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. Sandra Scheidenhelm—a three-time Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN) graduate and MCN’s leadership sequence leader for the DNP program—to learn more about how the leadership sequence of the program is structured and who should consider earning a DNP.

Some takeaways

  • The DNP is becoming the minimum requirement for all advanced practice nursing jobs.
  • A DNP is worth it for nurses at all levels in the profession: whether it’s at the bedside, in administration, or in different health care facilities.
  • Online learning provides flexibility and accessibility, allowing nurses with full-time jobs and families to pursue the DNP.
  • Most students still work as a nurse while in the BSN to DNP program.
  • You can work on your final DNP project at your place of work.
  • While nurses with Ph.D.s conduct research on best practices, nurses with DNPs are on the front lines implementing these best practices.

Learn more from our video interview or the transcript below.

The DNP is all about improving patient outcomes—taking that science that our Ph.D. colleagues have added to the body of knowledge and translating it into practice.

DR. Sandy Scheidenhelm

Bryanna Tidmarsh (BT): Hello! My name is Bryanna Tidmarsh. I’m the editorial writer for the Mennonite College of Nursing at Illinois State University. I’m sitting down today with Dr. Sandy Scheidenhelm, MCN’s leadership sequence leader for the doctorate of nursing practice program. Sandy, thanks so much for sitting down with me.

Sandra Scheidenhelm (SS): You’re welcome. Good morning!

On circling back to MCN

BT: I’d love to hear about your journey to MCN and how you came to your current role as sequence leader.

SS: Sure. Well, I graduated from Mennonite School of Nursing back in 1980 and received my diploma. I went to another university to get my bachelor’s degree, and then I returned to Mennonite for my master’s and then my doctorate degree. About a year and a half ago, Dr. Teresa Valerio retired from her position as the DNP lead, and I was asked to assume that role. So, here I am!

BT: Much like Jessica Sullivan in our previous interview, you also chose MCN twice—or actually, three times! Why is that? Why MCN?

SS: I chose Mennonite because it is a small community and more of a family-oriented program. The faculty are very personable, too; they are always willing to help and support students.

BT: I’ve found that, too! Even as a graduate worker.

On the benefits of earning a DNP in Leadership and Management

BT: For the DNP program, who do you think should consider earning a DNP—and maybe more particularly, who should consider earning a DNP on the leadership sequence?

SS: The DNP is the expected standard for advanced practice and leadership roles. But really, any nurse could pursue the DNP. It’s all about improving patient outcomes. A bedside nurse, a school nurse (we have several school nurses in the program)—any nurse who really wants to improve patient outcomes should choose the DNP.

BT: That’s great to know. What are the benefits of earning a DNP for these various nurses?

SS: The biggest benefit is improving patient outcomes. But for nurses, if they want more mobility, more options in their careers, the DNP certainly helps to achieve that goal.

BT: If I’m a prospective student and I’m interested in the leadership track, what should I know about this program?

SS: The program is structured to take four to five years. There are core courses and clinical hours. All of our courses are online, and that gives a lot of flexibility for students—especially nurses who are working.

Within the plan of study, we have the opportunity to individualize that for students depending on what’s going on in their work or family life (to a certain degree, of course; some courses are only offered in certain semesters).

On what to expect in the BSN to DNP: flexibility, faculty support, and community

BT: Are you saying that all of course work is online for leadership track?

SS: Yes, that’s true. Now, there are clinical hours that would be done at a facility. The student chooses the facility, and we make sure that we have an affiliation agreement with them. If not, we can certainly pursue one. There are two on-campus requirements.

First, as you enter the program, we have a one-day orientation that always falls between the end of spring semester and the beginning of summer semester. Then, after that, in year 3 and 4 (or 3, 4, and 5), we have a two-day campus requirement called the DNP intensive. The purpose of that is really to bring all of the students together on campus. There are a lot of great networking opportunities, and they get to meet faculty in-person if they haven’t done that before. We also do intensive work looking at scholarly projects and different aspects of the program. 

BT: I wondered that, too. I’m in a Ph.D. program right now in the English Department, and so much of my community building has been important to my program. What’s that community like for the DNP program and those students? How are they fostering community while working remotely? And how is it by the time they gather together for these in-person events?

SS: What the online programs, there are a lot of discussion forums in different courses. Students really get to know each other through those forums. Certainly, they aren’t face-to-face. But usually at the beginning of each semester, the faculty will schedule an optional synchronous zoom session where they go over the course and the expectations, so students get the opportunity to see each other on camera and get to interact that way. Also, sometimes faculty will have optional zoom synchronous sessions throughout the course. If there’s a certain assignment or things that need further explanation.

BT: I’m glad you spoke to that. I was interested because I’ve interviewed some folks who have come through the DNP program, and they speak so highly of the faculty and their relationships to those faculty and with how supportive their cohort has been to their studies. And I just think that’s a big testament to our program and a strength of our community that even when we’re working remotely and working around being flexible around their schedules, they still feel that community and that sense of support.

In today’s rapidly changing health care environment, we have to get that evidence to the bedside as quickly as possible. So a bedside nurse—a DNP can help there because they are at the front line. Getting that evidence and putting it into practice—we might know what works best, but there’s a gap between completing that research and getting it to the bedside.

Dr. Sandy Scheidenhelm

On the BSN to DNP leadership and management track structure

BT: You spoke a little bit about the hybrid aspect and how that’s different for the leadership track. Is it true that you’re on campus less for leadership—versus for the FNP program?

SS: That’s correct. The only campus requirement is the one-day orientation and the two days each year in years 3-5.

BT: What’s a week look like in the life of a DNP student? What time commitment should prospective DNP students expect?

SS: I always tell students: Plan on an average of 20 hours a week. Some students read very well and can absorb what they are reading. Other students need to read something a couple of times before it makes sense. Some students are excellent at writing. Other students struggle a bit. So that’s why I say an average of 20. Some students can do it in less. For some, it takes a little bit longer. But I think the key thing is the flexibility.

When I went through the program, if I had commitments every evening, I could do all my work on the weekends and have my evenings free during the week. Or if I had a commitment on a weekend, I could work after my full time job in the evenings all week and then be free on the weekend. So I think flexibility is key. Students just have to figure out what works for their work and family schedule. 

BT: That sounds very doable. As someone who is a doctoral student with a child, working multiple jobs, it’s nice to hear what the real schedule could look like for someone. It’s important to know how doable it is—if it’s something that is important to you and is a priority. 

SS: Definitely.

BT: And I was curious about the clinical side. I’m not a nurse, so I’m asking this from an outsider’s perspective: if a nurse is working at a hospital now and they sign up for the leadership sequence of the DNP program, can they do their clinical in their workspace if they’re affiliated with MCN?

SS: They can do their clinical hours at the facility where they work. They collaborate with their employer to schedule them. They can also do some online hours. Students identify two to three objectives every semester that they’re in clinical, and their goal is to achieve those objectives or obtain competency in eight DNP essentials, which is a requirement for all DNP programs. So, they select hours to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities that tie back to one of those objectives or one of the DNP essentials. That could be in the form of an online excel class if they need to know more about that.

The majority of the hours are probably in person, but there are opportunities to obtain hours in remote ways. And we really dealt with that during COVID when students were not allowed in facilities. For some students, if they worked there, they were able to continue their hours, but some could not go into a facility. We had to get creative and identify other ways to obtain those knowledge, skills, and abilities in a remote setting.

BT: Sounds like it’s very flexible and personalized—

SS: Yes! That’s just what I was going to say.

BT: I love that. 

On going the long haul: why the DNP, and why MCN

BT: What advice do you have for an incoming DNP student?

SS: The main thing is that they’re committed to pursuing the degree. That in itself is a huge step. There is a lot of flexibility for nurses who have families or work full-time; they can work when it’s convenient for them and their schedule. However, you still have to understand that you’re going for a doctorate degree. There will be a time commitment. The biggest advice I have is just to make sure that you are able to set up a good schedule that works for your work and family life.

BT: What about someone who maybe is adverse about the commitment—not just signing up for a master’s program, but a program that takes them all the way through the doctorate. They have their undergrad, maybe they’ve been working for a while or maybe they’re going straight through, do you have any advice for anyone feeling overwhelmed about that commitment? Why the DNP and why not just go for a master’s program?

SS: Just like the FNP sequence, the Leadership and Management sequence has an MSN stop-out point. At a certain point in the plan-of-study, once they have achieved those courses, they can stop out with the master’s degree. They can also continue on within a year without having to reapply. We know that life does happen! But hopefully they will continue on and pursue the DNP.

BT: So, what do you think makes our DNP at MCN so special? Why should someone choose MCN?

SS: MCN has a long history of quality education—over 100 years! U.S. News reported us in the top 100 public universities. Also, the faculty. We have faculty in the DNP program who have worked in leadership. They are all doctorally prepared, and they are really committed to student success. 

BT: That’s good to know. Part of that flexibility is knowing that there are options.

On how nurse leaders make a difference

BT: When I think about leadership, I wonder who thinks they CAN be a leader. What does leadership look like in different ways—or different roles—in nursing?

SS: You can be a leader in administration. In a facility. In an out-patient setting. Certainly our FNPs are caring for patients in direct-care. The DNP is all about improving patient outcomes—taking that science that our Ph.D. colleagues have added to the body of knowledge and translating it into practice.

In today’s rapidly changing health care environment, we have to get that evidence to the bedside as quickly as possible. So a bedside nurse—a DNP can help there because they are at the front line. Getting that evidence and putting it into practice—we might know what works best, but there’s a gap between completing that research and getting it to the bedside. 

BT: That was such a wonderful way of speaking to how colleagues in this field are working together to improve nursing practice: how the folks in our Ph.D. program are going to be interacting with folks in our DNP program out in the field, as well as how important it is for DNP trained nurses to be putting that research into practice. It’s a perfect note to end on.

I really appreciate you sitting down with me and taking the time to tell someone who is not a nurse what this program is like. I hope that it is also helpful for others who might not quite understand what a DNP program is, whether it’s possible to get one with their busy lives, or whether it’s right for them.

I look forward to chatting with you in other spaces later. Thank you so much.

SS: You’re welcome—and thank you!

Note: Some sections of this interview were reorganized in the transcription to organize information and improve flow.

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