Advanced Practice Nursing

How to Become a Nursing Director

How to Become a Nursing Director
The average salary for a nursing director is $90,561 per year (and you'll find plenty of job offers that pay much higher than that, too). Image from Unsplash
Suzanne Wentley profile
Suzanne Wentley December 9, 2019

Registered nurses deserve some support, stat. That's where a nursing director comes in. In this role, you'll connect the dots among medical staff, patients, and administrators to ensure optimal care. You'll need a master's degree and several years of leadership experience to qualify, but you'll feel valued 24/7 once you land the gig.

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Registered nurses are the backbone of nearly every healthcare operation. They provide hands-on care for patients, communicate with families, update official charts and documentation, and alert doctors to critical situations. More than any other role in healthcare, a nurse is the compassionate link between patients in need and the administrative upkeep required to treat them. While nurses keep the operation running smoothly, it’s the job of a nursing director to support them and help steer the ship.

A director of nursing (DON), sometimes known as a director of patient care services or director of nursing services, has the immense responsibility of bridging the gap among the nursing staff, patients, doctors, and a facility’s administration. This isn’t the position for someone fresh out of nursing school. You’ll need years of managerial experience, strong clinical skills, and a master’s degree to apply for job openings.

The good news is that as you strengthen your resume to qualify for this vital role, you’ll find plenty of opportunities that offer excellent salaries. Nurse administrators are in demand as the healthcare industry is changing dramatically.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What does a nursing director do?
  • Steps to become a nursing director
  • Education needed to become a director of nursing
  • Qualifications for a director of nursing
  • Job outlook for a nursing director

What does a nursing director do?

What are the duties and responsibilities of a nursing director?

As a nursing director, you’ll oversee the nursing staff while also setting an example of compassionately interacting with patients and their families. Like any other nurse, nursing directors work long hours (sometimes 12-hour shifts).

You’ll also have plenty of administrative responsibilities, including:

  • Budgeting
  • Managing patient records
  • Overseeing inventory and ordering
  • Liaising between the nurses and any high-level staff in your facility
  • Maintaining staff’s high level of care and all professional standards set by state and federal agencies

Anyone who has worked as a nurse in a clinical setting knows it’s a busy career. Nursing staff needs an advocate who understands the daily chaos they must navigate. The nursing director does this by creating policies, addressing concerns, and mediating conflicts, whether in executive meetings or at patients’ bedsides.

Where are the most jobs for nursing directors?

Nursing directors work in a variety of healthcare facilities, with each location demanding different responsibilities. Most of the time, you’ll be working in an office environment, but sometimes you’ll be working right alongside your fellow RNs. Directors of nursing are needed in:

  • Hospitals
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Nursing homes and assisted living facilities
  • Universities and colleges
  • Corporate offices of healthcare systems
  • Insurance companies
  • Government agencies, such as county and state departments of health

Steps to become a nursing director

Becoming a nursing director won’t happen overnight. The skills necessary for this role are learned through on-the-job training, honing your leadership skills, and pursuing mentorship opportunities.

What skills and qualifications are required in a director of nursing?

Most hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics that employ nursing directors require at least three years of experience in a managerial role, a strong educational background, and proven clinical nursing skills.

Naturally, you’ll be doing less hands-on work with patients, since you’ll be overseeing all nurses in your facility. But you can’t let your RN skills get rusty while you focus on your career in leadership. You’ll still need that nursing skill set, which includes:

  • Providing injections
  • Dressing wounds
  • Interacting effectively with patients and their families
  • Being flexible to step in at a moment’s notice
  • Helping novice nurses perform their job appropriately

You’ll also need a baseline knowledge of all nursing specialties, since you will be supervising nurses with diverse skill sets and areas of expertise.

How can you strengthen your résumé to become a director of nursing?

You should start building your résumé in nursing school if you have your sights set on the nursing director role. Look for a mentor in a leadership role, such as a chief nursing officer, and let them know after graduation that you’re interested in a supervisory position. The more you volunteer to help those in leadership roles, the more you’ll understand what makes up their day, and the more prepared you’ll be when openings arise.

After working for a few years as a clinical nurse, you’ll be able to qualify for any openings as an assistant nurse manager. Once you have mastered the communication and organizational skills that are needed for this position, you can apply to work as a nurse manager. At this point, you’ll have the managerial experience and clinical skills necessary to qualify for a director of nursing role.

Education needed to become a director of nursing

As a bare minimum requirement to become a nursing director, you must be a registered nurse. You’ll need at least an associate’s degree, although many employers now require RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). All facilities, however, require director candidates to have master’s degrees as well.

When looking for undergraduate schools, make sure that you pick a college or university that is accredited by the American Association of College of Nursing or the National League for Nursing. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited program will allow you to earn a master’s in nursing.

Nursing school bachelor’s degree programs should focus on:

  • Anatomy
  • Emergency care
  • Genetics
  • Maternal/Newborn nursing
  • Nutrition
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Public health initiatives

Studies for a career in a nursing director role should also include:

  • Business administration
  • Finance
  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Communications coursework with a managerial focus

When looking to master’s degree programs, you have two primary options: study for a
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a concentration in nursing administration or leadership, or earn a Master of Health Administration (MHA).

Be sure that your master’s degree studies include classes in:

  • Healthcare economics
  • Human resources management
  • Leadership development

Some schools offer programs that allow you to complete your bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in five years. This is a time-saving option if you wish to become even more competitive and further your career by earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in executive nursing administration. Financial aid opportunities can make the process more affordable.

What are some of the top nursing programs?

As you pursue your career to become a director of nursing, you may consider top nursing schools like Duke University, Johns Hopkins University or University of Pennsylvania for your undergraduate or graduate program. You’ll find a wide-range of business and leadership coursework at these prestigious institutions.

Top nursing programs are often expensive. If keeping debt at bay is a priority (a smart one), consider state universities and lower-cost private universities.

Affordable online MSN programs to consider:

Qualifications for a director of nursing

Once you complete your ADN or BSN, you’ll need to pass the national exam known as the NCLEX-RN to apply for your nursing license. All nursing directors must maintain state licensure, as does every registered nurse.

Along with education and licensure, you can also pursue a variety of voluntary certifications that will support you in a career as a nursing director, including:

Job outlook for a nursing director

The number of registered nurses, including nursing directors, is expected to rise over the next 10 years by 12 percent (more than double the growth rate of the job market as a whole), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More patients mean a greater need for nurses, especially those capable of and qualified for a leadership role in hospital administration and elsewhere in the medical industry. A recent search of the job-posting website Indeed yielded over 4,000 job listings for the search term “director of nursing.”

You will undoubtedly earn more as a nursing director than you will as a shift nurse or nurse manager. Indeed reports the average salary for a nursing director is $90,561 per year. You’ll find plenty of job offers that pay much higher than that, too.

Given the demand for qualified nurses with strong leadership skills, you should have little trouble accruing the hours of experience necessary to qualify for a nursing director position, provided you’ve got the skills to succeed in the role. It’s a long journey full of long hours and hard work from nursing school to becoming a nurse director, but it can be a worthwhile one in terms of both financial rewards and career satisfaction.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Advanced Practice NursingNursing Administration & LeadershipNursing & Healthcare