Nursing is a learning profession. Working in a complex and changing environment, nurses are constantly learning on the job and, increasingly, in college classrooms.
The Institute of Medicine’s landmark 2010 “The Future of Nursing” report recommended that more nurses earn baccalaureate degrees. That has spurred new RN-to-BSN programs and increased enrollment in existing programs. Master’s and doctoral degree programs are also growing, as nurses aim to move into independent practice, informatics, management, research or teaching roles.
In 2012, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s RN Work Project found motivators that cause nurses to go back to school, including career and professional advancement, gaining knowledge, improving social welfare skills and being a positive role model for their children.
All of those reasons apply to Marie Gay, manager of clinical operations for the medicine service line at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She holds a clinical nurse specialist degree, is enrolled in a second master’s degree program and just applied to Georgia State University’s new DNP program. If accepted, she’s planning to take the nursing leadership track. If not, she’ll continue in Georgia State’s master’s degree program in nursing leadership and health care innovations.
“I do enjoy learning,” said Gay, MSN, RN-BC, who decided to become a nurse after her undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology led to a waitress job at Pizza Hut.
“My mom was a nurse, and she’d never had any trouble finding a job, so I got my nursing degree in 1982,” Gay said.
A summer job as a patient care technician in a children’s hospital when Gay was in nursing school sold her on pediatrics.
Gay, who was working weekends in intensive care and was married with two young children, went back for her master’s degree from 1993 to 1996.
Gay took on an educator role in the emergency room and has since moved into other staff education assignments. In 2012, she enrolled in a second master’s degree program.
“I’d been in a leadership position for five years and knew I needed more tools in my tool box,” she said. “It’s changed how I approach teams and projects. I’ve been able to apply what I’m learning almost immediately, so when my professors told me about the new DNP program, I thought, 'Why not try for it?’ ”
A doctorate degree in nursing practice aligns with Gay’s desire to do even more within the hospital system.
“I didn’t want a traditional Ph.D., because I’m not interested in an academic setting or doing heavy-duty research,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to provide optimal care and have a positive impact on the lives of children.”
Gay is excited that so many nurses are returning to school. “We need highly skilled nurses at the bedside and if anyone wants to advance in the profession, they almost have to have a master’s degree now.”
While it’s challenging to balance work, school and family, Gay encourages nurses to go for it.
“The benefits far outweigh the costs,” she said.