Doctoral Dilemmas

Earlier this week I talked about the experience of missing school, of looking for my next step.

Part of the challenge is finding a next step that 1) Makes me believe that I am indeed moving forward, and 2) Helps keep me grounded in the reasons I became a nurse in the first place.

My logical next step would be a doctoral degree. Thanks to AACN, I actually have two options: a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or the Ph.D.

Until recently, I figured that my obvious choice would be the Ph.D. I love being a student, I love independent research, and I love the idea of learning for the sake of learning, expanding knowledge, sharing research. Yes, I thought I would fit right in.

Therein lies the problem… Do I want to “fit right in”? Do I want to learn for the sake of learning? Didn’t I become a nurse to apply my love of learning toward the greater mission of helping people navigate their own journeys?

Obviously disseminating research is a huge part of being a nursing scientist, which in turn eventually transforms health care as we know it (hopefully). Obviously teaching future generations of nursing students is a great mission. But part of the reason I became a nurse was to transform health care on the front lines. And I don’t know that I could do that from the ivory tower (at least not this early in my nursing career).

I have a tendency to escape into what’s comfortable for me. And school is comfortable. Learning is comfortable. In the midst of my father’s final weeks, I would sit by his bed and study pathophysiology. When I lost my first nursing job to migraines, I threw myself into the first semesters of my graduate studies and pretty much epitomized the word “overachiever”. School is a safe place for me. I’m confident there. But clinical practice is still new. I’m still a novice, and being a novice is scary for me. It’s unsettling and somewhat unfamiliar because I’ve always positioned myself to be the expert and avoided scenarios when I don’t know the answers (come to think of it, I’m amazed I made it through nursing school with that mindset).

Making a difference on the front lines is still uncomfortable because I don’t feel confident yet. I haven’t given it (or myself) the time and patience to really develop my skills. Maybe I’m afraid of really hurting someone. Or maybe I’m just not as good at stretching myself as I claim to be. Either way, I worry that if I retreat into academia now, this early in my nursing career, I’ll never emerge.

So where does that leave me? Perhaps contemplating a move, perhaps staying where I’m at. My hands-on skills are rusty at best and I am trying to figure out how to address this problem.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking at the DNP more seriously. If I want to transform health care, take care of patients and stretch and grow in my own clinical skills, I think this would be the wiser option. I can still teach. I can still study and learn, but the difference is I’d be doing it for the sake of the people I care for directly.

Will I eventually earn a Ph.D.? Probably. But I believe that I’ll be a better researcher someday if I’m a better clinician today. Which means stepping out from behind the curtain and giving myself a chance.

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