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Photo: Case Western Reserve University

An Interview with Nirmala Lekhak, PhD, and Professor of Nursing

Nursing is a popular profession in Nepal, but higher studies in nursing is still uncommon. Why do you think that is?

When we think of nursing, we think of taking care of sick people. As the definition of sick people has changed over time, so has the need for highly educated nurses. Although nurses have made significant progress in making nursing its own discipline, many people still look at nurses as being subservient to medical doctors. I think there is still this stigma, because nursing profession is mainly dominated by women and medicine by men (which is thankfully changing). As in other sectors, women always have to fight for their rights. Higher education in nursing makes it a little easier to fight for that cause. Having more doctorates in nursing will bring new knowledge in the field of nursing and also help promote nursing as its own discipline and profession, and not just a side note to the field of medicine.

Higher education in nursing is still uncommon even in developed countries. I still hear people remark: “I didn’t know there was PhD in nursing,” when we have two doctoral programs: one in clinical education and practice (DNP) and other in research (PhD). Many people enter nursing because they want to help patients, and most of the time a bachelor’s degree is enough. In the USA and a few other countries, nurse practitioners are gaining lot of popularity, and nurses with bachelors’ move up to the nurse practitioner role. People very rarely go for a DNP or PhD. However, I am seeing a change in the USA. There is still a lot of awareness building that needs to be done in Nepal.


Tell us about your Nursing journey.

I have always been interested in health care. As most students in Nepal with a biology degree would do, I also tried to go to medical school. But somewhere along the path, I lost my motivation to become a doctor. However, I still wanted to be in field of healthcare, and I was attracted to nursing, because nurses work closely with patients, take care of them when they are sick, and help them gain their health back. I was reading the auto biography of Mahatma Gandhi during my teenage years, and he had used the word “nurse” to take care for wounded people, so somehow that had stuck with me. Also, the story of Florence Nightingale has always inspired me. So, when the decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree had to be made, I chose nursing.


What was your reason to pursue a doctorate in Nursing? How did you go about it?

I always wanted to go to graduate school. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I was looking to pursue a Master’s degree, and during my research, I found out about the BSN-PhD. There was a PhD fellowship at the same university as my husband that I could join with my Bachelor’s degree and I took advantage of the opportunity. It gave me opportunity to work in an area I was really passionate about: to advance research in care for older adults.


What are the similarities and differences between working as a nurse in a clinical setting and working in an academic setting ?

In a clinical setting, you are in direct contact with your patients: taking care of them, but you also have role of teaching and advocating for your patients. As an academic, you just take that role further to teach future nurses so they can be a better healthcare provider and advocate for their patients. We are providing a platform for students to not just learn clinical skills, but also provide information about community, leadership, health policies, and so on. We try our best to make our students critical thinkers, and look at the bigger picture. With the PhD, I can also take my research further and influence community health, practice setting, and policy making.


Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your nursing/academic journey.

I think participating in different leadership roles during my graduate years was something I never thought I would be able to do, so it is something I am really proud of. Sometimes we just have push through our boundaries. Also, being able to find a faculty position right after graduation.


Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in this field. How did you overcome that?

Towards the end of the PhD program, I seriously thought I would not be able to finish it. But keeping my eye towards the end goal and with the help of my husband, I was able to make it through.


If you were in the admissions committee, what qualities would you look into a prospective graduate candidate in Nursing?

I would look for the desire to make a change in the existing issues in healthcare. They may not have a well-developed idea for research, but if they have a drive to work on the issues they are passionate about, I would advocate for them if I was in the admissions committee.


How can prospective graduate students prepare themselves for pursuing graduate studies in Nursing ?

PhD can be very challenging, but having a passionate cause to work on will make it bearable. So, I would suggest finding an issue in practice, education or policy that you think needs research or new knowledge. You have to be passionate to work for that cause, otherwise a PhD can be very stressful. If you would like to work in the field for a while before you want to pursue doctoral degree, do that.


What are the academic, research and professional avenues after a PhD in Nursing?

Most PhD graduates in Nursing chose academic field where you have opportunity to not only teach but do research as well. However, I have seen some of them work in research intensive environment such as hospitals and foundations. Some of the position requires PhD in academic field like tenure track faculty position.


Can you recommend 5 universities that someone with an interest in your field should check out?

I don’t think it is a good idea to say these 5 universities are better than others at least for the PhD program. You should look for a program that best matches your research interest. You should also look for a mentor who is working in your field of interest. I think is a good website to look for universities and programs that would be a good match for you. I would also suggest looking for fellowship/scholarship to fund your education.


Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life.

We come across different people and experiences in our lives and I felt like these people and experiences have taught me a lot. But when I have to really think about a particular mentor or role, I have always struggled to come up with a name.


What is the best career advice you have ever received?

“Be yourself” and “Protect your time” and “Say no.” As we get more involved in our work, we have to learn to say No (I have always struggled with this).


The career advice you wished you received in your twenties.

I wish I had the known the importance of taking on different leadership roles early on.


Final words of advice for someone who wants to pursue their interest in higher studies in Nursing?

If you are really passionate about research, PhD is the way to go. When you are in the program, please do not think of your dissertation as your life’s work. You have your whole life after PhD to take your research forward. Do not second guess your ability, you can do it!

Nirmala Lekhak

Nirmala Lekhak is assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Nursing. She completed her PhD in Nursing from Case Western Reserve University, USA and Bachelors in Nursing from St. Ambrose University.

She has received various awards for her leadership and service roles: Lenore Kola Community Service Award, 2016; Outstanding International Graduate Student Award, 2016; Next Generation Faces of Care Award, 2015; Marie Haug Award, 2015

Research Website


Sujhaab Chautaari

Author: Sujhaab Chautaari

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