Soaring to New Heights: Innovative PhD Distance Learning Program
Jun 11, 2015 1:00 PM
When Deborah Himes decided to pursue a PhD in nursing, she chose the University of Utah knowing its strong faculty could mentor her in cancer and genetics research. She quickly learned that Utah enjoys rich student‑professor interaction, even with students living all over the country.
“I would go to nursing conferences with other students taking online PhD programs, and I would tell them what we had, and they would just be amazed,” said Himes, now a professor at Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing.
The University of Utah College of Nursing’s PhD program began in 1977, but since 2003 it has offered PhD programs via a synchronous distance learning delivery model. Students participate in a nationally renowned program without relocating to Utah. They attend class and interact with fellow students and professors via camera and computer monitor. Their screens may resemble the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, but it’s an intellectual powerhouse.
Of the 48 students currently enrolled in the PhD program, only 24 are from Utah. The average time to complete the year‑round program is 5.3 years. Students are expected to enroll in a minimum of two courses per semester over three semesters each year. After completing course work, students conduct a research study based on their individual interests. Graduate students have a variety of funding opportunities available to them to pay for tuition as well as their research studies. Periodically, specialty cohorts are offered. Expertise within the College of Nursing reflects strength in areas such as cancer, aging, end of life, women’s health, health communication and informatics. Most recently, the program has offered cohorts in gerontology and oncology.
Less than 1% of American nurses have a nursing PhD, something Margaret Clayton, the director of the College’s PhD program, wants to change. More nursing professors are needed to alleviate the national nursing shortage, she said. Practical research is also another way to serve patients. “Nurses often ask questions that really have to do with benefiting people and patients, whereas lab researchers often deal with diseases at a cellular or molecular level,” Clayton said.
The challenge for potential PhD students is that established nursing careers and family situations make it difficult to relocate. That’s why Utah’s model is both practical and efficient for residents in Utah and beyond, Clayton said. Students come to campus for one week per academic year for the first three years of course work and attend one national conference per year. During their research, students can work from their hometown and are closely supervised either using technology or face‑to‑face as needed. Some students may collect new data where they live; others will travel to Utah. And others may access previously collected data to answer new research questions.
Clayton knows that some potential PhD students may be reluctant to trade the bedside for data collection. She points out that some faculty continue to see patients on a limited basis, and the research of graduates and faculty benefits patients directly. Current student Hilda Haynes‑Lewis, studies older African Americans with advanced cancer, looking at their care coordination. She developed her research questions while working as a nurse practitioner at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. “But I didn’t really know how to formulate them,” she recalled.
To learn more about the PhD program call (801) 581-8798 or visit the PhD program page.