Ever wonder what it’s like to work toward a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)? Or how to balance going back to school with your family or busy work schedule? We sat down with Dr. Jessica Sullivan—a two-time Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN) graduate and MCN’s family nurse practitioner (FNP) sequence leader for the DNP program—to learn more about how the FNP sequence of the program is structured and who should consider earning a DNP.

Some takeaways

  • It takes adaptability, flexibility, organization, time management, and a positive attitude.
  • Small class sizes and caring faculty give students the support they need to balance it all.
  • Hybrid learning (both online and in-person courses) allows for flexibility and accessibility while still getting the hands-on experience necessary for advanced practice.
  • Most students still work as a nurse while in the BSN to DNP program.
  • The DNP is becoming the minimum requirement for all advanced practice nursing jobs.
  • You can work on your final DNP project at your place of work.

Learn more from our video interview or the transcript below.

On earning her FNP and DNP: Luck, organization, and mentorship

Bryanna Tidmarsh (BT): Just to start us off: not only are you the FNP sequence leader, but you are also a double MCN grad, having earned your FNP and DNP degrees here. So, why did you choose MCN twice?

Jessica Sullivan (JS): Well, to be honest, the first time was strictly by luck.

My husband and I were born and raised in Indianapolis. We moved to Bloomington in 2004 after we both finished our undergraduate degrees. At that point, I was working as a full-time nurse. When I decided I wanted to go back for my master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner, it was luck that MCN was here in town. Being from Indiana, I didn’t know much about ISU or the Mennonite College of Nursing. I lucked into the program, and it was amazing.

The previous FNP sequence leader—Dr. Denise Wilson—was a huge mentor for me as I went through the program and then even over the last—oh, gosh, 13 or 14 years that we’ve known each other. So when I decided to return to get my DNP, there was no question. I knew immediately that I wanted to do my DNP at MCN, and I was lucky enough to be offered admission into the program.

FNP sequence leader Jessica Sullivan with her family

BT: I love that. So, what was life in the DNP program like for you?

JS: For the first year or so, I was practicing full time, and then in 2018 I transitioned to teaching full time and practicing just one day a week.

I was working full time the whole time I was in the program. First, I was practicing full-time as a family nurse practitioner at a family practice office here in town. Then, about halfway through the DNP program, I transitioned to my current role: I started teaching full-time in the FNP program and then entered into my role as the FNP sequence leader.

BT: What was it like balancing work, family, and school?

JS: It was a lot of work! Also, at the time, I had a six year old.  It took a lot of organization. I was committed, though, and I felt really passionate about my project. I knew that it would be worth it.

It really was doable. The faculty and staff at MCN are so supportive, and I felt very supported by my fellow DNP students as well. It required a lot of work and organization, but we got through it!

On why the DNP is worth it

BT: Who do you think should consider earning a DNP?

JS: The DNP degree is practice-focused, while the PhD is research-focused. We focus more on using the existing research and evidence to change practice.

Anyone who is interested in quality improvement, improving health care for patients, changing the health care system, or becoming a health care leader should consider getting a DNP for sure. 

“Anyone who is interested in quality improvement, improving health care for patients, changing the health care system, or becoming a health care leader should consider getting a DNP.”

BT: What are the benefits to earning a DNP?

JS: Well I can speak personally to the benefits that it really provided for me.

I believe that I gained a lot of leadership skills throughout the DNP program. I felt more comfortable reaching out to network with different leaders in health care and in the community, to be honest. I just felt more connected to the health care system—really, locally and nationally, through the different activities I did during the DNP program. I definitely strengthened my leadership skills.

Another big thing for me is that I feel like it widened the lens that I use to view health care. As an FNP, even after seven or eight years of practicing full-time, I still focused mostly on the individual when I was thinking about changes that I wanted to make. With the DNP degree, I now have more of a system-wide focus—a wider lens. I’m thinking more about the health care system as a whole, as well as population health—things that I can do on a broader level to make more of an impact on my patients. 

BT: What does a DNP add to an FNP program?

JS: For me, it added a lot more experience in developing my leadership skills.

Also, you take a finance course, so I learned more about health care budgeting and finance, as well as more about developing and performing quality improvement projects. I really developed more of a population health focus than a focus just on the individual patient.

During the FNP program, I learned so much about assessing patients, diagnosing them, and treating them. That’s the focus of the FNP program. But when you continue onto the DNP program, you take that knowledge and you’re able to apply it on a broader scale to really make huge changes in the health care system.

“During the FNP program, I learned so much about assessing patients, diagnosing them, and treating them. That’s the focus of the FNP program. But when you continue onto the DNP program, you take that knowledge and you’re able to apply it on a broader scale to really make huge changes in the health care system.”

On what to expect from MCN’s DNP program: Support, organization, and flexibility

BT: So for incoming students coming into this student, what can they expect from here at MCN?

JS: Well, first and foremost, I think they can expect to be really supported and encouraged. The faculty and staff have been phenomenal. They’re wonderful to work with. I’ve worked with them as a student and now as a colleague. We have a very approachable faculty who are very supportive and very student-focused.

It is a rigorous program, which every program should be. We have high standards. You will do a lot of work, including a lot of reflection about what your beliefs are about health care and how you can improve yourself and improve the health care system as a whole. It takes a lot of organizational skills as well.

BT: How is the DNP program structured?

JS: It depends on the track, so I’ll speak to the FNP track, which I’m the sequence leader for.

When you first start the BSN to DNP, you start by taking core courses: things like epidemiology, research, theory—those really foundational courses for every advanced practice nurse.

And then from there [on the FNP track] you get into the family nurse practitioner courses. Those core courses are all online. And then when students get into the FNP-specific courses, those are in person. You start with doing your advanced physical assessment course—which is held in person—and there’s a lab associated with that. Next, you take advanced pathophysiology. Then you get into the advance pharmacology course and the clinical courses.

Once students get into those FNP clinical courses, there’s lecture—where you’re learning the content of different diseases and health promotion, disease prevention—and then you also have a clinical component for that. You’re in the office with a preceptor—a physician or a nurse practitioner—actually hands-on assessing patients and participating in their plan.

Then, once you finish those FNP-specific courses, you move into the bulk of the DNP courses, which are all online.

So, to recap: you start online, then you’re in-person for the FNP. After you finish the FNP courses, you go into the scholarly project courses, followed by the evidence-based practice course. You start to really refine your scholarly project, which is the big project—the outcome of the DNP program. Those courses are all online. Most students will do their scholarly project at the place where they’re employed, so it becomes a lot more flexible at that point.

BT: Could you talk more about the hybrid aspect of MCN’s program? You touched on it a little bit. How often do students have to be on campus? And also, why are those classes on campus? Why is it so important to get that on-campus experience?

JS: I think about that a lot as the sequence leader and as we move forward to possibly expanding. We’re always looking at being innovative at how we do things. So, those family nurse practitioner courses that are in person, we really feel strongly about having the students together in a space learning. Learning can and does happen online, but there is something that’s added by learning from one another and developing those relationships—and really that support—in person.

For example, take our physical assessment course. The students take that before they start their clinical rotations. It’s really important for them to be hands-on for that course because they are learning enhanced health assessment skills. You can practice at home; as an undergrad, I remember practicing on an orange doing an injection. But these are advanced assessment skills that you really need to be able to practice and be evaluated by someone who is an expert in these advanced assessment skills. For these reasons, we really feel strongly about that physical assessment course being in person.

And then when we get into the family nurse practitioner clinical courses, it’s just about building a community. I feel like the engagement is better when people are on campus. In fact, when we do our interviews through our admission process for the FNP program, a lot of students say that that’s one of the reasons they chose to apply to MCN: because it’s really important for them to have those in-person classes.

BT: what do you think is the benefit of having the BSN to DNP program rather than just separate master’s and DNP programs?

JS: Nationally, the focus for the last seven years has been on transitioning to the doctorate as the minimum degree required to practice as an advanced practice nurse.

The original goal was to make the doctorate a minimum by 2015, and that didn’t happen. Then the goal was moved to 2025. Now, the field is trying to transition all master’s FNP programs to doctoral programs so we can meet that goal of having the doctorate as the entry to practice for all advanced practice nurses. The certified registered nurse and anesthetist are already there; they are requiring the doctorate for their CNRA graduates.

There are a couple of reasons behind this shift. First, it’s the terminal degree in the field; you literally cannot get a higher degree than a doctorate in nursing, whether that’s a PhD or DNP. Second, it really helps you to develop as a provider—to be more of a leader and to be a change-agent for health care, within the whole system.

Nationally, this is a big push, and I’m really glad that we’re on board with it because it’s a really important initiative. 

On going the long haul: Why the BSN to DNP, and why do it now?

BT: What would you say to a student—someone fresh out of undergrad—who is considering going back for a master’s degree. That is, what would you say to someone who is questioning whether to commit themselves to a full BSN-DNP program—not just going for a master’s, but going the long haul?

JS: Well I would say that we need nurse scientists. We need nurse leaders. We need these people now.

“We need nurse scientists. We need nurse leaders. We need these people now.”

Remembering back to my time graduating with my bachelors and going into full time practice as a nurse, you get into a routine. I loved being a nurse. When you get into practice as an RN and you have a family or other commitments, it is difficult to transition to going back to school. A lot of times, people end up not going back to school, or they end up putting it off for quite a while. 

Our thinking is: why not just start right away? We will have those nurse scientists, nurse leaders, advanced practice nurses so much sooner than if they practice as an RN for a while and then try to return to school.

I think most people realize that continuing on makes things easier. When you’re in that school mode, you don’t have to have that transition. We want nurse scientists and nurse leaders who are passionate and committed. One way to do that is to just continue on: commit to doing the DNP.

I would also say that even if you go straight into a BSN-DNP program, there are still opportunities for them to work as a nurse. Our programs are flexible. Most of my FNP students do continue to work on some level—either part time or as a PRN—and some continue to work full time on the weekends. Starting into the BSN-DNP program doesn’t preclude them from working as a nurse.

BT: I think that’s actually super important to know because I think a lot of students are really eager to get onto the floor—

JS: Yep!—

BT: and worry they won’t get that experience if they’re in school for so long. So I’m sure it can be reassuring to know that they will get those opportunities and that valuable practice experience.

JS: And the other thing that’s really nice about the structure of our program is we are really intentional about getting those FNP courses completed at the front-end of the BSN-DNP program. That way, after they finish the FNP courses, students can go ahead and take their certification exam and get their APRN—their advanced practice registered nurse license—and can start practicing as an FNP while they continue on to do the rest of the DNP program. There might be parts of the BSN-DNP when they have to cut back on practice a little bit, but most people continue to work in some capacity throughout the program.

On advice for incoming DNP students

BT: What advice do you have for incoming DNP students?

JS: At the top of the list would be to be flexible and adaptable—and to come in with a positive attitude. It’s going to be a lot of work in a different way than you are used to doing in the past, especially in the DNP courses. It’s a lot of thinking and reflection. You need an openness to a new way of learning, for sure.

So those are the more abstract: flexibility, adaptability, openness, positivity.

But then when we talk about concrete things: I would say organization and time management for sure. If you are not organized, do some work to get yourself organized. It is a lot to manage, especially if you’re working. But we’ve graduated so many successful graduates from our program, so it is doable.

On what makes MCN special

BT: What do you think makes our DNP program at MCN so special? In other words, why MCN?

JS: So many reasons. The support, approachability, and expertise of the faculty—all of the faculty throughout all of the programs at MCN. It’s really important for students to feel supported and encouraged.

Another great benefit of the programs at MCN is that the classes are small. There is a more personal feel. You really get to know your classmates and your faculty on a deeper level.

And then I really think the program is very flexible, so that hybrid approach to the program makes it more accessible to more people.

BT: if students want to seek out more information, where would you recommend that they go?

JS: For more information about the program, the website is phenomenal. There’s so much information about the program in general as well as how to apply, and there is a contact email on the website. That email is checked very frequently, and then those questions are filtered out to the person who has the most information. A lot of times, that’s me and I will reply.

Our graduate advisor is full of great knowledge about the program as well. So if you contact us through the website, you will get a personal response from us. We’re always happy to answer any questions.

BT: Well Jessica thank you so much for sharing space with me today and sharing your experience with the DNP program. 

JS: Thank you!

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