Here’s What You’ll Study in a Nurse Educator Degree Program

Nurse educators train the future generation of nurses. Find out what nurse educator degree you’ll need to teach others.

What nurse educator degree levels are available?

Nurse educator careers are an important part of the field, but first you’ll need to learn from someone. In order to take on a leadership role in the field of nursing and become a nurse educator, you’ll need either a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a PhD in nursing. Whether you earn an MSN or PhD will depend on the level of coursework you want to teach.

Before you reach graduate-level degree programs, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). The good news is nursing is one field where there is a wide range of ways to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Five types of Bachelor’s Degrees in Nursing:

  • BSN: 4-year degree and the prerequisite for applying to graduate nursing school. The first two years cover core requirements and the latter two years focus primarily on nursing. This degree is a good start for aspiring nurse educators who will eventually decide on a specialty.
  • LPN-to-BSN: Within four semesters, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) can earn a BSN.
  • RN-to-BSN: This unique path gives RNs with an associate’s degree or diploma the chance to further their career while working.
  • Second-degree BSN: Intended for someone who already has a 4-year degree in another field and is interested in changing careers. This program can often be completed in two years or less because credit is given for the liberal arts education from the original degree.
  • Accelerated Degree BSN: As the name implies, students can finish their degree in a shorter period of time (usually 12 to 20 months).

As an example of a typical course load, Capella University’s online RN-to-BSN program offers the following classes:

  • Natural Science and Mathematics
  • Humanities
  • Assessment, Communication and Collaboration
  • Policy, Law, Ethics and Regulations
  • Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in Vulnerable and Diverse Populations
  • Pharmacology for Patient Safety
  • Capstone course during student’s final quarter

Once your undergraduate program is completed, you will need to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX exam covers four “categories of needs,” according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing:

  • Safe, effective care environment: Management care and safety and infection control
  • Psychosocial integrity: Coping and adaptation and psychosocial adaptation
  • Health promotion and maintenance: Growth and development through the life span and prevention and early detection of disease
  • Physiology integrity: Basic care and comfort, pharmacological and parenteral therapies, reduction of risk potential and physiological adaptation

Master’s Degree Programs

MSN programs are generally a two-year commitment and many can be done using a flexible online format or at a traditional campus. While you’ll be earning your graduate degree, you’ll also be trained in a specialty of your choosing.

Pay close attention to what focus an MSN program has. You’ll want to choose one that has an emphasis on education. These courses will teach you about curriculum development, teaching theory and other areas of teaching strategy.

To get a better understanding of what MSN coursework will entail, Regis University’s MSN program: Education Focus offers the following classes:

Ethics for Nurse Leaders: An overview of ethical dilemmas, faith-based and philosophical foundations and how ethical and moral reasoning plays a role in advanced nursing. Students are taught how to assess issues ethical using theory, moral argument and case studies.

Advanced Physiology and Pathophysiology: Science-based, this course covers disease processes, treatments, etiology and the differences between physiological and pathophysiological issues.

Teaching/Learning Strategies in Health Care: Students are taught how to educate a wide swath of learners in different settings. Education theory, assessing student needs and evidence-based teaching is covered.

Curriculum Development: Covers curriculum design and how to implement one, evaluation strategies, continuing education. Students are asked to analyze health care trends and the effect they have on creating a curriculum.

Generally, MSN programs include a clinical practicum, where students treat patients for a certain amount of hours (this requirement varies by state). Programs will often use a tiered approach to teach students in their particular specialty. In-depth training comes after theory and practice classes.

Doctoral Programs

Nurse educators earn a different type of doctoral degree than others in the nursing field. Instead of getting a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, a nurse educator earns a Doctor of Nursing Philosophy (PhD) degree instead.

A PhD program will use your previous education as a building block and delve deeper into the theoretical foundation of nursing and health care delivery, leadership and public policy. The intent of these programs is to teach aspiring nurse educators how to conduct research and work as professors and administrators.

As an example of this type of program, University of Phoenix’s Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program covers complex issues like the globalization of health care and risk management. To complete the program, students must also submit a dissertation.

Earning a PhD takes serious dedication. Research programs thoroughly to understand the commitment you will be making both with your time and effort.

What certification will I need?

Nurse educators with an active RN license and at least an MSN can sit for the National League for Nursing (NLN) certification exam to earn a Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) certification. While certification is not required in order to work as an educator, most employers prefer you have it.

Being certified tells those in the field, as well as students, that you’re an expert in your specialization and have the skills to teach future nurses. In other words, it’s a mark of excellence.

What will I learn in my courses?

Core science and general nursing topics are taught in undergraduate programs, but students will notice a much narrower focus in graduate school once you determine a specialty. To teach at a graduate level, you’ll need a PhD that has an emphasis on education.

Students can be prepared to delve into topics like ethics in health care, health assessment, nursing theory and philosophy, research methods, curriculum development, teaching strategies, policy and law.

MSN programs typically require students to have a certain amount of clinical hours in order to graduate. Doctoral students finish with a dissertation and defense.

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a nursing degree can take the following time to complete:

  • A bachelor’s degree program takes four years
  • Accelerated BSN programs range from 12 to 20 months
  • Second-degree BSN generally takes two years or less
  • Master’s programs  generally require two years
  • Doctoral degrees range between two and three years in length

Attending part-time is usually an option at most schools, but bear in mind it will take longer to complete.

Are online programs available?

Students can take their pick from online MSN and PhD options at a range of schools. Online programs may offer live web-based teaching and interactive group discussions. When it’s time to complete clinical hours, online programs typically set students up at a site the school has partnered with.

For PhD programs which require a short residency, students will engage in clinical or field experiences.

Are there prerequisites?

Nurse educators interested in teaching licensed practical nurse programs or associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree programs must hold an MSN. Because MSN programs use undergraduate courses as their building blocks, certain prerequisites apply. For those with a BSN, graduate school prerequisites might look similar to this:

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing school
  • Active registered nurse (RN) license
  • Completion of statistics course with satisfactory grade
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal statement explaining the reasons you want to become a CNS
  • Satisfactory score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

If this doesn’t describe your background, there are still plenty of options depending on your timetable and how soon you want to get to work as a nurse educator.

The first option is to enroll in an undergraduate program and follow the traditional path to earning an MSN.  If you aren’t a nurse, but have a 4-year degree in another field, consider an accelerated program which allows students to earn their BSN and MSN simultaneously.

  • Doctoral program prerequisites can vary, but generally you’ll need:
  • MSN from an accredited college or university
  • Satisfactory GPA from MSN program
  • Active RN license
  • Minimum work experience
  • Current employment in nursing or health care

Some online programs will require you have access to a health care organization where you can complete certain assignments.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Attending an accredited nursing school opens many doors for students since it’s often a gateway for students to study in federally-funded and state entitlement programs. Secondly, one degree from an accredited school allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools. Employers will also look at your educational background and a degree from an accredited school will often give you an advantage.

You should look for two accreditation organizations when searching MSN programs.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which is recognized as a national accreditation agency by the U.S. Secretary of Education, accredits master’s and bachelor’s programs. CCNE does not accredit PhD programs.

Programs can also be accredited by the nationally-recognized Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), which gives their seal of approval for clinical doctorate’s, master’s, bachelor’s, associate’s and diploma programs. ACEN does not accredit PhD nursing programs.

PhD nursing education schools should be regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Non-accredited schools: If you’re thinking of attending a non-accredited, but state board-approved school, there can be drawbacks. Generally, education from a non-accredited school doesn’t qualify students to attend an accredited school. If you’re thinking about a career as a nurse educator where an MSN of PhD is necessary, attending a non-accredited undergraduate school can limit your options in the future.

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