”

Other coauthors include Nicholas Giordano of Emory University and Maryjoan Ladden of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Faculty Mentoring in the FNS Program

Faculty mentoring was an important part of the success of the FNS program. In the article “Characteristics of Faculty Mentoring in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholars Program,” (available online), authors describe the experience of faculty mentors involved with the program, including support activities for students, time commitment, student productivity in manuscript dissemination, and challenges and opportunities for supporting students.

“Completing a PhD program in three years requires increased use of faculty resources including intensive faculty mentor time,” says Fairman. “The FNS program demonstrated that committed mentors, shared research interests, structured plans (use of IDPs), and identification and provision of emotional support are imperative to success.”

Other co-authors include Gordon Lee Gillespie of the University of Cincinnati and April Hazard Vallerand of Wayne State University.

Adapting Nursing PhD Curricula into a Three-Year Program

The FNS program supported 45 nursing schools to create or adapt their PhD curricula to facilitate students completing the degree in three years. In the article “Three-Year Nursing PhD Curriculum Content Among Schools Participating in the Future of Nursing Scholars Program,”(available online), the authors identify and analyze common elements of the three-year PhD curricula.

“Most frequently seen across curricula included content focused on statistics, qualitative methods, quantitative methods, additional research methods, theory, and philosophy courses. These findings can be used to inform the development and educational needs of future nurse scientists,” says Fairman. “Continued and concentrated efforts are needed to elevate trainees’ exposure to emerging priority areas in nursing science, rather than regulating them to electives or cognates while balancing the broad interdisciplinary training needs that are necessary for developing scientific inquiry.”

Other co-authors include Nicholas Giordano of Emory University and Maryjoan Ladden, Senior Program Officer, 2008-2019, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The FNS Program Scholar Experience

The FNS program used a multi-pronged approach to support nurses completing accelerated PhD programs. In the article “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholars Program: The Scholar Experience,”(available online), the authors describe scholars’ experiences completing PhDs, their dissertation characteristics, program leadership development sessions, and scholar perceptions of program components.

“Scholars’ experiences with the FNS program were enthusiastically positive, evident by exit survey and interview data. Despite the shortened timeline of their plan of study, scholars completed the FNS and PhD programs feeling prepared to be successful nurse leaders and scientists,” says Kelley. “Five important contributions maximized the success of this program. Those are mentorship, cohort cohesion, opportunity to build leadership skills, funding support, and guidance.”

Co-authors include Fairman, Amanda Bastelica, MPA, McKenzie Boschitsch, and Maxine Wicks, all of Penn Nursing; Nicholas Giordano of Emory University; Maryjoan Ladden of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and Madison McCarthy of the TriStar Skyline Medical Center.

FNS Focus Group Results

In January 2022, the national program office hosted an in-person convening for scholars and mentors from all cohorts as a capstone event at the end of the nine-year FNS program. In the article “RWJF Future of Nursing Scholars Experience and Recommendations: Focus Group Results at Final Convening,” (available online), the authors share focus group insight from that meeting about why the scholars chose to participate in the program, meeting facilitators, and barriers they experienced during the program.

“We learned that participants valued the mentorship model, networking, connecting with other scholars, regular meetings with FNS scholars and mentors, and other opportunities available to them. They also expressed that financial support was very important,” says Fairman.

Participants recommended that more information about the PhD and the differentiation between a PhD and DNP needs to be communicated to nurses to help them to better understand the role and benefits of nurse scientists. Participants also noted the name recognition and reputation of RWJF as a factor in their decision to become a RWJF FNS.

Co-authors include Fairman, Kelley, Kathryn H. Bowles, PhD, RN, FAAN, FACMI, Professor of Nursing and the van Ameringen Chair in Nursing Excellence, all of Penn Nursing; Robin P. Newhouse of Indiana University School of Nursing; Maureen George of Columbia University School of Nursing; and Mayumi A. Willgerodt, University of Washington School of Nursing.

The End or a New Beginning?

Following the 2010 National Academy of Medicine report, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health,” the RWJF created the FNS program. At its heart was a goal to equip a cadre of PhD-prepared nurses for long-term careers advancing science and discovery, strengthening nursing education, and leading transformational change in health care.

The RWJF committed $20 million to the program and developed a philanthropic collaborative to bring an additional $5 million in funding to the program. Through a competitive selection process, Penn Nursing was chosen as the National Program Office. Development of the FNS program emanated from the program office and incorporated three key pillars: science, innovation, and policy. The program provided financial support, mentoring, and leadership development to nurses who committed to earning their PhDs in three years.

While the FNS program has come to an end, its impact on creating options for how nurse scientists are prepared is sure to be long-lasting. “Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the FNS program is that innovation and experimentation in both the structure and process of doctoral education is not only possible, but essential,” says Antonia M. Villarruel, PhD, RN, FAAN, Professor and the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing at Penn Nursing. Her article (available online), “The End? or a New Beginning? Perspectives on Lessons Learned from the Future of Nursing Scholars Program and the Preparation of PhD Nurse Scholars,” which concludes the journal’s special section.

Villarruel encourages continued financial support of students in nursing PhD programs, and a better understanding of how investment in nursing doctoral education can support the priorities of foundations, health care institutions, and schools. “The creativity and support of the RWJF National program office, program leadership at Penn, and the efforts of so many Schools of Nursing and Foundations at the institutional level in support of the next generation of nurse scientists bodes well for the future and health of those whom we serve,” she adds.

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