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How to Become a Director of Nursing

The director of nursing has an incredible impact on a facility’s staff and patients. Understandably, the position requires significant experience and education to do well.

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Working as a director of nursing (DON) is a challenging but rewarding job. People with an aptitude for leadership who enjoy helping staff develop their careers and thrive under responsibility may find that a DON position is an ideal fit for them. 

In addition to the intrinsic leadership traits that a DON must have, DON positions often require a strong educational background and meaningful experience in health care. DONs typically already have managerial experience in a health care setting, often as a nurse manager or nurse supervisor.

Table of Contents

What Is a Director of Nursing?

The DON role is the position between a nurse manager and the chief nursing officer (CNO). The responsibilities a DON will vary based on the size of the organization they work for, but typically, a DON will be responsible for the higher-level processes of one or more nursing units.

These duties will be somewhat different for each company based on their individual needs and policies.

The duties of a DON may include:

  • Making hiring decisions
  • Supervising nursing staff
  • Organizing training for nursing staff
  • Creating and overseeing department budgets
  • Reporting to executive staff
  • Ensuring that a high standard of care is maintained
  • Complying with regulatory requirements
  • Reviewing and ensuring the accuracy of patient data and medical records
  • Addressing patient, family or staff complaints

What Is an Average Day Like?

The average day for a DON is typically busy and could include a variety of tasks. Much of the day will be spent in meetings and doing office work. This often includes meeting with current staff members to review their work, address complaints and provide feedback. DONs may also conduct or participate in interviews with potential new team members. Committee meetings with staff, peers or executives help develop new policies, ensure nursing standards are being met and plan for future needs or developments. DONs may also meet with patients or their families to assess the nursing process and address complaints.

Aside from conducting and preparing for these meetings, DONs will spend time reviewing charting, assessing budgets, reviewing the work of staff, making sure payroll entries are correct and many other similar tasks. A DON is usually salaried, and there will normally be ongoing projects that require a DON’s attention and work over several days, weeks, months or even years.

A Director of Nursing’s Role in Substance Rehabilitation

While substance rehab is a specialized setting, a DON’s role will be very similar to most other clinical settings. Managing and hiring staff, ensuring the standards of care are met and helping to maintain the flow of the nursing departments for which they are responsible will be important parts of the job.

A substance rehab center’s director of nursing will need experience in providing care for those recovering from substance addiction. This type of nursing care is somewhat specialized, and experience in the standards of care and way that care is provided to these patients will be necessary.

How to Become a Nursing Director

Becoming a nursing director can be difficult. There are many nurses pursuing these positions, and there are fewer positions available than people who want them. This can make DON positions quite competitive, but there are several things someone can do to make themselves stand out.

Educational and Degree Requirements

Becoming a nursing director absolutely requires being a registered nurse (RN). Aside from this, requirements are typically up to the company. Almost every company will also require at least a bachelor’s level education, although there may be rare exceptions where a company would consider an RN with an associate’s degree. 

Being an RN with a bachelor’s level education is typically a minimum requirement for DON positions. However, preference will often be given to RNs who have completed, or are in the process of completing, a master’s level education. Even more preference is given to those who have completed their doctorate in nursing.

Experience, Training and Continuing Education

To be considered for a DON position, it’s vital to have experience. The more experience someone has in the specific clinical area they are trying to obtain a position in, the better their chances will be. Experience also includes leadership experience, and those who have worked in a supervisory or managerial position will be more likely to be considered for a DON position.

In addition to experience and education, certification as a nurse leader can show that someone has the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective DON. Some of these certifications include:

These certifications have different criteria that must be met, and each credential is provided by different accrediting agencies.

Other Important Skills Needed

Aside from the education, experience and certifications that can allow someone to obtain a DON position, there are other intrinsic skills and qualities that will help. A strong record of professionalism, a history of good communication skills and a high degree of flexibility will all help someone excel in a DON position. 

Another factor that can help someone to obtain a DON position is familiarity with the team they will be leading or the leadership team they will be working under. Having connections to the team they will be joining in a leadership capacity adds instant value to the DON’s effectiveness in their role. This is why many facilities like to promote from within when selecting a DON.

Potential Future Career Paths for Nursing Directors

A DON position can lead to other career opportunities in the long term. The position that is directly above a DON is the chief nursing officer (CNO), and the position of DON is often an important step toward becoming a CNO. DONs may also find their experience is easily transferable into other leadership roles or into academia. DONs may also be able to pursue research or gain valuable experiences that could help them pursue entrepreneurial ventures.

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Available Nursing Director Jobs at The Recovery Village

The Recovery Village is a network of addiction rehab facilities found throughout the nation. As one of the preeminent leaders in the field of addiction recovery, The Recovery Village is well-positioned to help professionals grow in clinical knowledge and experience. We offer competitive benefits and are dedicated to helping our team reach their full potential. You can find open DON positions with The Recovery Village on our careers page.

Other FAQs about DONs

The income a DON will make varies based on the location, the experience of the individual and the clinical environment they work in. According to salary.com, the median salary for a DON was $149,834 in 2020.

As the average age of the population increases and as addiction treatment becomes more prevalent, all careers in health care are projected to grow at a higher rate than most professions. The need for DONs is expected to grow for the foreseeable future.

The DON role is considered a leadership role in mid-level management, and it is an ideal step in a career path into an upper management position.

The American Association of Directors of Nursing Services (AADNS) is one of the best organizations that a DON can be a member of. DONs should also consider membership in the American Nurses Association (ANA) and in an association specific to their specialty.

Study.com. “Director of Nursing: Duties, Requirements and Responsibilities.” September 27, 2019. Accessed September 23, 2020.

LeaderStat. “Director of Nursing Job Description.” 2018. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Ruesink, Megan. “What Does it Really Take to Become a Director of Nursing?” Rasmussen College, June 21, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Salary.com. “Nursing Director Salary in the United States.” August 27, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Healthcare Occupations.” September 1, 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.
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