A research training award for graduate nursing students was piloted with the intent of providing a research-intensive experiential learning opportunity that would contribute to graduate students' future roles as nurse researchers. The students worked collaboratively with a faculty mentor on a small research project that was based on student-identified goals and outcomes. The purpose of this article is to describe how the program was developed, implemented, and evaluated.
The National League for Nursing (2013, p. 1) “believes that it is critical that doctoral programs in nursing, including both research and practice doctorates, prepare graduates with the knowledge and skills to teach, to provide leadership for transforming education and health care systems, and to conduct or translate research in nursing education.” However, since fewer than 1% of nurses in Canada and the United States have completed a doctoral degree in nursing or a related field (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010), more doctorally prepared nurses are critically needed to sustain and promote the strides made to advance the knowledge and theory underlying nursing practice. Adding to this urgency, with an aging professoriate (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2015; Nehls & Rice, 2014), an impending global shortage of doctorally prepared nursing faculty will result in not only fewer nurses conducting research but also fewer faculty available to supervise graduate students.
In an attempt to graduate more Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students faster, universities may fast track students through to a PhD without requiring a master's level thesis. This practice runs the risk of having graduates with insufficient exposure to a variety of research. Thus, it is incumbent on nurse educators and researchers to become more creative and innovative in how the next generation of doctorally prepared nurses is attracted and prepared whether they are headed for research careers in an academic setting, clinical practice, or administration. A U.S. study of tenure-track faculty found that faculty who had participated in research assistantships while in graduate school produced more publications and were awarded more research dollars than their counterparts (Porter & Umbach, 2001). Federally funded research training programs are offered at some universities, but these are insufficient to meet the needs of the discipline of nursing. Increasing experiential learning opportunities in research for graduate students is a key strategy for building future research capacity and increasing the likelihood of a productive research career.
Program Objective and Rationale
The main objective of the Graduate Student Research Training Awards was to help build graduate student capacity as future researchers by offering them an opportunity to work on a small-scale research project that was separate from their thesis or dissertation research. The awards were deliberately conceptualized to focus on a student-driven project with student-identified goals and outcomes. This ensured the projects proposed were in keeping with the goal of the program being student centered and to distinguish them from other research opportunities that may exist through involvement in faculty-funded research projects.
During the past 5 years, the Manitoba Centre for Nursing and Health Research (MCNHR) at the College of Nursing, University of Manitoba, Canada, has spearheaded several initiatives to build research capacity in the next generation of nurse researchers by fostering undergraduate and graduate student engagement in research. Since 2010, the MCNHR has offered a Summer Research Internship Program for undergraduate nursing students that provides paid employment while engaging them in hands-on research experience, student learning, research mentorship, and one-on-one student faculty collaboration (Cepanec, Clarke, Plohman, & Gerard, 2013). Based on several years of successfully running this program, the MCNHR decided to expand its programming by introducing Graduate Student Research Training Awards in 2013.
The MCNHR consulted current graduate students (n = 4) to explore how the Summer Internship Program could be expanded to include graduate students and how to frame the program so that it was responsive to their needs and preferences. In the consultations, graduate students advised that the program be part time and flexible to allow them to accommodate their other commitments and responsibilities. Graduate students spoke about how research assistant opportunities, although valuable in helping them to develop technical research skills related to data collection, management, and analysis, provided limited opportunities related to contributing to the intellectual direction of the project including project conceptualization and interpretation.
Graduate students identified an interest in a more enriched research opportunity that would build the research skills they would need as they embarked on future careers as independent researchers. In addition, as research assistant opportunities were not competitive to nursing wages, a research opportunity based on their needs for research training that they potentially could lead with mentorship, that could produce outcomes (e.g., publication and presentation authorship), and that they could add to their curriculum vitaes would outweigh the financial compensation. Finally, graduate students believed that offering such an opportunity as an award rather than as paid employment would add more positively to their curriculum vitae and would help position them for success for future research scholarships and awards.
Graduate Student Research Training Awards provided graduate students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with a research mentor for up to 15 weeks on a research project separate from their thesis or dissertation research. “Soft surplus funds” from the MCNHR budget were used to pilot this program. Graduate students received a $5,000 stipend award, which was competitive and adjudicated based on the following criteria: the quality of the training, mentorship, and experience of the proposed project; and expected goals and outcomes.
Students were required to identify a faculty member who was agreeable to serving as a research mentor. A combination of being both deliberate (e.g., feasible during the tenure of the award) and opportunistic (e.g., availability of existing project or data to work from) guided the choice of the project. Research mentors were integral in guiding students in framing scope and approach for the project, as well as supporting them through to publication of their projects. Faculty mentors knew this would be a lot of work for them; however, they recognized that these awards provided students with a learning opportunity that otherwise was not available to them. These awards were piloted after launching a new PhD program in nursing and at a time when succession planning was a major concern among faculty, which helped garner faculty buy-in for the awards.
The MCNHR received a total of seven applications and was able to offer three awards. The three projects led by the students included a secondary data analysis, a concept analysis, and a scoping review. In choosing their project, students identified experiences that were not part of their program. For one student who was pursuing a qualitative dissertation, gaining exposure to advanced quantitative skills was important, and she sought out a mentor with both strong skills and access to data. For a second student, exposure to the complexities of conducting and publishing a concept analysis, which was not part of her PhD coursework, was seen as critical for a future academic career. For a third student, the opportunity to work on a scoping review that had been started but had stalled matched her desire to gain expertise in systematic review methods.
In addition to hands-on research training with research mentors, successful applicants were given the opportunity to participate in research training workshops and seminars presented by the MCNHR. This award also provided graduate students with the opportunity to be part of a research network that included students, researchers, and technical research staff. The three students shared an office space in a room that included dedicated computer workstations and allowed interaction among themselves so as to foster a vibrant work environment and opportunity to network and dialogue. At the end of the summer, the students shared their experiences in an internally co-sponsored College of Nursing and MCNHR Celebration and Showcase of Student Engagement in Research, which followed the 3-minute thesis competition format.
On completing the summer program, the three students were asked to submit a final report to the MCNHR and were interviewed on their experiences as part of the program evaluation. Written feedback and interviews were independently coded by the authors of this article and consensus was reached on four major themes: confidence and identity, research skills, relationship with a research mentor, and time and intensity. Member checking by having the three award recipients review the themes and this article served to validate the interpretations and accuracy of the representation of their experiences.
Confidence and Identity
The students spoke of the project as improving their confidence in regard to their research abilities. This emerging confidence fostered their identity development as researchers. One student commented, “Like many doctoral students, I experienced imposter syndrome at first. Engaging in the practice of research was what actually made me feel less like an imposter, particularly through establishing a sense of identity in a research community.” Another student reported:
In collating literature on a certain topic, I really came to an understanding of who I was and my own philosophical foundation in this field. The more you delve into a subject area, the more the distinct discourses emerge, and you tend to find yourself identifying with certain ways of thinking. This seems to me an essential component of role development in the research community.
All three students spoke of the value of the opportunity in terms of the wide-ranging research and methodologic skills they gained. One student noted:
Over the process of the project, I honed my critical thinking and reflection skills. Furthermore, I enhanced my understanding of the different approaches for doing a concept analysis.... I really enjoyed participating in this project because it helped me to develop diverse skills that are fundamental for advanced nursing scholarship.
A second student commented:
I think that this research opportunity was especially important for my academic growth as I fast tracked into the doctoral program, and had very little research experience. I had just taken biostatistics, but this course content came alive through working on this project. All of the sudden, I was performing statistical tests on real data, with real issues, and real consequences. The hands-on research experience I have gained through this award has deepened my understanding of the research process.
Relationship With a Research Mentor
Students found it beneficial and rewarding to work with a research mentor in terms of building research and teaching skills, gaining confidence, and challenging and motivating them. The nature of the relationship was different than that of a research assistant and employer as the students were involved in negotiating project design and implementation.
One student reflected on shared power inherent in the research partnership:
Our relationship was very collegial, and we both brought strengths to the project. At times there was no clear or right answer in terms of analysis and interpretation, and we captured both of our interpretations in the final product. This contributed to a sense of ownership and dedication to the project, which was necessary to see it through to publication.
In these projects, the students were not told what to do but rather decided on the approach with their mentors. One student stated:
Although I came up with solutions to challenges independently, my summer research mentor provided insight on what would be the best approach to solve the issue. My confidence increased through having an expert affirm my tentative thoughts and analysis.
Another student commented:
My relationship with my mentor was very important because she helped me to be successful during my project and...I learned teaching styles from her that I would like to use as a future professor or mentor.
Time and Intensity
The students also spoke about the lessons learned, and all three students spoke about time commitment and intensity of the summer project. One student said:
Looking back, I think this research study took more time than I thought it would. I did not anticipate how engaged I would become with this project and how it would take my focus away from my dissertation for the time frame of the award.
A second student said, “This degree of submersion, when coupled with the desire to perform well for my academic advisor, resulted in many more work hours than anticipated.” The time commitment varied, but all three students commented that it was considerably more than a half time commitment and that work on the projects did not end after the 15 weeks. All three students continued to work on the publication from their summer projects after the program ended with ongoing support from their mentors. Although this was considerable work for both the students and mentors, coauthorship on a publication were outcomes that were valuable and meaningful to both parties. The students cautioned future students to be aware of the time commitment needed for their projects and to carefully plan out their projects to ensure that their plans are viable and feasible. However, one student noted, “Sure it took a lot of time, but career researchers always have multiple projects on the go so an additional project helped simulate the real research world.”
Overall, the students found the program to be beneficial to the development of current and future roles in research. One student said, “I consider this a very valuable program, and especially appreciate that the opportunity was framed as an award rather than a summer job.” Another student commented, “I think that this program is very important for enhancing the development of future nursing researchers.... This research opportunity is valuable for doctoral students who are pursuing an academic career with a focus on nursing research.” A similar sentiment was reflected by another student as well, “This experience broadened my graduate experience immensely through...working with a research supervisor who exposed me to concepts and challenges that I will not encounter in my dissertation.”
In terms of outcomes, all three students published a paper with their faculty mentor on their summer projects (Cohen & Marshall, 2016; Londono & McMillan, 2015; Rieger & Heaman, 2016). In summary, one student said, “I...gained a lot from this experience: confidence, research and writing skills, and a publication opportunity.”
The Graduate Student Research Training Awards afforded students an opportunity to develop research and methodologic skills and to achieve outcomes that were student centered. These awards built their capacity as future researchers by both empowering them and increasing their confidence in research. The input and evaluation from graduate students was integral to the success of the program and to supporting future iterations of the program. Although the program was valuable, it also was intensive and time consuming and detracted students from their thesis/dissertation projects. Thus, where students are in the trajectory of their program needs to be considered carefully. Students still in their coursework phase may be the best candidates for these awards.
By offering the awards as a training award, the currency of what students valued was captured. The MCNHR is pursuing opportunities to leverage funding and partner with other organizations that are interested in investing in research training for nursing students; this pilot will help build the case of the value of the program.
Graduate student research training awards can be a valuable experiential learning opportunity in a research-intensive doctoral program. Educators should consult graduate students in designing the awards and work closely with faculty to garner their support for involvement by having students complete good quality projects with appropriate outcomes that benefit both students and faculty.
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