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Doctoral Degrees Gain Steam in Healthcare Industry

Advanced studies are now de rigueur for pros from pharmacists to audiologists.

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Unlike physical therapy doctoral students, who graduate with a generalist degree, advanced practice nurses specialize in one of a number of areas, such as nurse practitioner/family practice, nurse midwifery, and health management and policy. There are currently 182 accredited doctor of nursing practice programs in 42 states plus the District of Columbia. Thanks to the impressive and growing demand for advanced practice nurses, an additional 101 programs are in the planning stages, says Potempa.

Many D.N.P. programs now are conducted at least in part online; indeed, some require only occasional visits to campus. This can be a boon, especially for working students who live in states that don't have a D.N.P. program. According to a 2011 survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 32 D.N.P. programs were offered completely online, while 78 offered at least half of their program that way.

[See the U.S. News honor roll of online nursing programs.]

Many D.N.P. programs incorporate online coursework even for students who live near campus. That's what Allison Bruner discovered when she enrolled at the University of Florida's program in Gainesville in 2009 after getting her bachelor's in nursing there in 2006 and working for three years in hospital and outpatient settings in the Washington, D.C., area.

"I like classroom interaction, but I've been pretty impressed with how they try to facilitate online learning," she says. "We end up having good discussions even though nobody can see each other." Bruner chose the family nurse practitioner track because she prefers an outpatient setting to acute care and hopes to work with all types of patients.

Since doctoral degrees won't be expected of nurses in her field until at least 2015, Bruner could have exited the three-year doctoral program with a master's degree after five semesters rather than continuing for the additional three, leaving the decision about getting a D.N.P. until later.

But "I have a long career ahead of me," she says. "I wanted to be prepared. I didn't want to go back to school when I was older and ready to start a family." And she thinks there's no doubt that a more demanding role is the future of nursing.

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