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Directors of Nursing: Step-by-Step Guide toward an Exciting Career as a DON

Directors of Nursing: Step-by-Step Guide toward an Exciting Career as a DON

You have been working as a nurse for a few years. It’s a tremendously rewarding career, but you feel like it may be time for the next step. Perhaps you want to climb higher up on the career ladder. Or you want to transition out of working bedside. You are ready to put your leadership skills, extensive nursing knowledge, and considerable clinical expertise to a new test. 

If that’s the case, we have just the career path for you: Director of Nursing. This position is a critical administrative role in the healthcare ecosystem. Nursing Directors essentially lead the nursing department and set the overarching standards of care. It’s a demanding job requiring great responsibility. But it’s also a fruitful career path that comes with many benefits: personal, financial, and professional. 

Curious to learn more about this exciting job? Then stick around because this guide will discuss everything you need to know about Directors of Nursing: how to become one, what duties and responsibilities to expect, the salary prospects, and much more. 

What is a Director of Nursing?

A Director of Nursing, also known as Nurse Director or DON, is an Advanced Registered Nurse in charge of leading the administrative work of a nursing department or entire healthcare system. They are responsible for overseeing the nursing staff, ensuring efficient communication between different departments within the medical facility, and the overall smooth running of the organization. Additionally, Nursing Directors are an essential resource for others within the community.

Obtaining a position as a Director of Nursing requires years of clinical nursing experience, strong managerial skills, and advanced education. Excellent communication abilities, conflict resolution, compassionate leadership, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as well as high levels of professionalism and up-to-date knowledge of nursing practices, methods, and tools are all essential qualities for a Nurse Director. 

A DON needs to possess these skills because their role is expansive and multifaceted with duties ranging from interpreting and updating nursing policy to managing large budgets. Directors of Nursing typically work full-time Monday to Friday office positions. 

Nursing director salary

How to Become a Director of Nursing?

Becoming a Nurse Director is a lengthier and more demanding process, which will result in great job satisfaction. Because it is a fairly extensive process, we created this step-by-step guide to help you navigate the schooling and training requirements necessary to secure this position.

Step 1. Enroll in a nursing program

Your nursing journey starts with attending nursing school. You can either enroll in an ADN program or BSN program to obtain nursing licensure. An Associate’s Degree in Nursing takes around two years to complete. Getting your Bachelor’s Degree implies spending about four years in school. Nightingale College’s BSN degree can be completed in as few as 32 months and equips you with the knowledge and skill necessary to succeed as a Registered Nurse. 

Step 2. Pass the NCLEX-RN

Completing a nursing program culminates with you sitting for the NCLEX-RN exam. This comprehensive examination tests your nursing knowledge and skills and determines your preparedness to become a Registered Nurse. Only after you pass the NCLEX-RN do you obtain licensure as an RN. 

Step 3. Gain experience

Nursing Directors need to have a few years of clinical experience before pursuing a job in this administrative role. On-the-ground nursing is an essential part of the DON’s training because it allows them to gain perspective on nursing practice. That, in turn, makes them better professionals once they reach this leadership position. It’s also a great way to hone your skills and ensure that you are up to the task of directing others.

Step 4. Continue your education

Generally, Directors of Nursing need to have at least an MSN Degree under their belt in order to secure this leadership role. BSN nurses can directly enroll in an MSN program and get their Master’s Degree in Nursing within a two year time frame. 

If you are an ADN-trained nurse, the next step would be to obtain your BSN degree, from which you can further advance towards an MSN. The easiest way is to enroll in a bridge RN-to-BSN program, as it allows you to get your BSN credential faster without giving up your job. Nightingale College’s online RN-to-BSN program is designed with working professionals in mind. That means you don’t need to sacrifice your career to further your education: our online format permits you to do both simultaneously. There are also accelerated RN-to-MSN programs that allow you to complete your BSN and MSN at the same time. 

Step 4. Obtain your MSN Degree

Regardless of the educational path you take, you need to graduate with a Master’s Degree in Nursing to go after DON positions. The most common MSN programs for aspiring Directors of Nursing are in healthcare administration or nursing leadership. 

Step 5. Continue your education: Part Two – Certification

At this point in your nursing journey, you probably realize that nurses never really stop learning. Education is an ongoing process for RNs, and especially because you’re aiming for a top leadership position, you always need to be on top of the game. 

Here’s where certification comes in. Getting certified is generally a voluntary process for nurses, but many benefits recommend going through this additional step. Certification is an excellent way to boost your confidence as a nurse, secure your peers’ respect and recognition, and open yourself to a larger pool of exciting job opportunities. 

Created explicitly for Nurse Directors is the Director of Nursing Services Certification (DNS-CT), originally developed by the American Association of Directors of Nursing Services, now part of AAPACN (American Association of Post Acute Care Nurses).

Obtaining this credential needs to meet the following criteria: 

  • You need to hold a current and unencumbered RN license
  • You need the equivalent of two years of full-time long-term or post-acute care experience
  • You need a minimum of one year of experience working as either DON or in another relevant nursing leadership position. 

Other certification options you can consider are:

director of nursing certification

Step 6: Optional – Enroll in a Doctoral Nursing Program

Having a Doctoral Degree is not an obligatory requirement for aspiring Nursing Directors. However, this credential allows further career development and growth. DONs with a doctorate can pursue more active roles in shaping the healthcare system’s future. 

Step 7: Reap the benefits of your hard work

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: it’s a challenging path to get from nursing student to Director of Nursing. Now that you have successfully completed all the other steps, it is time to work on your Director of Nursing resume, sharpen your interviewing skills (our guide with potential nursing interview questions and answers can help you) and prepare to go after your dream job! Your dedication and hard work are all rewarded once you get this leadership role. You can wholeheartedly enjoy this next step in your nursing career and work responsibly and confidently to lead and supervise your facility’s nursing department. 

What Are the Duties of a Nursing Director?

The job description of a Director of Nursing reflects the extensive training that goes into obtaining this nursing position. While some of the duties and responsibilities of a DON may differ from one medical facility to another, the common day-to-day tasks of a Nursing Director include:

  • Supervising and leading nursing staff
  • Advising medical staff, department heads, and other members of the hospital’s administration in matters related to nursing practice
  • Serving as the liaison between the nursing staff and the management of the institution
  • Ensuring high levels of nursing care for patients
  • Establishing new procedures and updating existing policies in line with the latest advancements in the nursing field 
  • Providing training for nurses on new procedures and policies to ensure that the standard of care for patients is always high
  • Overseeing recruiting, training, and onboarding of new nurses in the medical facility
  • Evaluating staff performance and keeping accurate reports 
  • Managing business plans and department budgets
  • Determining and planning both short-term and long-term goals for the nursing department.

DON salary

Where Do Directors of Nursing Work?

While hospitals remain the largest employer of DONs, essentially every facility with nursing staff will also hire a Nursing Director to oversee and lead the department. Directors of Nursing can also find jobs in long-term care facilities, private practices, outpatient care centers, insurance companies, healthcare corporations, or government agencies. 

What Is the Salary of a Nursing Director?

Nursing Directors receive competitive compensation. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t specifically mention the salaries for Directors of Nursing, it does indicate that Medical and Health Services Managers earn a median salary of $101,340 per year. To be more specialty-specific, we also turned to ZipRecruiter. Data from this leading job platform puts the annual wage for Directors of Nursing at $88,078 annually. The size of the paycheck will depend on several factors. Geographic location, employer, education, certification, and years of experience can all play a role in how much DONs earn.  

What Is the Job Outlook for Directors of Nursing? 

The job outlook for Directors of Nursing is excellent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the need for Registered Nurses will grow by 9% by 2030. As the need for nurses increases, so does the need for nursing professionals in management positions to oversee and lead them. The BLS reports that the employment of medical and health services managers is projected to grow 32% by the end of the decade, a much higher rate than other occupations. This points to high job security for DONs, an additional advantage of this exciting career. 

director of nursing jobs

Are You Ready to Start Your Journey Toward Nursing Leadership?

Being a Director of Nursing is an enriching career from which everyone benefits. You enjoy a challenging but fulfilling position. Nurses have a strong leader to rely on. Patients have access to quality care, and the healthcare system is improved by your professionalism, expertise, and knowledge. 

If that sounds like a role that piques your interest, start working toward it today! Enroll in Nightingale College’s BSN program or advance your education with our online RN-to-BSN program. Quality education is the foundation of a successful DON career, and we’re here to offer you just that!

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