How to Become a Director of Nursing

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A director of nursing works on her laptop.The field of nursing has become more complex and multifaceted in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed nurses in new directions and revealed new opportunities for leadership in nursing. America’s chronic illness crisis, fueled by heart disease, cancer and diabetes, requires long-term health care intervention. Add to this an aging population, and the nursing profession has become more crucial than ever.

As a result, demand is expected to rise dramatically during the next decade for nurses who are seeking to serve others at a greater capacity. Those who value and develop leadership skills are better positioned to find future nursing opportunities in health care.

Advanced practice nurses who are interested in learning how to become a director of nursing may want to consider pursuing an online Post-Master’s DNP program to put them on the proper career path.

What Is a Director of Nursing?

Directors of nursing lead licensed registered nurses across a department or within a medical unit. They also head medical practices for physician groups that have taken on procedures typically performed in hospitals.

The primary responsibility of professionals in this role is to ensure patients and residents receive quality care. While nursing directors communicate with patients and their families directly about treatment plans, their role is much more far-reaching than that.

Aside from direct care, nursing directors oversee their organization’s nursing program, implement and roll out legal policies, recruit and train nurses, and develop and maintain budgets. They also ensure compliance with local, state and federal regulations as well as Medicare, Medicaid and managed care, according to the health care staffing expert Leader Stat.

While they share similar functions, those serving as nursing directors may have different titles. Depending on where they work, such as an assisted living center, they may be called a wellness director, clinical director or director of clinical services.

Nursing directors also maintain knowledge of the latest health care technologies. As electronic health records (EHRs) become commonplace industrywide, the role of nursing directors has expanded to include a deep understanding of current and developing health care information technology (HIT). These technologies can include online patient portals, remote patient monitoring systems, practice management software, electronic prescribing systems and the evolving landscape of telehealth technology.

Steps to Become a Director of Nursing

If serving as a leader and administrator in a health care setting sounds rewarding, nursing students, RNs and   can start on the path to a career as a director of nursing.

Earn a BSN and Gain Work Experience

The first step toward becoming a director of nursing is earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The next step is to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN), administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Licensed registered nurses then typically work a minimum of one year before pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).

Earn an MSN and Gain Management Experience

While some health care facilities accept nursing candidates who have an associate degree in nursing, nursing directors need at least a BSN, according to the Houston Chronicle, plus experience in a clinical environment. Work experience as a charge nurse or nurse manager is a plus for prospective nursing directors, as well as the ability to maintain accurate financial and patient care records. Master’s-level coursework in finance, health care administration and management can give candidates a competitive edge.

Some employers prefer director of nursing candidates who hold a master’s degree, particularly in nursing, public health administration or business administration, in addition to experience working in supervisory roles.

Earn a DNP

Nurses who have their MSN can go on to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to become more competitive for nursing director positions. Worth noting is that some employers require advanced nurses to have two years of experience in the field before earning a Director of Nursing Services Certification through the American Association of Directors of Nursing Services.

Earning a DNP degree can prepare aspiring nursing directors to meet both the challenges in our current health care environment and future requirements in the advanced practice registered nursing field.

Develop Leadership Skills

Effective directors of nursing exhibit certain characteristics.

  • Leadership: Leaders in health care environments motivate staff and create standards of care that ultimately provide improved patient outcomes.
  • Emotional intelligence: Because nurse leaders regularly navigate emotionally charged situations, they work toward positive outcomes by reading others, managing their own emotions and working toward solving problems.
  • Accountability: Advanced nurses operate using a broad knowledge of health care standards and regulations. They are held accountable to achieve goals and maintain their organization’s reputation.
  • Compassion: Leaders in nursing seek the best solutions for their patients by performing their duties with compassion and empathy.
  • Clinical expertise: Directors of nursing are highly skilled nurses who are sought after and respected for their years of clinical experience and education.
  • Communication: Balancing communication styles among nurse leadership and staff, physicians and patients is paramount to achieving positive health outcomes.

Salary and Job Outlook for a Director of Nursing

The salary and job outlook for director of nursing roles is impressive. On average, nursing directors earn a six-figure salary. The growth rate for the occupation is expected to rise by double digits between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The BLS classifies directors of nursing as medical and health service managers, an occupation with a median annual salary of $100,980 as of May 2019. Furthermore, the BLS projects 32% job growth between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the country’s overall job growth.

Salaries may vary based on education level, medical facility type and size, years of experience and job location. Candidates with the best prospects, according to the BLS, are highly educated and maintain a working knowledge of HIT systems.

Discover How to Become a Director of Nursing

Nurses who are interested in serving patients at a higher level should be compassionate and demonstrate excellent communication and leadership skills. They should also possess foundational knowledge from a program such as the University of North Dakota’s online Post-Master’s DNP program.

Discover how UND can help you pursue your professional goals at the forefront of nursing leadership.

Recommended Readings

Chief Nursing Officer: The Steps to Becoming a Key Health Leader

How to Become a Hospital CEO

MSN vs DNP: Comparing Salaries, Job Outlook and More


Houston Chronicle, “Qualifications for a Director of Nursing”

Indeed Careers, “Learn About Being a Director of Nursing”

Leader Stat, Director of Nursing: Resources and Facts

The Open Nursing Journal, “Nurse Managers’ Emotional Intelligence and Effective Leadership: A Review of the Current Evidence”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers