How Professional Doctorates are empowering nurses and midwives to lead

Helen Aveyard

In our latest ‘Innovators’ blog, Dr Helen Aveyard writes about how Oxford Brookes University are empowering nurses and midwives to become researchers.

“In 2021, The Chief Nursing Officer for England, Ruth May, published the Strategic Plan for Research which outlines the intention to ‘create a research environment that empowers nurses to lead, participate in and deliver research, where research is fully embedded in practice and professional decision-making, for public benefit’.

Four years previously, and almost as if in anticipation, we launched our Professional Doctorate in Nursing at Oxford Brookes University. The professional doctorate in Midwifery followed shortly after.

At the time of writing, our first cohort of professional doctorate students are preparing for, or following up on their vivas, in which they discuss and defend their projects. It has been a long journey, during which they have had to negotiate the challenges of the Covid epidemic affecting their studies and, in many cases, impacting their roles as leading senior nurses in our NHS.

Five themes

The Chief Nursing Officer outlined five themes which should underpin the research strategy: alignment with public need, release of nurses’ research potential, building the best research system, developing future nurse leaders of research and ensuring digitally enabled nurse-led research.  Reflecting on our approach to the doctorate, there is much congruence in what we are trying to achieve.

Ensuring that research is aligned with public need, all of our doctoral students enter the programme with a plan for their research which is derived from their own sphere of practice.

For example, Buyanga (2023) undertook a study to extend our understanding of why patients are often malnourished whilst in hospital. Buyanga explored how the way mealtimes are managed within an acute ward might explain the ongoing challenge of malnutrition in hospital (Buyanga 2023). Buyanga identified a culture where management of meal times is largely delegated to unqualified staff and indicates that where nurses  do not provide leadership and role modelling at mealtimes, inadequate nutritional intake can be the consequence. Whilst the delegation of supporting patients at mealtimes to unqualified staff might seem reasonable, Buyanga (2023) emphasises the importance of    leadership from nurses who are trained and have professional responsibility in this area.

In another project, Ayres (2023) identified an attitude deficit rather than a knowledge deficit. Ayres explored the experiences of assault on mental health nurses working in inpatient settings. Due to the normalisation of such assaults, nurses’ experiences often go unacknowledged, and in many cases, they are left feeling worthless, anxious and ashamed. Many cite this as a reason for leaving their roles or the profession altogether. Addressing this lack of attention to the way that these assaults are conceptualised and responded to has the potential to improve the retention of nurses where they are badly needed.

The strategic plan refers to releasing the potential of nurses for doing research and to build up systems to enable them to do so. Our doctorate illustrates how we are doing this, and the two examples of high quality practitioner based research demonstrates the clear potential for impact on patient outcomes and staff experience.

At one point in their studies, we asked the cohort for some feedback on the course. They told us how the doctorate had given them an understanding of research that had changed their approach to their professional practice. Without exception, they wished that they had commenced such a programme earlier in their careers.

Confident researchers

At the end of the course, confident researchers had emerged. Our soon-to-be doctoral graduates told us that they have supported the research endeavours of others, been invited onto research advisory groups, and have given international presentations and seminars.

Our graduates will use the skills gained throughout the doctorate in their roles within the NHS, contributing to the future leadership of research. As such we have contributed to another aim stated in the strategic plan: to develop nurse leaders in research.

Any doctoral level study is primarily self-directed, and our students have developed skills in undertaking independent research that are transferable into the clinical academic setting. The doctorate has enabled students to bring research understanding and experience of research delivery into their roles, making them ‘researching professionals’ (Bourner et al 2001).

We are proud of what they have achieved and how our programme has contributed to the national strategic plan. We hope that their continued testimony and their onward research journey will inspire others to be part of this too.”

Helen is also author of the bestselling textbooks ‘Doing literature review in health and social care’ and co-author of ‘ A postgraduate’s guide to doing a literature review in health and social care’ both published by Open University Press



Further reading