When the University of Central Florida College of Nursing  received approval from the Florida Board of Governors to begin the state’s fifth doctoral program in nursing in spring 2003, it was considered key to solving the state’s shortage of nurses and nurse educators. At that time, it was estimated that 25 percent of nursing faculty members were retiring in the next three years.
Today, 10 years after the first cohort of doctoral students graduated, much has changed and much remains the same.
The initial cohort – and those that have followed – have helped fill the need for nursing faculty by pursuing careers in higher education. But the demand remains critical not only in Florida but nationwide. To meet the needs of the industry and students, the college has continued to evolve the program while remaining committed to preparing nurse scientists through educational excellence.
Igniting a career as faculty and researchers
Plans for the doctoral program were initiated under the leadership of Elizabeth Stullenbarger, DSN, RN, who was at that time the director of the then School of Nursing. Efforts were finalized with graduate coordinator Jean Kijek, PhD, RN, and current dean Mary Lou Sole, PhD, RN, CCNS, CNL, FAAN, FCCM, who presented the program to the Board of Governors while she served as interim director of the school from 2002 to 2003.
The program formally started under the leadership of Jean Leuner, PhD, RN, CNE, FAAN, who assumed the director role in 2003 and later became dean. The PhD nursing program  was created to prepare nurse scientists to be faculty, experts in innovative technologies and executive leaders in health care systems.
Scientists, such as oncology nursing expert Vicki Loerzel ’07PhD, were part of the first cohort. “While I was working as a research nurse on a National Institutes of Health study at UCF, the College of Nursing began the PhD program,” remembers Loerzel. “It was a great choice, as I was able to get a solid foundation in research as an employee and student.”
“It was a brand new program and one-of-a-kind opportunity for me to further my education close to home, affordably and from a well-respected, established institution,” said Martin Schiavenato ’07PhD. “UCF provided the perfect environment for a nurse scientist with a passion for technology to evolve.”
Loerzel and Schiavenato were among the college’s first five PhD graduates in 2007. All are making valuable contributions to nursing as faculty educating future nurses – many in the state of Florida – and to health care through their innovative research. The initial PhD graduates were:
- Nancy R. Ahern, PhD, RN, FNAP, undergraduate associate director and associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington School of Nursing, whose research has addressed risky adolescent behaviors and innovative teaching strategies;
- Kelly Allred, PhD, RN-BC, CNE , clinical associate professor at the UCF College of Nursing, a patent holder and researcher in the field of health care simulation focused on enhancing nursing education and improving patient outcomes;
- Randall Johnson, PhD, RN, chair and associate professor at the University of West Florida School of Nursing, a pediatric nursing expert whose research has focused on reducing respiratory and cardiac emergencies;
- Vicki Loerzel, PhD, RN, OCN , associate professor and endowed professor at the UCF College of Nursing, an oncology nursing expert who is currently working on an NIH funded study to create an interactive ‘game’ for older adults with cancer ; and
- Martin Schiavenato, PhD, RN , associate professor at Washington State University College of Nursing and founder of Little Foot Innovation, an innovator with several patents who is currently developing a sensor to help assess and manage pain in premature newborns.
“In the last decade, the college has awarded 50 doctoral degrees and it all began with these five,” said Mary Lou Sole, dean of the College of Nursing. “It is impressive to see the impact they are already having on nursing’s future through education and innovation, and it is affirming to know it all began here at UCF where their research interests could be fostered and strengthened. They are just a small sample of what our Knight nursing alumni are accomplishing worldwide.”
Evolving to meet a critical need
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), at a time when there is a growing need nationwide for educated nurses, nursing programs are turning away tens of thousands of qualified applicants in part due to faculty shortages. In fact, in a recent survey, AACN identified 1,567 faculty vacancies in nursing programs in the U.S. and an additional 133 faculty positions are needed to accommodate demand – 93 percent of these positions requiring or preferring a doctoral degree.
In 2015, leveraging its strength as one of the nation’s best online graduate programs for nursing, the college created the first and only online PhD program  in Florida specifically designed for nurse scientists.
“We initially offered the doctoral program partially online to meet the needs of working students,” said Donna Neff, PhD, RN, FNAP, associate dean for research and PhD program director at the college. “As the years passed, our students’ needs changed and the market demand continued to grow for nurses with a doctorate degree. That is when we transitioned the program to be fully online to make it more convenient and accessible for students not only in Florida, but in the U.S. and around the world.”
“When I decided to pursue my PhD to shift my career toward research and publication, there were two ‘deal breakers’ for me. The program needed to be fully online and have nurse faculty loan program  funding to make the degree both logistically possible from a distance and financially possible,” said Sharon Imes, MSN, RN, CEN, CCRN, senior clinical lecturer at Indiana University South Bend School of Nursing and current doctoral student at the UCF College of Nursing. “The College of Nursing at UCF offers both of these, and has an outstanding reputation.”
“I have just successfully completed my first course and loved it. The online format is very user-friendly, the synchronous classes are helpful, and the faculty is readily available throughout,” Imes continued. “I am pleasantly invigorated to be a student again, and eager to push forward in the program.”
Launching BSN to PhD to address national faculty shortage
To continue to address the nationwide shortage of nursing faculty and meet growing health care demand, the landmark Institute of Medicine “Future of Nursing” report recommends doubling the number of nurses with a doctorate degree by 2020. In order to increase the number of students pursuing this advanced degree, the college is creating a bachelor’s to doctorate degree program. The new innovative BSN to PhD program , which will launch in summer 2018 with applications due Jan. 15, 2018, will allow students to go straight from a bachelor’s to a doctorate – without the master’s degree.
“Our goal is to encourage more nurses to pursue this advanced degree by allowing them to achieve it in less time with fewer classes and thus, less cost,” said Neff. “The program will also generate younger doctoral graduates, providing these scientists more time and opportunity in their career to conduct research that will ultimately impact patient care.”
Securing more financial aid for doctoral students
The College of Nursing also continually pursues funding to make the degree more financially viable for students. In the last three years, the college has secured nearly $300,000 to fund PhD students, including a grant from the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare  and the Federal Nurse Faculty Loan Program .
“Nurse researchers and faculty are the future of nursing and health care,” Neff continued. “Their innovations, leadership and mentorship are critical to educating the next generation of nurses and solving our world’s complex health care problems.”
“As members of the nursing community, we are committed to its future and the future of health care,” added Sole. “Whether it’s seeking additional scholarship support or expanding our programs to meet market demands, we will continue to play an active role in addressing the critical national need for nursing faculty. I look forward to continuing to see the impact of our PhD Knight nurses in Central Florida and beyond.”