The Yale School of Nursing’s new doctorate program debuted on Tuesday, offering students a chance to become part of the next generation of nursing school faculty.

The program, first unveiled in June when the school received approval from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will enroll about four students each year. Part of the Nursing School’s broader efforts to improve its ranking and portfolio of research, the development will likely improve the school’s reputation, according to Yale nursing faculty and other members of the academic nursing community. Even so, they said the new degree program may have less impact on the educational program itself, which has offered a doctoral degree, the doctor of nursing science (D.N.Sc.), since 1994.

Professor Marjorie Funk, director of the doctoral program, said the change has been in the works for a long time.

“We’ve always intended to have a Ph.D. program, but we wanted to start with a professional degree,” she said.

Since 1994, the school has offered the D.N.Sc. degree, a professional degree, though one that Funk said included extensive research training.

“Our intent was always to change at some point to an academic degree,” Funk said. “We are preparing our graduates for research careers.”

The switch in doctoral programs was also necessary to curb a drop in Yale’s competitiveness while helping the school continue to climb the rankings, Nursing School Dean Margaret Grey NUR ’76 said.

“Even though our doctor of nursing science was a very strong research degree and our graduates went on to the most prestigious post-docs and most prestigious schools for faculty positions, we began to realize we were losing the best applicants because they wanted the Ph.D., which is the standard degree,” Grey said. “Internally, I’m not convinced it will help the school much, though it may help us recruit. Externally, I think it will affect our rankings in a positive way.”

The rankings, such as those in U.S. News and World Report magazine, are primarily based on reputation, Grey said. One of the dean’s goals is to bring Yale, currently in 10th place on that particular list, up to the top five.

The school’s reputation is primarily based on its emphasis on clinical work, said Kathleen Dracup, dean of the school of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, a top-five program. Even this research program will continue that focus, Funk said.

“Most of the people who apply here are clinicians, people who have been out in practice, either in the hospital or the clinic,” she said.

The program seems to have already accomplished one of its goals: stanching the decrease in Yale applicants. Kirsten Asmus NUR ’98, a first-year student in the program and a lecturer for the past four years at the school, earned a BSN and later an MSN in nurse midwifery, but said she had always planned to earn a Ph.D., and would have gone elsewhere if Yale still had the D.N.Sc.

“The fact that Yale has changed the degree to a Ph.D. really made it a lot more attractive at this point,” she said. “When you do that amount of work, I think it’s important that the letters attached to your degree mean something across all disciplines.”

A nationwide shortage of nurses is looming, but before more nurses can be trained, more nursing faculty are needed. Dracup said that a recent survey put the shortage of nursing faculty at 7-8 percent nationwide, with some schools having 20 percent shortages.

More than just reputation alone, Dracup said, there is a strong correlation between receiving more National Institutes of Health grants and a higher ranking. In 2005, Yale nursing was the sixth-largest recipient of NIH grants, totaling slightly more than $6 million.

Although the school’s reputation might not affect its ranking, Dracup said the new Ph.D. program was a wise move.

“[The D.N.Sc.] is really a dinosaur of a degree,” she said. “Students are interested in pursuing Ph.D.s.”

The University of California, San Francisco, where Dracup earned her D.N.Sc., did not permit its nursing doctoral program to award a Ph.D. until 1984, saying that the nursing school did not have enough faculty members to award the Ph.D., Dracup said.

Nancy Wood, the dean of the University of Washington’s nursing school, said the professional degree was more acceptable to certain universities.

“For many years, the [D.N.Sc.] notation was used as a substitute in some schools where nursing was not respected as an academic discipline,” she said.

At Yale, which has a history of graduate nursing programs dating back to the 1920s, the first doctoral program, begun 10 years after UCSF began to award the Ph.D., began life as the D.N.Sc. Grey said the school had spent the last 15 years expanding its research efforts and reputation to a point where the Ph.D. program could be at an appropriately high level.

Only the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is permitted to award the Ph.D. degree at Yale, as it will in the case of the nursing degrees. As in similar agreements between professional schools and the graduate school, the funding for these students, who receive full tuition and a stipend, is handled by the professional school.

Funk said the program is being kept to four students a year mostly for financial reasons, though the students will all be covered under NIH grants — either their own or a faculty member’s — or a new Department of Education grant intended to boost the number of men and minorities among nursing faculty.