Learn about educators’ roles in both the clinical and academic setting.
Teaching nurses is an exciting and challenging career, and the nurse educator role offers a wealth of opportunities. But don’t assume all nurse educators work in the academic setting; some work in the clinical setting.
In both settings, knowledge of educational theories and principles underpins the role of educator. However, the purpose, practice, roles, and responsibilities of a nursing professional development (NPD) specialist (the correct title for the role previously known as clinical nurse educator) differ fundamentally from those of an academic nurse educator (ANE). (See Comparing clinical and academic nurse educators.) This article describes both roles, including qualifications and responsibilities.
Nursing professional development specialist
By Joan I. Warren, PhD, RN-BC, NEA-BC, FAAN; Mary G. Harper, PhD, RN-BC; and Christine Wilson, MSN, RN-BC
THE NPD specialist is an often overlooked and undervalued role. Unlike ANEs, NPD specialists work in the clinical setting to educate nurses and other healthcare providers.
As healthcare organizations transition to population-health and value-based purchasing, the NPD specialist role can prove highly rewarding—and crucial in clinical settings. By providing high-quality educational programs, NPD special- ists support high-reliability, patient-centric organizations based on evidence and expertise.
In all healthcare settings, the rapid pace of change creates knowledge gaps for healthcare professionals. NPD specialists bridge this gap by educating staff using multiple modalities, such as simulations, online education, and traditional face-to-face education. They also serve as mentors, role models, and preceptors for learners and educate interprofessional groups to incorporate evidence-based practice (EBP), which promotes optimal patient outcomes.
Recognized by the American Nurses Association (ANA), the NPD specialty has its own scope and standards of practice. It promotes the professional role development and growth of nurses and other healthcare personnel along the continuum from novice to expert. By ensuring the competency of practicing nurses and other health care providers, NPDs contribute to quality and patient safety, promoting optimal care.
Titles for NPD specialists sometimes vary from one organization to the next, which may cause confusion. Alternate terms for NPD specialist include clinical nurse educator, clinical education specialist, nurse educator, program coordinator, orientation specialist, and clinical practice and education specialist. Qualifications also vary among organizations and care settings. (See Qualifications for NPD specialists.)
Roles and responsibilities
The NPD role requires unique com- petencies and skillsets. NPD special- ists must have a deep knowledge of clinical care and expertise in educational principles and knowledge translation—two diverse yet com- plementary skillsets. They use these skills to function in seven distinct yet overlapping roles.
• Partners for practice transitions.
NPD specialists prepare both new and experienced nursing staff to move into new or differ- ent practice roles. They help newly licensed nurses transition to the professional practice set- ting and help experienced nurs- es move from one organization, specialty, or role to another. In all of these situations, the goal is to help nurses gain competence and confidence in their practice and to foster their continual growth and development.
• Learning facilitators.
NPD specialists create and implement cost-effective, efficient, and timely education using innova- tive teaching methods and tech- nology to promote knowledge retention and competence. They’re accountable for improv- ing patient and organizational outcomes as a result of their ed- ucational activities.
• Change agents.
NPD specialists translate new knowledge into practice and motivate and edu- cate staff to adopt new practice changes. As adaptive experts, they possess knowledge about change management so they can implement sustainable change that promotes positive patient outcomes.
Besides influencing patient outcomes, NPD specialists serve as mentors to influence staff nurses’ professional devel- opment, helping them achieve their personal and professional goals. Mentoring is perhaps one of the most rewarding roles of NPD specialists.
This role stems from the NPD specialist’s influence as an organizational leader—leading teams, managing programs and projects, ensuring compli- ance with regulatory requirements, and evaluating outcomes. At any given time, the NPD specialist may be managing orientation, maintaining staff com- petence, or leading an interpro- fessional team to improve healthcare quality or patient safety and satisfaction. As leaders, these educators must be well-informed about the healthcare environment and agile enough to adapt quickly to change. Necessary skills include the ability to manage multiple tasks and achieve outcomes while meeting deadlines.
• Champions of scientific inquiry.
NPD specialists review research, translate knowledge into practice, and integrate evidence into practice to improve patient outcomes.
• Advocates for the specialty.
The Association for Nursing Professional Development (ANPD) was founded in 1989 to “advance the specialty of nursing professional development for the enhance- ment of healthcare outcomes.” With 4,000 members, it serves as a resource for aspiring, novice, and experienced NPD specialists. Helping others learn is highly gratifying. Helping others learn, grow, and develop in a rapidly changing healthcare environment while helping to improve patient outcomes and contributing to a healthier community is transformative.
Joan I. Warren is past president of ANPD in Chicago, Illinois, and an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore. Mary G. Harper is director of nursing professional development at APND. Christine Wilson is president of ANPD and director of nursing education and professional development at Vanderbilt University Medical Cen- ter in Nashville, Tennessee.
This chart compares the role of nursing professional development(NPD) specialist with that of academic nurse educator (ANE).
Assessment of educational needs and requirements
Practice gap analysis
Compliance with accrediting standards; stakeholder needs
Practicing professionals (individuals and teams)
Closing of practice gap for individual or team
Students’ success in course
Improved patient outcomes
Varies: practice setting (hospital, community health department, clinic), professional association, continuing education program
Academic nurse educator
By Deborah Lindell, DNP, RN, CNE; Debra Hagler, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, CNE, CHSE, ANEF, FAAN; and Kathleen Poindexter, PhD, RN, CNE
WHY SHOULD YOU consider be- coming a nurse educator in the academic setting? For one thing, educating the next generation of nurses can be highly rewarding. Seeing the nurses you’ve taught helping to improve patient care and lead the profession is exciting.
What’s more, the ANE role offers variety and flexibility, with each day bringing different activities and challenges. Additional advantages include flexibility in the types of positions available and the variety of education programs, roles, and settings.
Educational institutions set faculty requirements based on their own expectations as well as those of regulatory agencies and accrediting organizations. However, some gen- eral qualifications exist. An ANE must hold a current, active nursing license and, depending on the po- sition, may need other state cre- dentials for advanced practice.
Generally, ANEs must have at least a master’s degree; doctoral prepara- tion is preferred. Although most employers require a graduate de- gree in nursing, some accept a non-nursing graduate degree or ma- jor if nursing is the applicant’s first degree. Applicants with a PhD (a research-focused doctorate) are attractive to nursing schools with a research mission. Some schools accept applicants who are doctors of nursing practice (DNP, a practice- focused doctorate); check with the nursing program you’re interested in to be sure. Some may accept applicants who are doctors of educa- tion (EdD) or doctors of nursing science (DNSc). Having completed academic courses in educational theory and practice is a plus.
Educational programs seek ANEs with expertise in a clinical specialty or content area, such as EBP, man- agement, nursing education, health policy, ethics, pharmacology, or pathophysiology. They may also re- quire several years of registered nurse (RN) experience as well as specialty certification. If you hold a doctoral degree, you may be expect- ed to have research experience.
Qualifications for NPD specialists
The scope and standards of practice for nursing professional development (NPD) specialists define minimal qualifications as an active registered nurse (RN) license with a master’s degree in nursing or a related field. Some organizations, though, accept a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Because the NPD role is a combined education and practice role, it typically also requires demonstrated patient-care expertise.
As hospitals aspire to advance their professional nursing workforce, some may require certification. NPD specialists can obtain certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center and display the RN-BC credentials. NPD certification eligibility requirements include an active RN license in the United States, a bachelor’s or higher degree in nursing, practice as an NPD specialist for at least 4,000 hours over the last 5 years, and 30 hours of NPD-related continuing education within the last 3 years.
Types of positions
ANEs may teach full-time or part-time. Some positions are year- round; others are 9-month academic appointments. Many ANEs start as part-time clinical instructors or specialty course lecturers.
Most academic institutions appoint full-time faculty to a certain rank, such as instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, or professor. The rank at hiring depends on clinical practice experi- ence, academic preparation, and type of educational institution. ANEs may work toward a higher rank by achieving organizational requirements.
ANEs are appointed to one of two tracks.
- Tenure-track ANEs are expected to meet certain academic standards within a specific number of years to achieve tenure status. Once tenured, they have more academic autonomy and greater permanency in the organization.
- Nontenured ANEs typically have contracts that cover a certain period.
Roles and responsibilities
ANE roles in academia include teaching, advising, service, practice, research, and scholarship. Within each category, performance expectations depend on the type of appointment, rank, and institution. Roles also may vary with the mission of the college or university.
ANEs may teach in one or more settings, such as classroom, distance learning (including online), laboratory or simulation settings, and healthcare organizations. As advisors, they support students’ progress and may mentor other nurse educators.
ANEs engage in professional service by participating in their institution’s programs or committees as well as in professional organizations and perhaps community programs. They also may serve in leadership positions to advance nursing education and practice through program management, curriculum development and evaluation, influencing policy, or consulting with external organizations.
Professional scholarship may involve engaging in activities to ad- vance educational theory and prac- tice, translating evidence to nursing practice, conducting research to create new knowledge, and disseminating information through national presentations and publications. The focus and extent of expectations for research or scholarly work vary significantly with the type of academic institution, educational program, and specific position or appointment.
Resources for ANEs include the websites of nursing schools, national nursing education organizations, journals (including the Journal of Nursing Education, Nurse Educator, and Nursing Education Perspectives), and such organizations such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, National League for Nursing, and Organization for Associate Degree Nursing.
Are you interested?
If you’re considering becoming an ANE, update your résumé or curriculum vitae and search for positions advertised in newspapers or journals or posted on Internet career websites or the websites of nursing education programs, colleges, and universities. If you need more education to prepare yourself, you may want to contact nursing programs that offer educational programs in this exciting role.
Deborah Lindell is director of the graduate-entry nursing program and assistant professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve University’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland, Ohio. Debra Hagler is a clinical professor in the College of Nurs- ing and Health Innovation and a Teaching Excellence Coordinator, Health Solutions, at Arizona State Uni- versity in Phoenix. Kathleen Poindexter is an assis- tant professor and CNS Education Concentration pro- gram coordinator at Michigan State University’s College of Nursing in East Lansing.