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How to Become a Director of Nursing

The director of nursing is a unique position in the healthcare system where you will have a chance to make a difference in many people's lives. As director of nursing, you will have the responsibility of finding solutions to problems with both medical staff and the overall administration of a healthcare facility to provide optimal patient care.

Keep in mind, however, that before you become a director of nursing you first have to become a registered nurse.

The current healthcare industry has seen a rise in the demand for nursing directors in the job market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare facilities should expect a 20 percent increase in the number of nursing directors recruited between now and 2026.

As you can see, the healthcare industry is looking for nursing directors, and the demand is not expected to drop anytime soon. Now is a great time to pursue your career as a nursing director. This article will help you understand everything you need to know about how to become a director of nursing.

What Is a Director of Nursing?

The director of nursing (DON), also known as the director of patient care services, is someone with a healthcare administration degree who supervises, manages, and overlooks nursing services at a healthcare facility. Simply put, the director of nursing manages or oversees the services of the nursing staff.

To perform in this capacity, you must first be a registered nurse and combine nursing experience with education and managerial skills. This ensures that you are experienced in developing care standards while also maintaining an organizational structure effectively.

What Does a Director of Nursing Do?

Nursing directors are responsible for advising on nursing services to the healthcare organization. DONs serve as the bridge between management and the nursing staff by voicing problems or possible strategies for facility improvements.

Here is a more comprehensive list of the roles, duties, and responsibilities that come with the director of nursing job.

Administrative Responsibilities

You will be required to perform tasks and activities that are part of the healthcare facility's daily activities.

Such tasks include managing patient records, budgeting, ensuring the maintenance of high standards of care, and acting as the communication link between top management and nursing staff.

Setting Objectives and Long-Term Goals

As a nursing director, you will be part of the team responsible for coming up with strategies for the nursing department.

Develop Policies Aimed at Maintaining High Standards and Legal Compliance

As you will be responsible for overseeing the nursing staff, it will also be your responsibility to develop policies to ensure legal compliance and high-quality standards.

Essential Director of Nursing Skills

In addition to the obvious nursing skills, a nursing director should possess critical skills and competencies that make it easy to manage the nursing department's activities. Here are the essential skills and qualities that a nursing director should have and the necessary qualifications.

Communication Skills

As you will be the liaison between the nursing staff and top-level management, you must have excellent communication skills. Additionally, you should give out clear instructions while keenly listening to whatever queries are raised by the nursing staff.

Leadership Skills

A director of nursing must display strong leadership skills at all times. You should maintain a good example at all times. Additionally, you must remain calm in a pressure-sensitive situation and lead others, enabling them to appropriately perform their jobs.

Organizational Skills

The director of nursing should possess strong organizational skills. You will be handling the work schedule of all the nursing staff. For this reason, you must possess excellent organizational skills to allow you to evaluate each nurse while ensuring each hospital ward has the appropriate work rotation assigned.

Financial Management Skills

Remember that a director of nursing is also responsible for budgeting and record keeping. As a result, the nursing director should also be financially competent.

Nursing Director Salaries and Job Outlook

Just like most jobs in the job market, the amount of money you can earn will vary from company to company. However, the average annual director of nursing salary, as reported by Indeed, is approximately $92,500. But there are many jobs available that pay higher salaries than that.

In the US alone, there are approximately 3.8 million registered nurses, with 2.6 million of those being directors. Assuming six percent growth, the number of director positions is expected to increase to about 2.8 million positions.

More patients translates to a greater need for healthcare services. Globally, there has been an increase in the number of patients as a result of the coronavirus, and with the continuing impacts of COVID-19, that is only expected to increase.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Nursing Director?

Before becoming a nursing director you must first become a registered nurse. On average, it will take you about 3 to 4 years to complete an associate degree.

Following this degree, there are specific certifications that you will be required to complete before being registered as a nursing director. These certifications can take anywhere from one year to two years, and you will be required to sit for the respective exams.

In addition to obtaining certification, you will also need to have at least two years’ experience working in either a director capacity or as an assistant director of nursing.

How to Become a Nursing Director: A Step-by-Step Guide

Becoming a nursing director will require effort and consistency. With that said, here is a roadmap that you can follow in your pursuit of becoming a director of nursing.

Step 1: Attend Nursing School

The first step to becoming a registered nurse is by attending a nursing school. You should consider getting an RN associate's degree or a BSN from an accredited college, university, or institute.

After completing your nursing school program, the next thing that you should consider doing is sitting for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to earn your license.

Step 2: Gain Experience as a Registered Nurse

Nursing directors start their careers as registered nurses. It would be in your best interest to work your way up as a registered nurse, acquiring valuable job experience in the process. Hiring managers often shortlist candidates with at least two years of experience under their belt.

Also, you should look to work in leadership positions as acquiring leadership skills is vital to this job position. While working, you can choose to go back to school part-time, depending on your situation, to complete your Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) online.

Step 3: Get Certified

There are plenty of certifications for nursing directors. But the most marketable one is the Director of Nursing Services Certification (DNS-CT) offered by the American Association of Directors of Nursing Services (AADNS).

Other certifications include Nurse Executive (NE-BC), and the Certified Director of Nursing (CDONA) offered by the National Association of Directors of Nursing Administration in Long Term Care (NADONALTC).

After following all these steps, you are now ready to work as a nursing director in a healthcare facility.

Required Education to Become a Director of Nursing

To be eligible to work as a nursing director, you will need a degree in nursing at the very least. While a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement, it is not common to see healthcare facilitates asking for a master’s degree in an associated nursing field or in nursing administration.

Statistically speaking, the Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) is becoming one of the most sought-after programs by those looking to pursue a career in this field, and for a host of reasons too. For instance, this program provides leadership training, critical thinking, and communication training on top of the undergraduate program's groundwork.

But if you wish to advance your career past these nursing positions, you should consider earning your Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in executive nursing administration. But more importantly, this position demands that you first earn your certification by passing the NCLEX-RN examinations.

Best Programs to Become a Nursing Director

Many courses and programs promise to end with a job as a nursing director. Here are some examples of the types of programs you should consider.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

  • Provider, e.g.: University of Michigan
  • Cost: $1,326 per credit (full-time), $2,721 per credit (out-of-state)
  • Time: 4 years
  • Prerequisite: N/A

This undergraduate program is a must for students pursuing a job in the director of nursing track. Additionally, it is ideal for registered nurses or those who have associate degrees in nursing. The course takes approximately four years to complete.

Many healthcare facilities require completion of this course as the minimum requirement for entry-level nursing positions.

Master of Science in Nursing

  • Provider, e.g.: Johns Hopkins University
  • Cost: $63,192 (full-time/per year)
  • Time: 2-3 years
  • Prerequisite: Bachelor’s degree in a discipline other than nursing from an accredited college or university

According to multiple sources, a master of science in nursing (MSN) will significantly increase your chances of landing an administrative or managerial role in a healthcare facility. The coursework combines practical training with classroom-based studies.

Most MSN programs will require a time commitment of approximately two years. Additionally, there are online courses designed to keep you safe as you study during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are a ton of colleges, universities, and medical institutions offering this program. However, only Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, Duke, and the University of South Carolina boast graduation rates of at least 90 percent.

Nursing Director Certificates

Here are a couple of top nursing certifications that you should consider earning to increase your chances of landing a job as a nursing director.

The Director of Nursing Services Certification (DNS-CT)

Having this certificate means that you will possess the necessary skills to master the challenges of being a director of nursing services.

But before you earn this certification, you will need a registered nurse license, two years of on-the-job experience serving as a DNS or its equivalent. Additionally, you’ll have to pass your DNS-CT exams with a score of 80 percent or higher.

Nurse Executive Certification (NE-BC)

This certification is valid for five years. Holders of this certification have demonstrated entry-level knowledge of nursing and leadership skills in a nursing environment.

Certified Director of Nursing Exam (CDONA)

This certification is available from the National Association of Directors of Nursing Administration in Long Term Care. To earn it, you have to be a director of nursing for at least a year.

Should You Become a Nursing Director in 2021?

If you were considering a career path as a nursing director, 2021 might just be your year. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the job outlook indicated a steady increase over the next decade, and now with the pandemic’s ongoing impact, there will be job opportunities for you in 2021.

There are many reasons why you should consider pursuing a career as a director of nursing, including a higher-than-average salary, and the ability to make a real difference in patient care.

If you are already a registered nurse, the process should be fairly straightforward: earn a master’s degree or the relevant certification. If you are not a registered nurse, don’t be discouraged. Enroll for a bachelor's degree in a nursing-related field and start your journey as a nursing director today.


Can a registered nurse become a director of nursing?
Yes, you can. Registered nurses are often responsible for running the wards or units in healthcare facilities. Experience gained here is essential in developing into a director of nursing when combined with the required education.
Is the director of nursing the highest-earning director?
It depends on the institution. However, there are top-level managers in healthcare facilities who earn more than DONs.
What are the primary responsibilities of a director of nursing?
A nursing director's primary responsibility is to oversee and manage a healthcare center's nursing services to ensure optimal patient care.
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