Putting her PhD into practice
Sandy Hagstrom works at the intersection of nursing research and practice
November 10, 2020
Even if Sandy Hagstrom, PhD ’15, had been following a carefully mapped-out career plan, a position in academia wasn’t the destination.
Not when she finished her master’s degree six years into her nursing career, and not 20 years later when she completed her PhD from the School of Nursing.
“For me, actually, the dream job is to be able to do a combination of practice and research. Nursing is a practice discipline,” says Hagstrom, who’s spent more than 30 years working in the field. “So to be in the clinical setting, still close to nurses, patients, families, the rest of the interdisciplinary team, to even understand what questions we would want to ask and then have access to the right people who can help us answer those questions.”
By that measure, Hagstrom is working in her dream position. She serves as both an advanced practice nurse leader in pediatric critical care at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and a nurse scientist with M Health Fairview. In that dual capacity, she acts as a conduit between the nurses providing bedside care and the kinds of research that can inform that care. She says involving nurses at all levels is key.
“I think it’s important for us to answer questions that nurses in the practice setting actually have. And to be able to interact with nurses to understand what those questions are and help answer them,” she says. “The other beauty of being in the clinical setting is that hopefully we can get to the point where if we’re generating the evidence here, that we can implement it into practice sooner as well because it’s just a smooth path.”
Hagstrom had already been working in her advanced practice role at the children’s hospital for five years when she decided to pursue her PhD in 2010, having previously gained experience, largely in pediatrics, in positions at Mayo Clinic, Hennepin County Medical Center and Children’s Minnesota. Rather than viewing the doctoral program as a career springboard, though, she says she sought to fundamentally broaden her perspective while exploring research that could uncover evidence currently missing from the nursing profession.
She practiced fulltime throughout her five-year program—“It’s all about time management. I often say it’s not about being smart, it’s about perseverance,” she says—and carried the analytical mindset of the research process over into her day job.
“I could see those connections as they were happening and it changed how I thought about nursing, about research and about practice,” she says.
Hagstrom was able to leverage the resources and breadth of expertise at the University of Minnesota beyond the School of Nursing. This was particularly advantageous for her dissertation research on family stress in long-term pediatric critical care, a topic that required incorporating thinking from social science disciplines.
She says examining questions from different perspectives was precisely why she wanted to pursue her PhD in the first place. It’s consistent with her approach to her career: being open to new possibilities, without a fixed outcome in mind.
“I’m not that person who had the 10-year plan or the 15-year plan. I probably wouldn’t have waited this long if I was,” she says. “I’m glad that I completed the PhD even though I didn’t know exactly where it would take me and still don’t know where it will take me.”