What It Takes to Be a Nurse Educator

Nurse Educator Career and Degree Guide


Learn the basics of being a nurse educator and decide for yourself if you have what it takes.

If you’re interested in the future of nursing and have a love of teaching, a career as a nurse educator might be right for you. As a nurse educator, you’ll be a mentor and a role model to students studying nursing at junior colleges, universities, and professional schools, and you’ll impact the evolution of nursing and healthcare. 

If you’ve been thinking about becoming a nurse educator, now could be your time. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is forecasting a very robust 18% growth in nurse educator jobs through 2029, far above the average growth of 4% forecast for all jobs nationally.

This anticipated increase in nurse educator jobs is driven by several factors:

  • There’s a critical shortage of nurses across the country and a need to graduate more nurses each year to offset the deficit.
  • 70% of full-time nursing faculty are over the age of 45 and approaching retirement and need to be replaced, according to Beverly Malone, CEO of the National League for Nursing (NLN).  
  • Nursing schools in the U.S. turned away more than 80,000 qualified applicants in 2019, largely because they didn’t have enough faculty to teach them, says Robert Rosseter, chief communications officer for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Given numbers like these, “addressing the nursing faculty shortage needs to be a top public policy priority,” says Malone.

If you’re thinking about becoming a nurse educator, learn more about this career and whether you’re teacher material.

Overview

As a nurse educator, you’ll teach nurses at all levels about nursing issues and patient care, either in the classroom or a clinical setting. Depending on your education and experience, your students might include:

  • Aspiring nurses just beginning coursework
  • Newly minted registered nurses (RNs)
  • Experienced nurses preparing for certification in a specialty
  • Nurses moving to a new unit in a hospital setting
  • Graduate students pursuing advanced degrees

Whether your students are new to nursing or operate at the highest levels of policy and executive administration, you’ll use your experience to train them in the skills and knowledge they need and your passion to mentor and guide them in their development.

What Nurse Educators Do

Nurse educators are responsible for multiple aspects of student learning, training, and development. Depending on your areas of expertise, you might:

  • Train students in a simulation lab
  • Decide the best approach to a course of study
  • Facilitate group discussions in the classroom
  • Design curriculum
  • Advise students on teaching practicums and research projects
  • Supervise students in clinical rotations

Depending on your role and level of education, you may also be involved in the governance and direction of a nursing program and scientific research.

Here’s a closer look at some of the roles of a nurse educator.

Design Curriculum and Instruction

As a nurse educator, you’ll be responsible for designing curriculum, creating the structure and pace of your classroom, and deciding what textbooks and other materials your students will use.

Lecture and Guide Classroom Discussions

You’ll deliver lectures exploring a variety of issues and promote student interaction and the exploration of ideas through classroom discussions on topics including health policy, standards of care, care of specific populations, specialization, and more.

Supervise Lab and Clinical Work

You’ll instruct students in procedure, observe their interactions with patients, provide guidance as they work, provide feedback on results, and evaluate their performance

Supervise Student Teaching, Research, and Internships

You’ll likely work closely with students, overseeing their teaching field experience, clinical assignments, and research projects. If you teach at a hospital, you may be a preceptor and use your experience to provide invaluable feedback on student clinical rotations.

Research and Publish Findings

If you teach at a university and have a doctorate, you’ll likely conduct research in addition to teaching. Many nurse educators study trends, evaluate policies, and do research on topics like improvements in patient care.

Many times their findings are published in peer-reviewed journals, and they may advocate for policies that improve nursing practice and global health. Because they are authoritative voices in nursing practice, their research can dramatically impact the field.

Does a Nurse Educator Treat Patients?

Some nurse educators continue to treat patients, even after they move into teaching. Whether you provide care will depend on your personal preferences, your position, and your employer’s requirements.

Nurse educators who teach in the classroom or hold leadership positions often continue to treat patients to maintain their expertise. Many clinical nurse educators continue to work in clinical practice but also teach clinicals one or two days a week as adjunct faculty.

Donna R. Swope, an adjunct professor of nursing at Stevenson University, says a nurse educator who maintains their clinical skills has more career options.

Nurse Educator Specialization

As a nurse educator, you’ll be expected to have advanced knowledge in nursing practice and healthcare, one or more specialty areas, and nursing education and instruction. You’ll gain this knowledge through formal education and work experience.

If you’re an experienced nurse with multiple specialties and certifications, pat yourself on the back—you’re already on your way to building a solid resume as a nurse educator.

In fact, it’s common for nurse educators to have multiple specialties and to teach in those areas. For example, Swope’s specialty is obstetrics, and she has certifications in three areas related to her specialty: inpatient obstetrics, lactation management, and pregnancy loss.

Becoming certified as a nurse educator isn’t required, but many employers prefer teachers with that distinction.

Beyond thinking about clinical specialties, you’ll want to consider becoming certified by the National League for Nursing as an academic nurse educator (CNE) or academic clinical nurse educator (CNEcl). Many employers indicate a preference for these certifications, an even require them, in job descriptions.

As you consider becoming a teacher, think also about the type of student you might prefer to work with. You’ve likely already had some experience training or mentoring a new nurse or an experienced nurse new to a clinical unit. Perhaps you’ve worked on research projects with doctoral students at your clinic.

You might find that you prefer teaching students who are in the first semester at a junior college or working with highly experienced students who are earning their master’s or doctorate in a specialty.

Your preferences also may play a role in the degree you pursue as a nurse educator.

Career Paths

The career path you choose might depend on your area of nursing expertise and choice of employer. As you gain experience in the field, you might be able to take on leadership or administrative roles. Some positions you could hold as a nurse educator include:


Clinical nurse educator

Teaches clinical components of nursing


Nursing instructor

Teaches classroom courses


Professor of nursing

Teaches at the university level; may also do research and publish


Simulator lab instructor

Trains students in clinical skills in a simulation lab


Nursing curriculum coordinator

Identifies education requirements and training for nursing staff  


Nursing education consultant

Advises nursing schools about accreditation, curriculum, and faculty development


Dean of nursing

Manages administrative functions for a nursing school


Where Nurse Educators Work

Most nurse educators work in academia, while others are employed at medical centers or work in consulting and policy positions. According to the BLS, the top five workplaces for nurse educators and the number employed are:

Top Workplaces for Nurse Educators

Number Employed


Colleges, universities, professional schools

34,310

Junior colleges

17,840

General medical and surgical hospitals

4,230

Technical or trade schools

2,280

Business schools, computer and management training

340

Qualities of a Successful Nurse Educator

A love of teaching and mentoring are the two most obvious qualities for a successful nurse educator, but there are other important skills and abilities someone in this position should have:

Strong communication skills

Delivers information in a way that students will understand

Deductive reasoning

Applies broad concepts to day-to-day experiences and problem solving

Inductive reasoning

Uses available information to reach conclusions

Understanding others

Comprehends communication and questions from students and peers

Other useful qualities include organizational and leadership skills, creativity, compassion, patience, and a sense of humor.

Educational Requirements

To become a nurse educator, a graduate degree is required in nearly all circumstances—at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), though many nurse educators hold doctoral degrees, such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Doctor of Nursing Philosophy (PhD).

If you want to teach full time at the university level, a PhD or DNP is recommended and strongly preferred by employers.

If you want to teach full time at the university level, a PhD or DNP is strongly preferred by employers. For nurse educators who work in other settings, such as diploma programs, community colleges or vocational-technical schools, an MSN may meet the requirements. In remote or rural areas, a community college or vocational-technical school may accept a bachelor’s degree.

Prerequisites

Generally, clinical nurse educators need two to three years of hands-on nursing experience before they can teach clinicals. Also, many graduate nursing programs require nursing experience for admission.

To enroll in a graduate nursing program, you’ll need to meet program prerequisites, which can vary by school. Swope strongly recommends consulting with program advisors before making decisions. In most cases, to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s in nursing and be an RN.

Graduate Degrees for Nurse Educators

Most classroom nurse educators pursue an MSN or PhD degree. Those who focus on practice and patient care and intend to become adjunct faculty to teach clinicals may pursue a DNP.

Here’s a brief overview of the most common degrees earned by nurse educators.

Master of Science in Nursing

  • Completion in 18 months to two years, full time
  • Requires one to two years of nursing experience for admission
  • Areas of specialization include education, administration, health policy
  • Classes cover advanced topics in nursing and healthcare
  • Includes a teaching practicum
  • A capstone educator project is required for graduation
  • Graduates are prepared to teach at community colleges, technical schools, and diploma schools

Doctor of Nursing Practice

  • Nursing practice-oriented degree
  • With an MSN, completion in two years, full time
  • Admission with BSN or MSN degree
  • Areas of specialization include family or pediatric nurse practitioner, midwife, nurse anesthetist, informaticist
  • Courses are advanced topics on nursing, healthcare, and chosen specialty
  • Requires 1,000 hours of clinical immersion and practicum hours
  • If instruction in nursing education is not part of the curriculum, graduates may need a post-graduate course and certificate to teach at the university level
  • A DNP practice capstone project is required
  • Graduates are prepared to practice in their specialty and may be prepared to teach clinicals

Doctor of Nursing Philosophy (PhD)

  • Teaching and research-oriented degree
  • Completion in three to six years, full time
  • Admission with BSN or MSN degree
  • Courses are advanced topics on nursing, healthcare, research, education, and publication
  • Requires teaching and research practicums
  • If instruction in nursing education is not part of the curriculum, graduates may need a post-graduate course and certificate to teach at the university level
  • Requires completion and defense of a dissertation or research project
  • Graduates are generally prepared to teach at any level and do research

If you’re interested in working as a nurse educator but don’t have your BSN, you may be able to apply to an accelerated program. Some of these programs allow students to fast track from an associate’s degree to an MSN.

Online Nurse Educator Programs

student at desk with laptop in video lecture

There are a number of high-quality online programs for those in the nursing field. Online graduate programs allow you to work through theory-based coursework in online courses but fulfill clinical requirements and practicums at approved clinical sites in your area.

Online and campus curricula are the same, but online learning gives you more flexibility in deciding when and where you’ll do classwork. Instead of sitting in a classroom, you may be parked at a picnic table by the lake while working on assignments.

Online courses can make it possible for you to pursue your degree while providing the flexibility you need to work, take care of your family, and handle the other important responsibilities in your life, like taking your puppy for a walk.

School and Program Accreditation

As you research programs, check to make sure both the school and the nursing program are accredited by the appropriate agencies. This is important for applying for federal aid, grants, and scholarships.

In addition, if you want to transfer credits to an accredited school, the credits must be from an accredited school. Possibly most important, many employers will only consider candidates from accredited programs.

Becoming a Certified Nurse Educator (CNE)

While certification isn’t currently required for nurse educators, it’s highly recommended and may give you a competitive edge in your field. Nurse educators earn certification from the NLN by taking the Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) exam or the Certified Academic Clinical Nurse Educator (CNEcl) exam.

Many employers prefer applicants with certification, while others require it. At a minimum, to take one of the CNE certification exams, you’ll need:

  • An active and unrestricted RN license
  • An MSN

Financial Aid

Although government financial aid is the most common, you may also find assistance with nursing scholarships, grants, private loans, government-backed loans, and work-study programs.

To be considered for federal aid, loans, and most school scholarships and grants, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

To be eligible, your school and program must both be accredited by approved accreditation bodies, such as:

  • The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • One of the regional accrediting organizations affiliated with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)

Salary and Job Outlook

With a BLS forecast of 18% growth in nurse educator jobs through 2029, the job outlook is particularly strong in this field.

Nurse educator salaries can vary depending on factors such as your employer, your level of education, and where you work. According to the BLS, the annual average salary for postsecondary nursing instructors is $83,160, with a range of $41,130 to $133,460.

Job growth for nurse educators is expected to be 18% through 2029, far above the average of 4% forecast for all jobs nationally.

Salaries can also vary depending on the geographic area in which you work. For example, the average salary in Washington, D.C., is $157,560, while the salary in West Virginia is $58,590.

Stay Informed

Do further research and stay current on the latest news and trends by checking out these sites and publications for nurse educators:

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)
  • Association for Nursing Professional Development  (ANPD)
  • The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing
  • Journal of Nursing Education
  • National League for Nursing (NLN)
  • National Nursing Staff Development Organization (NNSDO)

sheila mickool

Written and reported by:

Sheila Mickool

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

donna swope

Donna R. Swope, MS, RN

Adjunct Professor of Nursing, Stevenson University

beverly malone

Beverly Malone

President and CEO, National League for Nursing