Journal of Nursing Education

Postdoctoral Study: The Importance for Nursing

Mary Albrecht, PhD, RN; Philip A Greiner, DNSc, RN

Abstract

Doctoral education in nursing is a relatively new phenomenon when viewed within the long history of the discipline. The development of doctorates in nursing has served to place nursing more firmly within the normal structure of academia. Requirements for faculty positions have subsequently been upgraded so that a doctoral degree and substantive research are necessary for tenure at most major institutions. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reported that the proportion of doctorally prepared faculty in AACN member schools in 1978 was 15% (944 faculty). By 1989, that proportion rose to 40% (3,253 faculty) (AACN, 1991).

When viewed as part of the educational process, however, doctoral education provides for many students their first opportunity to do a detailed research project, often with much guidance and supervision. This process is not sufficient for developing an independent researcher. Yet nurses with new doctoral degrees are often expected to begin generating research projects independently upon graduation. Realization that the doctoral degree does not produce an independent researcher can be difficult for the new doctorate as well as that person's employer. This situation is further aggravated in institutions where there are few seasoned researchers to serve as mentors or where financial constraints have severely limited resources available to foster and support research. One response to this limitation of doctoral education is participation in postdoctoral training. Our purpose here is to explore some purposes of postdoctoral study in nursing, to discuss realistic issues in negotiating postdoctoral study, and to raise additional concerns about postdoctoral training in order to stimulate discussion.

Lev, Souder, and Topp have described postdoctoral fellowships as a way "to offer the nurse investigator a number of experiences that may facilitate development as an independent investigator" ( 1990, p. \ 16). Postdoctoral study should provide specific training based on the expressed needs of the scholar, but should also expose the scholar to a variety of resources not usually available to graduate students. It should provide time to reflect, write, and do research on a very targeted topic. In a broader sense, postdoctoral study should prepare scholars for employment as beginning independent researchers. These individuals can develop further as researchers in large research institutions, but also can provide a solid base for research development in smaller colleges of nursing, hospitals, or community health agencies.

Reasons for Postdoctoral Study

Williams (1988) spoke to the need of postdoctoral study for the career development of nurse-scientists. She argued three major points: (1) the need to dispel the myth that research preparation at the doctoral level is adequate preparation for assuming the role of an independent investigator; (2) the need to ensure that postdoctoral programs offered through colleges of nursing are sound and contribute to developing the expertise that the doctorally prepared person needs; and (3) the need for colleges with doctoral programs to stimulate their students to think about career development beyond the doctorate and expose them to people engaged in postdoctoral work. To these points we would add: (4) the need to facilitate movement from doctoral education to postdoctoral study; (5) the need for educators, mentors, and employers to foster postdoctoral study; and (6) the need for a broader geographic distribution of postdoctoral programs.

Recognition that postdoctoral experiences are important for establishing research careers is evident in a number of areas. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Nursing Research (NCNR) encourages investigators to establish their own research programs, for example. The NCNR (1990) has placed increasing emphasis on postdoctoral research training through their National Research Service Awards for both institutions and individuals (NRSA: T32 & F32). There are other opportunities for…

Doctoral education in nursing is a relatively new phenomenon when viewed within the long history of the discipline. The development of doctorates in nursing has served to place nursing more firmly within the normal structure of academia. Requirements for faculty positions have subsequently been upgraded so that a doctoral degree and substantive research are necessary for tenure at most major institutions. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reported that the proportion of doctorally prepared faculty in AACN member schools in 1978 was 15% (944 faculty). By 1989, that proportion rose to 40% (3,253 faculty) (AACN, 1991).

When viewed as part of the educational process, however, doctoral education provides for many students their first opportunity to do a detailed research project, often with much guidance and supervision. This process is not sufficient for developing an independent researcher. Yet nurses with new doctoral degrees are often expected to begin generating research projects independently upon graduation. Realization that the doctoral degree does not produce an independent researcher can be difficult for the new doctorate as well as that person's employer. This situation is further aggravated in institutions where there are few seasoned researchers to serve as mentors or where financial constraints have severely limited resources available to foster and support research. One response to this limitation of doctoral education is participation in postdoctoral training. Our purpose here is to explore some purposes of postdoctoral study in nursing, to discuss realistic issues in negotiating postdoctoral study, and to raise additional concerns about postdoctoral training in order to stimulate discussion.

Lev, Souder, and Topp have described postdoctoral fellowships as a way "to offer the nurse investigator a number of experiences that may facilitate development as an independent investigator" ( 1990, p. \ 16). Postdoctoral study should provide specific training based on the expressed needs of the scholar, but should also expose the scholar to a variety of resources not usually available to graduate students. It should provide time to reflect, write, and do research on a very targeted topic. In a broader sense, postdoctoral study should prepare scholars for employment as beginning independent researchers. These individuals can develop further as researchers in large research institutions, but also can provide a solid base for research development in smaller colleges of nursing, hospitals, or community health agencies.

Reasons for Postdoctoral Study

Williams (1988) spoke to the need of postdoctoral study for the career development of nurse-scientists. She argued three major points: (1) the need to dispel the myth that research preparation at the doctoral level is adequate preparation for assuming the role of an independent investigator; (2) the need to ensure that postdoctoral programs offered through colleges of nursing are sound and contribute to developing the expertise that the doctorally prepared person needs; and (3) the need for colleges with doctoral programs to stimulate their students to think about career development beyond the doctorate and expose them to people engaged in postdoctoral work. To these points we would add: (4) the need to facilitate movement from doctoral education to postdoctoral study; (5) the need for educators, mentors, and employers to foster postdoctoral study; and (6) the need for a broader geographic distribution of postdoctoral programs.

Recognition that postdoctoral experiences are important for establishing research careers is evident in a number of areas. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Nursing Research (NCNR) encourages investigators to establish their own research programs, for example. The NCNR (1990) has placed increasing emphasis on postdoctoral research training through their National Research Service Awards for both institutions and individuals (NRSA: T32 & F32). There are other opportunities for study beyond the doctorate. Lev et al. have described postdoctoral fellowships available through the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Nurse Scholars Program and the National Institute on Aging, Teaching Nursing Home Project, as well as the Institutional National Research Service Award (1990). There are also a limited number of colleges of nursing willing to fund postdoctoral study through internal university funds, and a few universities that provide funding for faculty to do postdoctoral work. It is important that the person looking into a postdoctoral explore a variety of options before making a decision.

Postdoctoral work is usually begun shortly after completion of the doctorate. However, the concept of postdoctoral training does not have to be limited to this time frame. Postdoctoral work can be done at any point where further training in research would benefit one's career and research development.

The decision to pursue postdoctoral study is not easily made. For many people, postdoctoral work requires moving to a new geographic area, establishing new contacts, working with a different group of advisors, and experiencing a dramatic cut in income. This situation is particularly difficult when it uproots family or isolates one from cherished friends. However, the difficult process becomes one of identifying which program and advisor would best suit one's individual learning needs. Some people look for institutions that are known to be research-intensive, and that have a seasoned, active researcher to serve as a mentor. Others look for an institution that would encourage continued development of specific research skills or provide retraining in areas weakened by the passage of time.

Selection of a Mentor

Choice of a good mentor is crucial for a successful postdoctoral experience. That individual should have a strong research track record, time to spend with the postdoctoral scholar in the development of ideas, and a history of positive experiences working with others. The mentor should be interested in the scholar's learning needs and see those needs as important. The mentor must be a person with whom the scholar feels comfortable working. Postdoctoral scholars tend to work on their own with support, direction, and guidance provided through the mentor. The mentor must be able to assist the scholar by directing him or her to appropriate resources, by guiding grant development, and by advising in a way that furthers the scholar's career as a researcher.

One of the goals of the postdoctoral experience is the ability to obtain additional research funding. Here again, the mentor should play a critical role. While the postdoctoral scholar should develop his or her own research agenda, the mentor can suggest various steps to take along that developmental path, such as obtaining a small grant from Sigma Thêta Tau, Inc., for a pilot project or for tool development so that a larger grant proposal may be more successful. Mentors might also serve as sponsors or co-investigators for specific grants.

Resource Negotiations

Negotiation for resources is also important for a positive postdoctoral experience. Resource needs include space, computer use, and additional opportunities for learning. While most of these items should be negotiated before accepting a postdoctoral position, others cannot be negotiated until you are on-site. Space should be adequate for the scholar's specific needs and should be apart from faculty offices. Ideally, that space should be located near other researchers. Space should include a workplace, file cabinets, shelves, telephone, and the usual assortment of environmental necessities of light, heat, and cooling. Every postdoctoral scholar should have a largecapacity personal computer with mainframe portal directly accessible. Software and computer training should also be readily at hand to facilitate project development and maintenance.

Additional opportunities can include specific courses to audit, time to write for publication and to present at scholarly meetings, attending interdisciplinary seminars on campus, access to a specific clinical setting or patient population, and meetings with other scholars interested in similar research areas. Each aspect must be negotiated with a sense of how the postdoctoral work will be achieved. For some researchers, access to a mainframe may be a necessity. For others, linkage to a specific clinical setting is paramount. Negotiation for resources should be seen as an ongoing process with a practical end.

Negotiation is also needed regarding one's activities and goals during the postdoctoral period. Most postdoctoral programs last one to two years to allow for acclimation and project completion. This time can be spent on the development of one major thrust, or on a series of activities designed to train the scholar in specific aspects of the research process. Goals and related activities should be in writing, with a time line for expected achievement of specific goals.

Importance for Nursing

What importance does all of this have for nursing? First, postdoctoral training should be recognized as a necessary extension of the educational process for most nursing educators and scientists if nursing is to join the mainstream of academia. This recognition is even more important for nursing if we are to prepare educational and research leaders for the year 2000 and beyond. One measure of success for a postdoctoral program is the research productivity and occupational success of the scholar or fellow. This success translates into visibility of nursing scholars within the nursing community and beyond.

Second, postdoctoral opportunities should be developed with a specific emphasis in nursing. These two points interrelate in that seasoned researchers with an understanding of the postdoctoral process are needed before additional opportunities can be developed.

Third, postdoctoral study will require potential scholars and their employers to examine the possible advantages and disadvantages of such study to their respective situations. Potential scholars will need to see how postdoctoral work might fit into their career trajectory. As stated earlier, such study does not have to begin immediately after completion of the doctorate. However, consideration needs to be given to the disruption that postdoctoral study may cause within one's Ufe. Employers need to realize at least two possible scenarios: that the returning postdoctorally trained person can catalyze the research agenda at a college through his or her expertise and success in attracting funding, and that the same individual may be lured to a new employer. Postdoctoral study opens up new areas that may not be compatible with a previous place of employment. In addition, there are relatively few nurses with postdoctoral experience. In 1988, less than 0.3% of all nurses had postdoctoral training (Larson, Butz, & Korniewicz, 1988).

Fourth, nursing educators should begin to identify and encourage students in master's programs who have the potential to achieve at doctoral and postdoctoral levels. Faculty in doctoral programs should hold postdoctoral study as an expectation and provide additional encouragement to this end.

Fifth, it is clear that a shift in focus is taking place within the health and illness care arena. That shift is to communitybased care with an emphasis on health promotion and disease prevention. This shift represents an opportunity for nursing to gain parity in our health provision and educational systems. More researchers trained in nursing will be needed for this end. Preferably, these will be researchers trained in nursing postdoctoral programs of study.

Finally, opportunities for postdoctoral study must be more geographically distributed, especially throughout the central and southern portions of the United States. Better availability of postdoctoral study will increase the number of scholars who elect to do postdoctoral work and should decrease the number of scholars for whom postdoctoral work requires moving to a new place.

Postdoctoral study is presently outside the norms of nursing education. As more doctorally prepared nurses choose to do postdoctoral study, and as more colleges of nursing offer this opportunity, postdoctoral study may become an expected part of the educational process.

References

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (199H 1990 Annual report. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Larson, E., Butz, A., & Korniewicz, D. (1988). Postdoctoral nursing education in infection control. American Journal of Infection Control, 16, 274-277.
  • Lev, E., Souder, E., & lbpp, R. (1990). The postdoctoral fellowship experience. Image: The Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 22, 116-120.
  • National Center for Nursing Research. (19901 Facts about funding. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Williams, C. (1988). Career development of the nurse-scientist: The new doctorate faces a postdoctoral. Journal of Professional Nursing, 4, 73.

10.3928/0148-4834-19921001-11

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