7 Steps to Becoming a Director of Nursing

9 Min Read Published June 20, 2024
How to Become a Director of Nursing

Directors of nursing (DONs), also called nursing directors, are advanced, non-bedside nursing leaders. If you want to launch your nursing career to the next level, becoming a nursing director may be for you. Read this guide to learn how to become a director of nursing, including education requirements, responsibilities, salary expectations, and more.

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GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

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Purdue Global

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Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

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RN Required

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Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY and WA.

What is a Director of Nursing?

As key administrators in healthcare systems, directors of nursing collaborate with other healthcare professionals while overseeing the day-to-day operations of one or more nursing departments within a hospital. As a director of nursing, you will have many responsibilities, including supervising the nursing staff and communicating between the nursing and medical teams and other healthcare professionals throughout the organization.

Nursing directors typically have years of bedside clinical experience and have honed their leadership skills in nursing. They've also completed an advanced education—a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

>> Show Me Online MSN Programs

Director of Nursing Salary

The Nursing Director role certainly comes with many responsibilities, but it also has a high salary to match. According to Glassdoor, the average annual director of nursing salary is between $111,000 and $178,000. ZipRecruiter reports a slightly lower annual salary of $108,675 or $52 per hour.

Comparatively, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that medical and health service managers earned a median annual salary of $110,680 or $53.21 in 2023. However, BLS reports don't differentiate between DONs and other health service managers.

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 $92,058
  • 5-9 years of experience earns an average salary of $96,079
  • 10-19 years of experience earns an average salary of $102,558
  • 20+ years of experience earns an average salary of $104,279

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, are:

State Annual Salary Hourly Wage
Alaska $127,000 $61.06
Massachusetts $125,197 $60.19
Washington $120,467 $57.92
Nevada $120,079 $57.73
Colorado $118,063 $56.76

>> Show Me Online MSN Programs

What Does a Director of Nursing Do?

As a Director of Nursing, you’ll manage the day-to-day operations of a hospital unit, hospital, department, or other healthcare facility. 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

Workplace & Schedule Expectations

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

DONs 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. Become a Registered Nurse

The first step to becoming a Director of Nursing is nursing school. To become a registered nurse, you must earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing program. You'll then pass the NCLEX examination to become a registered nurse (RN).

>> Related: Top BSN to MSN programs

2. Gain Experience And/Or Continue Your Education

Depending on their unique situation, Nurses can gain some nursing experience before returning to school or entering an MSN program directly. ADN-prepared nurses will need to complete an additional step, either completing their BSN degree or entering an accelerated RN-to-MSN program, which allows them to earn their BSN and MSN simultaneously.

No matter what, you will need a Master of Science in Nursing degree from an accredited university to become a DON. The most popular MSN degrees for nursing directors are in healthcare administration or nursing leadership.

>> Show Me Online MSN Programs

3. 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 a nurse manager, clinical leader, or department manager.

>> Related: Nurse Manager Salary Guide

4. Get Certified

There are several certifications for Directors of Nursing. The American Association of Directors of Nursing Services offers the most specific DON certification, the Director of Nursing Services - Certification (DNS-CT).

To be eligible for this exam, you must hold a current RN license and have two years of full-time long-term or post-acute care experience, with at least one year of experience either as a DNS or relevant nursing leadership experience.

Other certifications for nursing directors include:

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

This is not always a requirement for directors of nursing; however, some employers will want nursing directors to have a doctoral degree. 

Popular Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY and WA.

Liberty University
At Liberty, you’ll benefit from 30+ years of learning, growing, adapting, and innovating for the distance learner — and more than a decade of researching the needs of the online student. You can be confident that we’ve taken the time to learn what’s important to you.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Simmons University

RNs with an associate degree: Advance your nursing career with a supportive online RN to BSN program for women. Simmons University has been empowering nursing leaders for more than 100 years and offering innovative online degree programs since 2013. Up to 96 transfer credits accepted. Request information now.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

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 2023 to 2033, much faster than the average for all occupations.

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

Directors of nursing have no continuing education units (CEUs) beyond maintaining RN licensure. Even though Directors of Nursing no longer work at the bedside, they must maintain their RN certification for this position. Typically, renewing an RN license means you must meet state-specific CEU requirements and pay a nominal fee. 

However, if the DON also has an advanced certification (e.g., a nurse practitioner or nurse-midwifery certification), they may choose to maintain that. All advanced credentials 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.

>> Show Me Online MSN Programs

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

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

>> Show Me Online MSN Programs

Director of Nursing FAQs

  • What is the role of the Director of Nursing?

    • The Director of Nursing oversees the nursing department in an administrative capacity. They review policies and procedures, implement changes, develop a budget, and support the staff. 
  • What makes a good Director of Nursing?

    • Directors of Nursing must be good communicators with 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 must continue their education by obtaining an MSN 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?

    • ZipRecruiter reports an annual average salary of $108,675 or $52 /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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