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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

PhD Brochure

Since its inception in 1954, the PhD program in nursing at the University of Pittsburgh has been characterized as pioneering. The University of Pittsburgh was one of the first three schools in the nation to recognize the importance of doctoral preparation in nursing and to offer a Doctor of Philosophy program of study. The School continues to be a trend setter, modifying the curriculum in response to current and future needs and offering both the MSN to PhD and BSN to PhD tracks. The current program ensures that the reputation for timeliness and excellence will continue.

Program Description Comprehensive Examination and Overview
Focal Areas of Research Admission to Candidacy
Purpose and Objectives Dissertation
Program of Study
         BSN to PhD track
         MSN to PhD track
Financial Aid
    Institutional Training Grants
Cancer | Genetics | Technology
Focal Area of Concentration Organizations
Residency Requirements Application Procedure
Milestones Admission Criteria
Preliminary Examination Admission of International Students
Dissertation Committee Readmission
Dissertation Topic Approval Contact Information

Program Description

The PhD program of study provides a coherent series of courses, seminars, and discussions designed to develop in the student a mature understanding of content, methods, and values of the discipline of nursing and its relation to other fields. The curriculum includes courses in history and philosophy of science, theoretical foundations for research, and the structure of knowledge. Additional courses include advanced statistics, advanced quantitative methods, quantitative and qualitative research methods, research emphasis seminars, instrumentation, and several research practica with experienced research mentors. Students work closely with faculty researchers from nursing and other disciplines. The dissertation is the culminating requirement in the course of study.

Doctoral study is rigorous and requires considerable time and energy on the part of both students and faculty. The Doctor of Philosophy Degree requires a distinctive level of performance as a scholar and researcher; this goes beyond an acceptable level of performance in individual courses that comprise the program of study.

Research interests and expertise of doctoral program faculty reflect a diversity of educational backgrounds and research experience. Early in the program, the student selects an area of research emphasis. This research interest needs to match a faculty member's research emphasis. The focal areas of research are in keeping with the goals and mission of the University, its resources and cooperating agencies, and with the expertise of the School of Nursing doctoral faculty.

Focal Areas of Research

The focal areas of research are:

  • Behavioral management of chronic disorders including adherence, self-management, technology, and prevention activities
  • Patient management in critical care including communication, recovery, and end of life care
  • Consumer informatics including education, care management, usability, and health literacy
  • Genetics applications in nursing care focusing on molecular genetics and psychosocial implications
  • Technology for nurses and patients to improve care

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the PhD in nursing degree program is to prepare scholars who will discover and extend scientific knowledge that advances the science and practice of nursing and contributes to other disciplines. Graduates of the PhD program are prepared to:

  1. generate new knowledge through research and testing of theory;
  2. examine the trends and factors that influence the generation of knowledge and its use in health care;
  3. contribute to solutions that advance health care in a culturally diverse society through communication of knowledge to the clinical, public, professional, and scientific communities of interest and public policy makers;
  4. reflect a nursing and interdisciplinary perspective in research and scholarly endeavors.

Program of Study

The post-master's full-time student (MSN to PhD) may complete the program in approximately three to four years beyond the master's degree (64 credits minimum) depending upon the nature and complexity of research for the dissertation. A maximum of 30 credits may be granted from the master's program. The part-time student may complete the program in four to six years. The statute of limitations for completion of the MSN to PhD track is eight consecutive calendar years from the first term of registration for credits that are in the required curriculum plan for the doctoral degree. (MSN to PhD track)

In addition to the requirements for the traditional doctoral program, the BSN to PhD (94 credits minimum) requires selected coursework from the master's program. These courses do not lead to a master's degree but must be completed prior to beginning the 3000 level doctoral courses. Students admitted to the BSN to PhD track are expected to enroll full-time. The statute of limitations for completion of the BSN to PhD track is 10 consecutive calendar years from the first term of registration for credits that are in the required curriculum plan for the doctoral degree. For more information, see Policy 208. Students in the BSN to PhD track are encouraged to pursue a master's degree in nursing. (BSN to PhD track)

Prerequisites to the advanced statistical courses in the curriculum plan include parametric statistical courses which prepare the student in descriptive and inferential statistical analysis. If the student does not possess such statistics background when entering the program, then the parametric statistics sequences offered in the Department of Biostatistics (BIOST 2041 and BIOST 2042) or in the School of Education (PSYED 2018 and PSYED 2019) have to be taken and completed with a minimum of a
B- grade. Students may also fulfill these prerequisites at other universities. An evaluation of the content of a course taken elsewhere must be made by the Director of the PhD Program to determine its comparability with the prerequisite knowledge base needed by all students. Prerequisite statistics course work is reinforced when students enroll in required courses during their doctoral program: a 3-credit course in regression analysis (BIOST 2049 or PSYED 2410 ) and an elective course in either advanced statistics or research methods. The doctoral faculty strongly recommends that students develop knowledge of and experience with word processing, database management, and computerized literature searches prior to applying to the doctoral program.

Focal Area of Concentration:

The PhD program requires a focal concentration of courses (cognates) to be taken outside the School of Nursing to develop an understanding of essential knowledge from related disciplines applicable to a focused area of study in nursing.

  • Consists of a minimum of 12 cognate credits if in MSN to PhD track; minimum of 15 cognate credits if in BSN to PhD track
  • Enables students to take courses in more than one department or school
  • Requires that at least six credits be taken outside the School of Nursing
  • Requires one course to be an advanced statistics/research methods elective
  • Allows for one of the courses in the focal concentration to be an independent study

Residency Requirement

The University Council on Graduate Studies has mandated that students seeking the PhD degree are required to engage in a minimum of one term of full-time doctoral study (a minimum of nine credits), which excludes any other employment except as approved by their departments. The doctoral student must notify the PhD Program Director in writing the term in which this occurs.


  • Preliminary examination
  • Dissertation topic approval
  • Comprehensive examination and overview
  • Admission to candidacy for the PhD degree
  • Dissertation defense

Preliminary Examination

The preliminary examination is taken after completing the following required courses: Theoretical Foundations for Research, Research Methods, Qualitative Research Methods, Seminar on Structure of Knowledge, and all statistics prerequisites. The preliminary examination is designed to assess the student's breadth of knowledge of the discipline of nursing and potential ability to apply research methods independently. Remediation work may be required if deficiencies are identified that may impede the student's success in program completion. For more information, see Policy 230.

Dissertation Committee

The student selects a qualified nursing faculty member with expertise in the area of research focus to guide the research and chair the dissertation committee.

In consultation with the committee chair, the student selects a minimum of three faculty members in addition to the committee chair to serve as dissertation committee members. The majority of the committee, including the major advisor, must be full or adjunct members of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. Three committee members must be faculty in the School of Nursing, at least one must be from another School or department in the University. The dissertation committee must be approved by the PhD Program Director and the Dean.

This dissertation committee has the responsibility to advise the student during the progress of the candidate's research and has the authority to require high-quality research and/or the rewriting of any portion or all of the dissertation. It conducts the final oral examination and determines whether the dissertation meets acceptable standards, see policy 227.

Meetings of the doctoral candidate and his/her dissertation committee must occur at least annually from the time the student gains admission to doctoral candidacy. During these meetings, the committee should assess the student's progress toward the degree and discuss objectives for the following year and a timetable for completing degree requirements.

Membership of the doctoral committee may be changed whenever it is appropriate or necessary, subject to the approval of the PhD Program Director and the Dean.

Dissertation Topic Approval

Dissertation focus must be approved by the student's Dissertation Committee and reported to the PhD Council by the student's dissertation chair before the student can proceed with the selected research. This Dissertation Committee's approval will be based on the appropriateness of the abstract of the planned study to the science of nursing and the match between the School of Nursing faculty and the student's research topic. For more information, see Policy 234.

Comprehensive Examination and Overview

The comprehensive examination assesses the student's mastery of the general field of doctoral study, acquisition of depth and breadth of knowledge in a focused area of study, and the ability to use the research methods of the discipline and is done in conjunction with the overview. No more than nine (9) credits of dissertation may be completed prior to successful completion of the comprehensive examination. The comprehensive examination is taken after completion of all required course work. Overview requires the student to formulate a research plan and to justify the selected approach for studying the topic. For more information, see Policy 235.

Admission to Candidacy

Admission to candidacy for the Doctor of Philosophy degree constitutes a promotion of the student to the most advanced stage of graduate study and provides formal approval to devote essentially exclusive attention to the research and the writing of the dissertation. To qualify for admission to candidacy, students must be in full graduate status, have satisfied the requirement of the preliminary evaluation, have completed formal course work with a minimum quality point average of 3.00, have passed the comprehensive examination, and have received approval of the proposed subject and research plan or overview. Admission to candidacy is granted by the Dean.


Each student must write a dissertation that presents the results of a research project carried out by the student. An appropriate research project involves a substantive piece of original and independent research grounded in an appropriate body of literature. It is relevant to an identifiable field as it is currently practiced. It presents a hypothesis tested by data and analysis and provides a significant contribution or advancement in that field. It is the responsibility of the student's doctoral committee to evaluate the dissertation in these terms and to recommend the awarding of the doctoral degree only if the dissertation is judged to demonstrate these qualities.

Characteristics that a dissertation should demonstrate are: the establishment of an historical context for the presentation of an innovative and creative approach to the problem analysis and solution; a clear understanding of the problem area as revealed by analysis and synthesis of a broad literature base; a well-defined research design; clarity in composition and careful documentation; results of sufficient merit to be published in refereed journals or to form the basis of a book or monograph; sufficient detail so that other scholars can build on it in subsequent work; and the preparation of the author to assume a position within the profession. The date and title of the defense must be submitted to the PhD Program Director one month prior to the final defense so that this event can be announced to the University community, see Policy 227.

Financial Aid

Teaching Fellow, Teaching Assistant, Graduate Student Researcher, and Graduate Student Assistant positions, which provide a stipend and tuition benefits, are available on a competitive basis. Doctoral students are encouraged to apply for individual Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (F31) or for other competitive scholarships from national organizations. Scholarships and grants providing partial tuition support are available subject to funding. Doctoral students may also qualify for loans or predoctoral minority supplements for further financial assistance. For more information, see the Graduate Students section of the School of Nursing Web site.

Students can also apply for predoctoral fellowships through one of the School's funded institutional training grants (T32).

Institutional Training Grants


PhD Council is responsible for planning, implementing, and evaluating the PhD program, as well as admitting, advising, and monitoring the progression of doctoral students. This Council is comprised of faculty approved for membership in the University Council on Graduate Study and a representative from the Doctoral Nursing Student Organization. The Council is chaired by the PhD Program Director.

The Doctoral Nursing Student Organization (DNSO) is the student governance organization for PhD students and exists for the benefit of those nursing students. Doctoral students are automatically members of DNSO upon registration for graduate courses. The DNSO offers a program of professional and social activities for its members.

Application Procedure

All applicants must complete the online application. Each applicant submits the following:

  1. Completed online application form
  2. Application fee
  3. Complete official transcripts of all undergraduate and graduate work
  4. Admission test scores (see following sections)
  5. Three letters of reference
  6. Personal essay indicating professional goals, focal area of research, and implications for global health and a second writing sample on which the applicant is the primary author.

After all admission materials have been submitted, each applicant will be personally interviewed by three members of the PhD Council unless great distance is an obstacle. In that case, telephone interviews will be used.

The PhD program follows a FALL TERM ONLY COHORT ADMISSIONS process. Applicants to the PhD program have two deadlines for submitting applications, February 1st and May 1st. Complete applications received by February 1st will be reviewed  and admission decisions made prior to June 1st. Whereas, complete applications received by May 1st will be reviewed and admission decisions made by June 30th. International applicants need to apply by February 1st in order to allow sufficient time for obtaining relevant documents. Application decisions (except for international applicants) will be communicated electronically (by e-mail).

Qualified applicants are admitted without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, disability, or status as a disabled veteran or a veteran of the Vietnam era. For more information, see Policy 231.

Admission Criteria

Applicants to the MSN to PhD track must have an appropriate master's degree. Some advanced nursing preparation is required. Additional course work may be required when the degree is in a field other than nursing. When the master's degree is in nursing, the student must have earned it from an NLN or CCNE accredited program in nursing.

Applicants to the BSN to PhD track must have a baccalaureate degree in nursing from an NLN or CCNE accredited program of nursing. These applicants may have modifications to the criteria listed below and will be evaluated individually by PhD Council.

All applicants must have:

  • A baccalaureate degree in nursing from an NLN, CCNE, ACICS or ACEN program in nursing
  • A cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher from a master's program.
  • Valid registered nurse license.
  • A pre-admission interview. If the applicant resides at a great distance, a telephone interview may be substituted.
  • Three letters of reference attesting to the applicant's capacity and potential for doctoral study. Two references should be from academic sources and one from a recent employer.
  • Competitive GRE scores taken within the last 5 years.
  • Prerequisite graduate-level statistics courses.
  • Evidence of an ability to communicate in writing that includes an essay addressing goals, focal area of research, and implications for global health and a second writing sample.

Applicants who do not meet all of the criteria may be admitted with provisional status. Please refer to Policy 231.

Graduate Clearances

All admitted students are required to submit Act 33, 34 and 78 clearances completed within 3 months of admission.

Admission of International Students

All applicants must complete the online application. International applicants should also refer to

Applications from international students are reviewed according to the PhD program admission criteria stated above. International applicants need to apply by February 1st in order to allow sufficient time for obtaining relevant documents. The application must be completed in English and accompanied by official academic credentials with notarized English translations. A doctoral applicant must have evidence of the receipt of a degree comparable to the American master's degree for admission to the MSN to PhD track or a degree comparable to the American baccalaureate degree for admission to the BSN to PhD track. The official transcripts must show all high school and post-high school work, including grades in each course, examination grades and standing in examinations and classes, and whatever other credentials are available to give a clear description of the student's academic accomplishments.

International students may not register until non-academic clearance has been issued by the University Office of International Services (OIS). It is especially important that the student have adequate financial support.

After final admission, the School of Nursing reserves the right, even after arrival and enrollment, to require, at the student's expense if necessary, individual curricular adjustments whenever particular deficiencies or needs are found. This could include enrollment in courses prerequisite to the regular course of study or additional course work in English as a second language.

To facilitate the educational experience and to help the student adjust to the United States, the University offers the support of the Office of International Services, 706 William Pitt Union, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Please refer to Policy 201.


A new/readmitted student who did not register in the term of admission/readmission is considered inactive and must receive permission from the PhD program director to be readmitted and to register for a subsequent term.

A student who has not registered for three consecutive terms (one calendar year) will be transferred automatically to inactive status. The student must file an application for readmission to graduate study and pay the application fee before being permitted to register again. While on inactive status, a student is not eligible to use the University facilities and should not expect to receive counseling by the faculty or active supervision by his/her advisor and committee. Readmission is not automatic nor does it necessarily reinstate the student in the status enjoyed prior to becoming inactive. Readmitted students must meet all current admission and degree requirements. A student may not be readmitted for the term in which he or she resigned. Please refer to Policy 216.

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This page was last modified on Mon Aug 04 16:44:50 EDT 2014.