The future of MSc nursing dissertations – a victim of its own success?

In our blog this week, Dr Nicola Roberts (@DrNRoberts) and Mr Ben Parkinson (@ParkinsonBen1) from Glasgow Caledonian University discuss the current changes affecting student research in the NHS and the future for MSc dissertations in nursing.

The Masters of Sciences degree (MSc) is becoming increasingly popular with nurses and provides a useful stepping stone into advanced nursing roles and/or Doctoral level study (e.g. PhD or Professional Doctorate). For nursing students, the most daunting and time consuming part of their MSc is often the dissertation component. Students usually do a structured literature review or undertake a small piece of research. However, the rules around student research in the NHS are changing and may affect some nursing students completing MSc dissertations.

What is a nursing dissertation?
The nursing dissertation usually involves a large written piece of coursework (6-16,000 words) based on an independent study at the end of a University MSc programme. Students are supported during their dissertation by an academic supervisor to undertake research or a review. For nursing students, the MSc dissertation is an opportunity to focus on a particular area of interest and to study the topic in great detail. The MSc dissertation is a demanding assessment and can involve many months of effort and a high level of independent study. Some of the challenges faced by students include working independently, effectively working with their supervisor, having to meet deadlines, and producing high quality academic material. In addition, many students also have other commitments (e.g. employment, child care) and/or have additional support needs (e.g. dyslexia). These factors can make the MSc dissertation both demanding, but also extremely rewarding.

Student research in the NHS
Nursing students often want to undertake a research study in their place of work, but all research needs to have ethical approval and students working in the NHS will have to make sure they are eligible to complete their research in the NHS. The guidance on student research in the NHS changed and the new guidance is available online via the Health Research Authority (HRA). The HRA changes came into effect in September 2021 and affect those completing research for the main purpose of achieving an educational qualification (e.g. Degree, Masters, or Doctorate). The main changes include new eligibility criteria, which changes the type of students who can complete research in the NHS. The new guidance states undergraduate students, for example, will no longer be able to complete research involving the NHS and that Doctoral students studying Health and Social Care related topics will be able to complete research in the NHS (full guidance).

The guidance is slightly more confusing for MSc nursing students. Not all MSc students will be able to apply for NHS ethical approval and some types of student MSc students will not be allowed to do research in the NHS. Fortunately, nurses will be one group of students who can conduct research in the NHS, but certain rules apply, nurses need to be studying a Health and Social Care course and the University department supporting the student also needs to be active in Health and Social Care research. The HRA have produced a helpful toolkit for students or supervisors, to help them determine whether their research will be eligible to apply for NHS Research Ethics approval under the new guidance.

Alternatives to student research in the NHS
Given the complexity of nursing dissertations and the challenges faced by many nursing students, it is prudent to consider the different options available when completing an MSc dissertation. Being flexible and creative will give nursing students the greatest chance of success when completing their MSc dissertation.

Dissertation options.
• Research involving the NHS (check eligibility using student research toolkit)
• Non-research activity in the NHS (e.g. service evaluation, audit, a discussion with R&D may still be needed).
• Research activity not involving NHS patient, staff, or resources – student participant study or using organisations or charities, social media.
• Literature review (e.g. systematic review).
• Write research protocol for future study.
• Produce anonymous case report (consent/approval needed).

Other challenges for nursing dissertations
Another challenge is the increasing numbers of students completing MSc qualifications. Each year more nurses are seeking MSc qualification, which is excellent for patient care and the nursing profession. However, increasing student numbers and the needs to complete a dissertation can create pressure on the NHS and make it difficult to provide the necessary support for growing numbers of students. With increasing numbers, nursing students can find themselves struggling to come up with an original idea and some popular topics can become over-researched. For example, recently the number of students wanting to study COVID-19 has grown rapidly.

It is also common for nursing students to focus on particular groups of people and/or recruitment pathways. For example, the growth of MSc dissertations has led to an increase in the amount of research being conducting on students, which raises concerns about whether students are being overly burdened by invitations to participate in research. The growth in the numbers of nursing students studying MSc qualifications has also put pressure on finding appropriate academic supervisors, who can support students during their studies. It is important Universities balance the increased demand for MSc study, whilst also maintaining quality for students. Innovative strategies used by Universities include flexible academic supervision, using online methods, incorporating group supervision, and also changing the format of dissertations to better reflect journal publications. It is clear that traditional dissertations may need to adapt in the near future to be fit for purpose and to support the large number of students and the changes to research ethics in the NHS.

Dr Nicola Roberts is a Senior Lecturer and Mr Ben Parkinson is a Lecturer in the Department of Nursing and Community Health (@GCUNursing) at Glasgow Caledonian University, United Kingdom (@GCUSHLS, @GCUReach). 

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