Research in Gerontological Nursing

Editorial Free

Why Become a Gerontological Nurse Researcher?

Christine R. Kovach, PhD, RN, FAAN

This issue of Research in Gerontological Nursing launches a yearly State of the Science Commentary to update the professional community on the state of science for one aspect of gerontological nursing research. This contribution to the scientific discussion is designed to review progress, chart the course of future research, and coalesce priorities. The focus of the 2013 Commentary is nonpharmacological interventions—an area of leadership and priority for nursing science. The Commentary is written by an esteemed group of experts:

  • Ann M. Kolanowski, PhD, RN, FGSA, FAAN, Elouise Ross Eberly Professor of Nursing, School of Nursing, The Pennsylvania State University.
  • Barbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP, FAAN, FAANP, Professor, University of Maryland School of Nursing.
  • Cornelia Beck, PhD, RN, FAAN, Professor, Department of Nursing, College of Medicine, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
  • Patricia A. Grady, PhD, RN, FAAN, Director, National Institute of Nursing Research, National Institutes of Health.

In addition, Alice Bonner, PhD, RN, FAANP, Director of the Division of Nursing Homes, Survey and Certification Group, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) provides a response to the Commentary and describes current partnered initiatives with CMS to promote effective, nonpharmacological interventions for the care of people with dementia. I welcome comments from readers on this new feature, as well as topical suggestions for future State of the Science Commentaries.

This is a good time to alert readers to the annual Gerontological Nursing Academic Capacity Survey, which will be available in mid-January in the Resources section of the National Hartford Centers of Gerontological Nursing Excellence (formerly known as Building Academic Geriatric Nursing Capacity) website at The annual survey is a compilation of graduate programs in gerontological nursing aimed at two professional audiences: (a) nurses seeking doctoral programs or postdoctoral fellowships in this area, and (b) young researchers seeking employment at a school with strength in gerontological nursing.

The Commentary and Survey remind us of our pressing need to continue building the pool of doctorally prepared nurses with the capacity to conduct research and the Institute of Medicine’s (2011) recommendation to double the number of nurses with a doctorate by 2020. Since I have been a passionate advocate for careers in gerontological nursing research, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on some of the reasons a career that combines a fruitful program of research with an academic life is a good option for people who have an analytical and inquiring mind.

  1. Research gives you tremendous freedom to stretch ideas about what is possible and take some risks by proposing new and bold ideas. It is a luxury of science to begin with the question “How can we?”, rather than being limited by the very real health care issues in institutions, such as “What is the risk factor, regulation, or market tolerance associated with this?” In practical terms, it means that, for inquisitive minds, work does not seem that different from play. Writing a good, competitive research proposal creates a sense of stimulation similar to mastering a golf swing or learning to bring those tomato plants to fruition in short Wisconsin summers.

  2. We have the freedom to not know the answer, to live with a lot of ambiguity, to fail to support our hypotheses, and to work in a manner such that asking questions is often more important than finding answers. Becoming comfortable with our limitations as human beings helps us to be better people in relationship with others and the world.

  3. Research results lead you to new and unexpected areas of inquiry. Practice problems are often solved by answering questions, but discoveries follow a different path. Discoveries are often made by asking questions of your research, being open to exploring the unexpected and serendipitous finding, and allowing the research findings to steer you into new and unknown terrain. In this manner, your work life is ever changing. There is no stagnation or monotony but continued growth and collaboration with new partners. Hence, you are less likely to feel burned out or, to adopt the often-used colloquialism in academia, become “dead wood.”

  4. Teaching has an inherent pattern of beginnings and endings and provides the satisfaction of starting work with a new class or student and seeing the growth and transformation that can occur within a limited time frame. Developing a program of studies that unfolds over years has a trajectory that provides the satisfaction of building, growth, and refinement. Processes and endpoints change and become modified by increased complexity and unexpected findings.

  5. You have the opportunity to construct the job you want. Here is the formula that I think represents a realistic pursuit: Your passion + Funding + What your institution needs = The job you want. If you are able to frame what you are passionate about into tangible work that meets your organization’s needs and is funded, you can spend most of your work life teaching, practicing, and researching your passion. Academic life also requires service to your school, but this work can help create and sustain the resources and academic climate that foster research.

  6. Programs of research today, particularly in gerontology, are highly interdisciplinary and necessitate collaborations with other experts who know more than you about a particular aspect of your topic. In my experience, these smart folks have traits that also make them interesting to work with—a fundamental curiosity, the patience and persistence needed to cope with delayed gratification, critical thinking skills, and good communication.

  7. You learn to respect creativity, innovation, and originality. For example, while I understand little about hip-hop music, I appreciate that this art form is innovative and pushes boundaries. I also appreciate that scientists working in particle physics recognize that the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson particle is a “game changer” in their field. Similarly, in our field the aging demographic imperative, complexity of multiple co-existing illnesses, blunted and atypical symptom presentation, varied and often long trajectories of illness all create mandates for innovation. Such issues challenge this generation of scientists to be facile in thinking of new and more efficient and effective ways to provide needed services.

  8. You may serve in leadership roles that are new and unexpected. Your expertise in a specific area of health care makes your input and perspectives attractive to policy makers, legal teams, journalists, and varied practice organizations. Getting involved in international, national, or regional initiatives allows you to advocate for others, to share nursing perspectives, and to consider varied leadership and career opportunities.

  9. You can experience the rewards of developing the next generation of scientists and discoveries. In the process of mentoring others, you are exposed to the energy and fresh perspectives of the emerging talent pool. Mentoring is a way to give back to your profession and, in many cases, to see some of the seeds from your research germinate and grow into new innovations or scientific advancements.

  10. A program of gerontological nursing research that begins as a small area of inquiry may result in practice and policy changes that have a large impact. It is gratifying to know that the work you are doing may influence in a positive and important way the lives of many people you will never know.

This list is not exhaustive but presents some of my current thoughts on the personal benefits of a research career in an academic center. There are also benefits to such careers conducted in health care settings and other organizations. Of course, the ultimate payoff of gerontological nursing research is improved care for older adults.

Christine R. Kovach, PhD, RN, FAAN


The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.


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