A Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner in Pursuit of a PhD

cassandra godzik - phd student
Cassandra Godzik – PhD Student

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the nursing community surrounding the impending nursing shortage. As a result, doctorally-prepared nurses are in high demand to prepare a the next generation of nurses and contribute to scholarly research. Nursing students aiming for a doctoral degree may choose between the DNP and PhD/DNS. Many students pursuing doctoral degrees do so while also holding full or part time jobs. Cassandra Godzik is one such student. She is currently employed as a psychiatric nurse practitioner while working on her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA. She also serves on the Leadership Council of the Graduate Nursing Student Academy, which offers free membership to students enrolled in master’s or doctoral nursing programs.


Tell us a little bit about yourself (background, education, etc.). Please include degrees earned, other schools attended, and any relevant credentials.

Growing up in a small town, I had the opportunity to get hands on experience in health care from an early age. As a 13-year-old, I volunteered at the community hospital as a patient assistant. It was there that I had the opportunity to interact with patients and their families, as well as be exposed to the health care professions. Later in high school, I worked in an assisted living center and memory care unit in the community, where I learned more about medicine, mental illness, and overall health and well-bring.

Following 12th grade, I started my higher educational career at the University of Vermont. This is where I obtained my Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience and Psychology and learned much more about the health care field. Working on the ambulance as an Emergency Medical Technician, I responded to 911 calls often related to overdoses and psychiatric events. I also worked on the research side of mental health, conducting a study with Dr. Abaied that looked at depressive symptoms in college students and their parents.

It is safe to say that my undergraduate career helped me to identify where I wanted to go with my future. I learned about the Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner role – combining the holistic model of nursing, prescribing, and potential to conduct research; consequently, I was sold. I enrolled in Regis College in Weston, MA where I obtained a Bachelor and Master of Nursing Science in psychiatric nursing. I now work as an NP at a local psychiatric academic hospital and I am enjoying every bit of it!

What advice would you give to aspiring nurses in terms of preparing for school?

It is invaluable to get work experience in the field you wish to pursue. I cannot stress that enough. Not only does it provide you with information about whether you’ll actually enjoy that type of work, but it also allows for networking opportunities. Meeting people in the field in which you’re interested is huge. Unexpectedly, a couple special people will become your mentors and he or she will guide you and help you to get where you want to go!

What did you wish you would have known before attending nursing school?

I wish I had known that there is more support from faculty than you could expect in the doctorate programs. While this was the case in my other degree programs, I anticipated that it would be more isolating to work on a PhD. This is untrue – seek out people that are interested in what you’re interested in and get to know them. They are there to help you. You are most definitely not alone when going into a PhD program.

Do you have any tips for applying to nursing school?

  • Shadow someone in the field. Don’t know any nurses? Call the local hospital or doctor’s office and ask if there is an RN that is willing to have a student for the day.
  • Identify a mentor. It doesn’t need to be a nurse, but someone that can support you along the way when times are tough.
  • Be open to more than one-type of nursing specialty. As you learn about yourself and have different experiences, what you once thought was your future career might change over time.
  • Work or volunteer. Getting job experience is critical for advancing your knowledge and helps when applying to programs at all levels.
  • Take your time (as much as possible). You’ll get to where you need to be with experiences in and outside of the health care field.

What is the most challenging part of nursing school?

The most challenging part of nursing school is the balance between academics (a lot of reading!), research, working (need to pay the bills!), and maintaining relationships with family and friends. To address all of these moving parts, it is essential to stay organized. I recommend getting into the practice of using a physical planner or a digital calendar/app. Without a planning strategy and actually implementing the practice, life in a PhD program is impossible.

What is the most enjoyable part of nursing school?

The most enjoyable part of nursing school has been the exposure to all different types and ways in which people think. During classes, there is active discussion between faculty and students; by the end of the day, we might be exhausted but we all agree that we’ve learned new perspectives we wouldn’t otherwise discover. In my time in the PhD program, I’ve learned about my peers but also about my own opinions, the way I think, and what I want to do in my field of research.

What is a typical week like at nursing school for you?

Hectic, non-stop, pure exhaustion and fun. These are some of the words I use to describe my life to co-workers, friends, and family. Fortunately, my program allows for students to take three 3-hour classes all in a single day. This means that I and others in my cohort are able to work the rest of the week. For me, I work as an NP at the hospital and have some private practice patients I see on evenings and weekends. In my not-so-spare-time, I read for class, reflect on the readings, and work on my class assignments.

 Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?

There are many options for doctorate degrees, so it took time to explore my decision to pursue the PhD at UMass Medical School. I love patient care, especially because I am able to spend time with my patients and provide holistic, long-term, supportive, psychiatric care. However, I also enjoy contributing to research endeavors that will eventually help patients like mine. Knowing that I wanted to eventually work on a research team and possibly be a primary investigator (PI) someday, I realized that a PhD was the right path for me.

What skills or characteristics do you think are important for a nursing student to be successful?

In order to be successful in nursing school, staying organized is top-priority. The way in which the successful nursing student stays organized is very individual. For myself, it’s been helpful to have a physical paper planner to keep track of my responsibilities. I’ve seen other people who send emails or text message reminders to themselves. Others utilize a computer calendar or phone app. Trial and error about which method works for you is likely necessary. If one method doesn’t work, move on to the next. If you’re still having trouble, seek out a peer with great organizational skills and/or the academic help center.

Do you have any tips/strategies/hobbies for stress relief?

To stay mentally and physically healthy in school, scheduling time for YOU and ONLY YOU is critical. Perhaps, make a date with yourself in your planner, or designate an evening of the week where you don’t do homework. Stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle with you wherever you go. Eat protein rich foods…protein-packed granola bars help! Work out when you can…aim for a few times per week to get your heart pumping. Deep breathing and other meditation practices are useful for when high levels of anxiety kick in (i.e. mid-terms, paper due dates).

What do you plan to do with your degree when you graduate?

When I graduate, I plan to pursue a post-doctoral program where I can continue training in psychiatric research. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to identify a mentor in psychotic disorders, who can help guide me as I look at nursing related topics of interest as well as neurobiomarkers in young-adult first-psychotic episodes. I also hope to continue work in higher education as a professor and mentor to students as so many people have done for me, including Dr. Jamie Abaied and Dr. Diane Welsh.


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