7 Steps to Becoming a Director of Nursing

7 Min Read Published September 27, 2023
Female healthcare professional in lab coat at desk with laptop computer

Looking for a nursing career that’s not at the bedside? Becoming a Director of Nursing could be the right path for you! Nursing Directors are key administrators in the healthcare system. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals while overseeing the day-to-day operations of a nursing department or all of the nursing departments within a hospital. With high pay and many opportunities for career advancement, it’s a highly sought-after position. 

If you are considering becoming a Director of Nursing, this career guide will give you all of the information you need to make that decision.

Ready to take the plunge? The first step is earning your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Here are some of the top programs:

What is a Director of Nursing?

A Director of Nursing, also known as a Nurse Director, is an advanced nursing role where you’re responsible for leading a nursing department or an entire healthcare system.

Nursing Directors typically have years of bedside clinical nursing experience and have honed their leadership in nursing skills. They've also completed an advanced education -- either an MSN or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

As a Director of Nursing, you will have a lot of responsibilities, including overseeing the nursing staff, as well as communicating between the nursing and medical teams and other healthcare professionals throughout the organization.

>> Click to See MSN Programs

Director of Nursing Salary

The Nursing Director role certainly comes with a lot of responsibilities, but it has a high salary to match. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a 2022 median salary of $104,830 per year or $50.40/hr. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $64,100, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $209,990. The BLS does not differentiate between different healthcare administrators and managers, so this figure isn’t specific to Directors of Nursing.

However, according to Glassdoor, the average annual director of nursing salary is $148,149, while Payscale.com reports an annual average salary of $95,679 or $41.87/hr. 

How to Make the Most Money as a Director of Nursing

Both your experience level and where you work can impact how much you can make as a Nursing Director.

Director of Nursing Salaries by Levels of Experience

Directors of Nursing can earn a higher annual salary with increased years of experience. Payscale found that:

  • Less than 1 year of experience earns an average salary of $85,174
  • 1-4 years of experience earns an average salary of $89,200
  • 5-9 years of experience earns an average salary of $92,317
  • 10-19 years of experience earns an average salary of $100,178
  • 20+ years of experience earns an average salary of $101,778

Highest Paying States for Directors of Nursing 

As of 2023, the highest paying states for Directors of Nursing that have reported salaries, according to ZipRecruiter.com, are:

  • Nevada - $105,542
  • Massachusetts - $104,103
  • Alaska - $100,516
  • Washington - $96,671
  • New York - $94,171

>> Show Me Online MSN Programs

What Does a Director of Nursing Do?

As a Director of Nursing, you’ll work with the day-to-day operations of a hospital unit, hospital, department, or other healthcare setting. Your specific responsibilities will depend on the work location, but your duties may include:

  • Managing and leading all nursing personnel operations
  • Acting as a point of contact between the nursing staff and all other health consultants 
  • Creating a standard of care that complies with state and national standards of care and law
  • Monitoring expenses, finances, and accounting
  • Collaborating with all health staff members and outside agencies to improve the quality of services provided and to resolve any problems
  • Overseeing hiring, firing, and development of nursing staff
  • Developing short and long-term goals for the nursing department
  • Establishing new policies and updating existing policies to improve the standard of care for patients

Directors of Nursing generally work alongside other healthcare administrators, either from a central corporate location or an individual facility. Typically, Nursing Directors work during normal business hours such as 9-5 pm but may be needed to work off shifts including evenings, nights and weekends.  They can work in a variety of settings including:

  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities 
  • Insurance companies
  • Healthcare Corporations
  • Government agencies
  • Academia
  • Private practices
  • Outpatient care centers

How to Become a Director of Nursing

1. Attend Nursing School

The first step to becoming a Director of Nursing is nursing school. You’ll need to earn either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing program in order to take the first steps to becoming a registered nurse. 

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN

Your next step is to pass the NCLEX examination in order to become a registered nurse (RN).

3. Gain Experience or Continue Your Education

Nurses can choose to gain some nursing experience before going back to school or go directly into an MSN program depending on their unique situation. ADN-prepared nurses will need to complete an additional step of either completing their BSN degree or entering into an accelerated RN to MSN program which will let them earn their BSN and MSN at the same time.

>> Related: Top BSN to MSN programs

4. Graduate with an MSN degree

In order to become a Director of Nursing, you’ll need at least a Master’s degree, typically in healthcare administration or nursing leadership. 

>> Click to See MSN Programs

5. Get Certified

There are several certifications for Directors of Nursing. The most specific is offered by the American Association of Directors of Nursing Services is the Director of Nursing Services - Certification (DNS-CT). In order to be eligible for this exam, you’ll need to hold a current RN license and have the equivalent of two years of full-time long-term or post-acute care experience, with a minimum of one year of experience either as a DNS or relevant nursing leadership experience.

Other Certifications for Directors of Nursing are:

6. Get a Management Role 

Aspiring Directors of Nursing will want to obtain a role in management to get the experience they need. This can be something like a nurse manager, clinical leader, or department manager.

>> Related: Nurse Manager Salary Guide

7. Enroll in a Doctoral Nursing Program or Gain Administrative Experience

This is not always a requirement for Nursing Directors; however, most places of employment will want Nursing Directors to have a doctoral degree. 

What is the Career Outlook for a Director of Nursing?

According to the BLS, employment of medical and health services managers is projected to grow 28% from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations.

What are the Continuing Education Requirements for a Director of Nursing?

Directors of Nursing have the same continuing education requirements as other RNs. This will vary on a state-by-state basis. There are no specific CEU requirements related to this nursing title unless they have obtained an advanced certification. Even though Directors of Nursing no longer work at the bedside, they must maintain their RN certification for this specific position. 

All advanced certifications require a minimum number of CEUs to maintain certification. These generally have to be related to administration, leadership, and management. They can also be used for RN licensure renewal. 

Generally, in order for an individual to renew their RN license, they will need to fill out an application, complete a specific number of CEU hours, and pay a nominal fee. Each state has specific requirements and it is important to check with the board of nursing prior to applying for license renewal.

You can find a detailed look at Continuing Nurse Education hours here.

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Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Director of Nursing?

Becoming a Director of Nursing requires hard work, dedication, and determination. You need to be able to multitask, have strong leadership skills, clinical skills, and communication skills. This position requires years of dedication and multiple levels of advanced education and certifications. It is not a quick process and generally, individuals know they want to take an administrative path vs. bedside nursing path early in their career, but it’s a journey that’s well worth it!

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Director of Nursing FAQs

  • What is the role of the Director of Nursing?

    • The Director of Nursing is responsible for overseeing the nursing department in an administrative capacity. They are responsible for reviewing policies and procedures, implementing changes, developing a budget, and supporting the staff. 
  • What makes a good Director of Nursing?

    • Directors of Nursing must be good communicators, have strong clinical abilities and leadership skills. They need to be professional, compassionate, and flexible. They should also have experience in staff development, delegation, legal compliance, operations and budget management, and treatment planning. 
  • How do you become a Director of Nursing?

    • A Nursing Director must first earn an RN through an accredited program. After gaining bedside experience, they will need to continue their education by obtaining an MSN with a focus in leadership or administration. While a DNP or Ph.D. is not required for this position, it will make an individual more marketable. 
  • How much does a Director of Nursing make?

    • According to Payscale.com, reports an annual average salary of $95,679 or $41.87/hr for Directors of Nursing.

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Kathleen Gaines
MSN, RN, BA, CBC
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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