How to Become a Nurse Administrator: Career Overview & Next Steps

nurse administrators meet with hospital administrators

Learn what you’ll do as a nurse administrator and see if you’re the right fit for the job.

Nursing leadership and administration professionals can have an incredible impact on today’s healthcare industry, especially as the demand for reduced costs and better care has become a growing priority. The nurse administrator role can let you create positive change and improve outcomes in patient health.

Nurse administrators not only act as leaders, but they handle complicated matters such as policy, management, finance, and human resources.

Healthcare administration carries a lot of responsibility, but it can be immensely rewarding. If you’re eager for a new challenge, want the chance of a higher salary, and would like to earn more recognition, a career in nursing leadership could be a smart move. Read on to learn important details about the job description, degree programs, and potential salary.

What Is Nursing Leadership & Administration?

The definition of nursing leadership and management can be summarized in just a few words. It’s the role of planning, organizing, and facilitating the delivery of patient care through staff hiring, scheduling, training, and development.

Nurse administrators work in a variety of healthcare settings and take on a broad range of responsibilities, such as:

  • Managing and overseeing the work done by nursing personnel
  • Making efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of patient care
  • Serving as a liaison between governing boards, staff, and department heads
  • Developing budgets, approving expenses, setting rates, and managing other financial issues
  • Overseeing or participating in the hiring of new staff
  • Coordinating training
  • Evaluating services to make improvements and manage risk
  • Keeping tabs on the services and resources being used
  • Drafting staff work schedules

To succeed in the role, it’s helpful to develop specific leadership qualities beyond clinical knowledge and experience. A nurse administrator often needs to be:

  • A natural leader with the ability to grow strong interpersonal relationships
  • An active listener and strong communicator
  • An excellent problem solver and decision maker
  • A team builder and strategic planner
  • An analytical thinker who is also perceptive of social nuances
  • A flexible individual with good judgment and organizational skills

Types of Nurse Administrators

In nurse administration, there can be many different job titles and levels of responsibility. Some positions are first-line managers who directly coordinate nursing services, while others work as middle managers and oversee several units at once. There are others who even fill executive-level roles within a healthcare organization.

Nurse leader or clinical nurse leader (CNL)

clinical nurse leader is a nurse who holds a master’s degree and has passed a certification exam from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). CNLs may provide direct patient care, but they also oversee, advise, and mentor other team members, especially when it comes to complex procedures. CNLs can work in clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities, functioning as part of a larger team that may include physicians, social workers, pharmacists, and other nurses.

CNLs are trained to measure outcomes, assess risks, implement best practices, and initiate quality improvement measures. They also make “big picture” systemic changes to improve processes and prevent recurring problems.

Charge nurse, nurse shift leader, or nurse shift supervisor

As the name implies, a charge nurse is “in charge” of a department over the course of a shift. A charge nurse might also be called a nurse shift leader or nurse shift supervisor. These registered nurses often provide direct care to patients while also supervising the day-to-day activities performed by other staff.

Charge nurses provide direction and support to staff, manage schedules, maintain policies and safety procedures, mentor and on-board new team members, review treatment plans, and supervise patient admissions and discharges. They work in many different healthcare settings, including nursing homes, hospitals, and physician offices.

Nurse manager

Nurse managers take on similar responsibilities as a charge nurse—including budgeting and staffing a team of frontline nurses—but their jobs are not structured on a shift basis. They often have 24-hour accountability for the quality of care in their assigned area.

Nurse manager job duties may include staff evaluations, interviewing, hiring, scheduling, and managing leave requests. They also handle quality improvement activities, identify and respond to crisis situations, consult with other clinicians about complex cases, order medical supplies and equipment, and follow up with patient complaints.

Director of nursing

Another common job title for a nurse administrator is director of nursing. This supervisory position is responsible for planning, directing, and evaluating the nursing services offered in a medical facility such as a nursing home or rehab center.

A director of nursing is often responsible for determining staffing needs, writing job descriptions, implementing quality assurance programs, administering disciplinary action, planning the department budget, maintaining procedure manuals, and developing written policies, among other tasks.

It’s important for someone in this role to be knowledgeable of medical practices and be skilled in communicating tactfully with staff, patients, family members, and the general public.

Chief nursing officer

Nurse administrators can also fill executive-level roles within a healthcare organization, with a focus on operational infrastructure and the financial strength and efficiency of larger systems. There are several titles for this type of role, including chief nursing officer, executive director, and vice president of clinical operations.

Nurses in this position implement administrative practices, draft reports on operations within the company, manage organization-wide patient programs, work to improve the profitability of the organization, conduct quality assessment activities, and serve as a liaison with management staff and other departments throughout the organization.

Nurses in executive-level positions often collaborate with leaders on the board of directors, the CEO, and human resources. They must stay current on nursing practices, regulations, and laws related to their area of practice.

How do I choose a specialization?

It’s most common to choose a nursing specialization during graduate-level studies, but there are bachelor’s degree programs available that allow you to choose nurse administration as your specialization. In addition, if you want to specialize in a certain type of medical care, such as critical care or pediatrics, you may be able to take courses geared toward your interest.

How Nurse Administration Is Different from Nursing Practice

Working in a management capacity can be an exciting and challenging experience. You’ll not only be accountable for your own job performance, you’ll be responsible for helping your staff succeed and dealing with employee performance issues.

In a nurse administrator position, you need to be politically savvy and understand the unspoken company culture of your organization while also displaying effective leadership skills.

Will you still treat patients?

Whether or not you continue to treat patients depends on the specific role. Charge nurses, for example, often work directly with patients while also supervising other nurses in their department. However, as you move up the chain of command, you’ll spend more time on administrative duties such as budgeting, staffing, and strategic planning, and less time treating patients.

Nurses that fill executive-level roles focus on big-picture issues that affect the entire organization, rather than serving at the bedside of individual patients.

Nursing Administration Job Description

If you’d like to move into a leadership position and oversee a team of nurses—blending administrative skills with your healthcare expertise—a nurse administrator job may be right for you.

Here’s a quick recap of the nursing administration job description:

  • Supervise other nurses
  • Manage budgets
  • Ensure that medical procedures align with government regulations
  • Mentor and motivate staff to boost retention
  • Maintain records on services
  • Review and evaluate staff performance
  • Ensure operational efficiency and cost savings

Nursing Administration Salary

dollar sign icons representing salary data

The nurse administrator salary varies depending on level of responsibility, education, years of experience, location, type of employer, and specialization. According to the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical and health services managers earn a median annual salary of $98,350 per year.

Here’s how the health service manager salary compares to the median salaries for related roles:

Not surprisingly, nurses with advanced degrees and more senior-level titles tend to earn higher incomes than clinical staff.

Nurse Administrator Job Growth

According to the BLS, job opportunities for medical and health services managers are expected to increase 20% through 2026—a number that’s nearly 3 times larger than the national average for all occupations.

Employment opportunities for healthcare administrators will grow as the demand for medical services increases alongside the aging baby boomer population. In addition, more jobs will open up as baby boomers retire.

The demand for registered nurses is also projected to remain strong. Employment of RNs is forecast to grow 15% in the same time period.

How to Become a Nurse Administrator

There are a variety of paths and degree options that can help you learn how to become a nurse administrator. Many programs are designed for working adults and are available both online and on-campus, making it easier to fit education into your life and advance your career.

Education & degree requirements

Nurse administrators usually need a bachelor’s degree. However, master’s degrees are becoming more common and are sometimes required by employers, especially for more advanced leadership roles.

Several common types of programs are available for earning your bachelor’s:

If you want to pursue a master’s in nursing leadership, with administration programs including:

  • Master of Science (MSN) in Nursing Administration
  • RN-to-MSN with a specialization in Nursing Administration
  • A dual MSN and Master of Health Administration (MHA) degree
  • A dual MSN and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree

Besides earning a nursing administration degree, another option is a postgraduate Certificate in Nursing Administration and Practice.

What type of accreditation should my school have?

The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) are the two main accreditation bodies to look for when researching programs.

Is financial aid available for school?

Financial aid is available from a variety of sources, including the U.S. government. The first step is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Take note, federal aid is only available to you if you are attending an accredited college or university. Other types of financial aid include scholarships, grants, private loans, and PLUS loans. Read up on nursing school financial aid information, as well as scholarships and grants.

How much nursing experience is required?

To become a charge nurse or a nurse shift supervisor, you typically need at least 1–2 years of experience as an RN, while a director of nursing position may require 3–5 years of nurse management experience.

For more advanced roles such as chief nursing officer, you’ll often need at least 5 years of healthcare administrative experience to qualify.

What certifications are available?

In addition to the CNL certification, there are 2 other certifications that can help demonstrate your credentials and leadership capabilities to employers.

Nurse executive

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers a Nurse Executive Certification, which verifies the knowledge and skills of a nurse who’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of a medical department. Some MSN programs are designed to help prepare you to sit for this exam and earn a Nurse Executive-Board Certified (NE-BC) credential.

Certified nurse manager and leader

You may also want to consider pursuing a Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) credential through the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) or American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). This certification helps validate your knowledge of financial management, human resource management, performance improvement, strategic management, and technology. Some MSN in Nurse Leadership programs can help you prepare for this specific exam as well.

Will I have continuing education requirements?

Since laws and regulations in the health care field are ever-changing, it’s important for nurse administrators and CNLs to have the most up-to-date knowledge. Continuing education requirements, such as approved courses and credits, can be found with your state board of nursing. In general, continuing education is often required every two years for RN license renewal.

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