Montana State University’s College of Nursing is making history this year as the first and only institution in the state of Montana to offer a doctoral degree in nursing.
The first class of 24 students in the College of Nursing’s new doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree program began coursework last fall and is slated to graduate in spring 2016. Classes are taken primarily online, with teleconference and videoconference used to supplement content. In addition to 83 credits that are needed for graduation, the degree requires students to complete 1,125 hours in clinical settings. Students in the program choose from one of two options: family and individual nurse practitioner or psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner. Mirroring a national trend, the doctoral program will replace several master’s-level nursing programs that have been offered at MSU since 1957.
Offering the degree is an important step for health care in Montana, according to Donna Williams, associate dean for research and graduate education in the MSU College of Nursing. Williams calls the new doctoral program a “degree for the times,” and said that addressing health care needs, particularly in rural areas, is a huge challenge – one that the College of Nursing is tackling head-on.
“All of Montana is considered a medically underserved state,” Williams said. “The beautiful thing about nursing is that most nurses tend to stay in the community, so essentially, these nurses will be able to bring an advanced level of education back to their neighbors.”
Statistics show, Williams added, that approximately 85 percent of nurses educated in Montana will stay in the state to work.
The number of students who applied to the program is evidence of its demand. Williams said the College of Nursing received 95 applications for admission to its graduate-level programs this year, which include the doctoral degree as well as a master’s-level clinical nurse leader program. Only 30 students were admitted to the two programs, with the vast majority being admitted to the doctoral program.
“It’s safe to say there is a huge demand,” Williams said.
She added that there has been overwhelming support for implementing the doctoral program, from potential students to nursing faculty to university leaders and hospital administrators in the region – several of whom had requested a program of the kind to help meet their community’s needs.
Terryn Martin, 27, is one of the students who enrolled in the doctor of nursing practice program. She said the program’s online course offerings provide a great deal of flexibility, and she credits the nursing faculty for delivering course content in a creative, effective way.
Originally from Billings, Martin received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from MSU in 2008. She then began working in a neonatal intensive care unit in Billings and, later, as a mentor through the MSU College of Nursing’s Caring For Our Own program. She said she loves her work as a nurse, and she sees the doctoral degree as a step toward additional opportunities.
“Nursing in general opens up a ton of different avenues, and the DNP program opens up even more,” Martin said. “After finishing the program, I’m excited to be able to work as a nurse practitioner, or to teach.”
Martin added that she intends to continue living and working in Montana after completing the program.
For its part, the College of Nursing views employing nurse practitioners as an effective way to help address primary care health care needs in many communities and take care of a wide array of health care concerns.
“Nurse practitioners can absolutely set up a clinic and take care of a population,” Williams said. “They are educated to think about prevention and health promotion as well as deal with chronic conditions. They have a huge impact.
“We have a vision that more and more, primary care needs will be shouldered by doctorally prepared advanced practice nurses,” Williams added.
Williams called adding the degree a “historic moment” for the College of Nursing at MSU.
“We’re living through one of those tiny little arrows on a timeline,” Williams said. “To offer the first doctoral degree in the state of Montana for nurses will change the face of advanced practice nursing across the state, and probably pretty quickly.”
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