Every nursing career begins with exceptional education. That’s why the industry needs professionals who are passionate about preparing future nurses to handle the clinical, technical, social, and managerial aspects of patient care.
Unfortunately, nursing faculty shortages have forced many educational institutions to reduce enrollment. According to an American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) report, undergraduate and graduate nursing programs turned down 80,407 applicants in 2019 due to the scarcity of staff and teaching resources. Many attribute this shortage to the highly competitive salaries of nurse practitioners and the high number of aging faculty who are retiring. As a result, job vacancies have risen to 7.2 percent.
If you’re interested in breaking the cycle in the decreasing numbers in nursing education, then consider becoming a nurse educator. Here’s an overview of how to become a nurse educator and the educational pathways from which you can choose.
While becoming a nurse educator isn’t necessarily an initial career goal of nursing professionals, many stumble onto this rewarding career path of mentoring the future generation of healthcare while on the job. Because of this, many nurses are unaware of the steps needed to become a nurse educator or higher education faculty member.
Here’s an overview of the steps needed to become a nurse educator today.
Before you can become a nurse educator, you’ll need a nursing degree and work experience as a registered nurse (RN) or nurse practitioner (NP).
RNs are nursing professionals who’ve obtained either an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and obtained a license. These degrees offer the knowledge and skills needed to provide care in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
Nurse practitioners, however, earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and obtain licensure, giving them the expertise to perform more complex duties (e.g., diagnosing conditions and prescribing medicine). Nurses with an ADN or BSN have the option to transition to nurse practitioner careers through specialized degree programs.
Nurse instructors provide practical training to help nursing students build real-world clinical skills. They are registered nurses with at least a BSN degree and a few years of clinical experience. “A lot of our DNP students are clinical instructors. They often work at hospitals or clinics where we send our students for their rotations," says Dr. Donna Barry, director of the DNP on-campus programs at Regis College. “So, they start out in nursing education that way.”
Before becoming clinical instructors, nurses often choose a specific practice area, such as gerontology, women's health, or pediatrics. They're able to hone their skills through specialized experience, which makes clinical instructors better equipped to teach nursing students how to deliver quality care in different healthcare environments.
Earning a master's degree is often required to become a nurse educator. At this stage in their career, nurses have a few years of experience and a much clearer understanding of what they’re interested in. An MSN degree provides the opportunity to gain more proficiency in a nursing specialty, as well as challenges nurses to start evaluating healthcare practices and systems from a managerial point of view.
Entry requirements for an MSN degree program vary depending on your educational and professional background. For instance, BSN to MSN graduate programs are exclusively for registered nurses who already have experience as healthcare providers. On the other hand, a direct-entry master’s degree in nursing is intended for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing-related field.
MSN programs are highly competitive due in part to the shortage in nursing faculty. To apply, you’ll typically need to submit graduate record exam (GRE) scores, college transcripts, a resume detailing your work history, and a personal statement about your career goals.
Although certification isn't strictly required for nurse educators, obtaining respected credentials can open the door to more opportunities. “You can become a certified nurse educator (CNE) through the National League for Nursing,” says Dr. Barry. Since you must demonstrate specific knowledge and skills to earn the certification, it can instantly communicate your qualifications to potential employers.
Many institutions won't require certification, while others value the prestige of having a fully certified faculty. However, employers don't typically cover these certification costs, so it's up to you to decide if earning one will serve your career goals.
Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) will allow you to work as a nurse educator at the highest levels and qualify you for many other organizational leadership roles in healthcare. DNP programs prepare nurses to evaluate the systemic goals and challenges of the healthcare system, to better position nurses to develop healthcare practices and policies most beneficial to patients and healthcare workers.
To enroll in a DNP program, you must have a bachelor's or master’s degree in nursing. Most institutions will also require you to have a few years of clinical experience, as it's crucial to have real-world insight and focused interests before pursuing a doctorate.
So, how long does it take to become a nurse educator? The simple answer is... it depends. Unlike most nursing roles, nurse educator positions don't necessarily have a clearly defined educational path. Some prospective nurses may set out with the goal of being an educator and accelerate their education to achieve this sooner. But it's more common for experienced nurses to make this decision after years on the job, either because they want a fulfilling new challenge or they want to earn more. No matter what your goals are, here are some ways to satisfy the nursing educator requirements.
The best path to a nursing faculty position depends on where you are in your career. Here are some educational programs you can pursue to make progress toward a DNP degree.
An MSN to DNP program is designed for nurses with a master's degree. At this level, nursing students already have substantial clinical and leadership training along with practical experience. A reputable DNP program will allow further specialization and incorporate more research and evidence-based practice. For example, Regis College’s MSN to DNP online program explores ethics, informatics, policymaking, and leadership to equip nurses to navigate the changing dynamics of healthcare and nursing education.
A BSN to DNP degree is a bridge program designed for nurses with a bachelor’s degree. Similar to an MSN to DNP degree, this pathway allows specialization and trains nurses to research and evaluate factors that influence patient outcomes and organizational success.
Becoming a nurse educator is a natural career step for professionals who have been in the industry for years. Seasoned nurses have vast knowledge that’s valuable to younger generations, and serving as mentors and role models is one of the most beneficial ways to improve the nursing care industry as a whole.
If a nurse educator career sounds like the right option for you, consider advancing your education through one of Regis College’s DNP programs. Our experiential learning model gives nursing students both the theoretical and practical knowledge to grow as clinicians, educators, and leaders. Consider contacting an admission counselor to learn more about these degree programs and have all of the questions answered.