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What does a Nursing Professional Development Specialist (Nurse Educator) do?

nurse educator teach

Let’s assume for a moment that you just graduated from nursing school. You have a brand new degree, a little clinical hospital training, lots of new information, and a brief job as a nursing assistant in a community living center for geriatric residents. The hospital of your dreams just hired you as a registered nurse. Now you begin the hospital’s new employee orientation. After filling out far too many forms of various sizes, colors, and readability, you are introduced to the other new employees. Next comes your clinical orientation.

Or perhaps you are an experienced nurse but a new hire to the hospital. Once the general hospital orientation is done—the same one new nurses and every other new employee usually goes through—you meet the Nursing Professional Development Specialist (NPDS; also known as nurse educator). This is the person who will guide you into all things clinical, with knowledge, skill, and encouragement.

The NPDS then introduces you to your preceptor. You, your preceptor, and the NPDS meet regularly to assess your progress and comfort in your new position, evaluate your competencies, and determine what training, support, and resources you will need to be successful. The NPDS will also be an ongoing member of your career development team.

What is an NPDS?

Nursing Professional Development Specialists have knowledge and skills in adult learning principles, nursing career development, program development and management, continuing education, and leadership. The American Nurses Association identifies this practice specialty, which is based on the sciences of nursing, technology, research and evidence-based practice, change, communication, leadership, and education as Nursing Professional Development.

These experienced educators help nurses engaged in lifelong learning to develop and maintain their competencies, advance their professional nursing practice, and facilitate their achievement of academic and practice career goals. They work in a variety of practice settings and environments of care. Some are in schools of nursing and facilitate the learning experiences of students seeking to become nurses. Others work in clinical settings to orient, precept, and manage competencies of staff nurses, new graduates, and student nurses working at the point of care. Clinical NPDSs (sometimes called clinical nurse educators) support nursing research, evidence-based practice, and quality improvement through professional nurse development.

Multiple hats
Throughout your orientation and clinical advancements, you discover that NPDSs wear many hats. They are educators, servant leaders, facilitators, consultants, change agents, coaches, and researchers. They orient, precept, mentor, encourage, and guide your transition into your new role, position, and future. They show you how to manage and validate your competencies and build your confidence through engagement and feedback. They review your portfolio of training, experiences, accomplishments, inservices, and continuing education to help you identify strategies for developing your proficiencies related to competency, practice, and quality at the point of care.


Some of the many ways NPDS contribute to your lifelong learning and ethical practice development are woven into their roles:

  • Educator. Nursing Professional Development Specialists assess your learning needs, competencies, strengths, and opportunities to improve your critical thinking, interpersonal, and technical skills. They provide frequent feedback and evaluate outcomes. As you learn, they help you continue to build your knowledge and levels of competency in clinical practice in your work area or in specialty areas that interest you, such as gerontology or pediatrics. They collaborate with you to determine your needs if you choose to advance your practice towards certification and/or another academic degree. Sometimes they serve as faculty in colleges and universities, which allows them to better mentor you in deciding a best fit for your continued professional development.
  • Change agent. Nursing Professional Development Specialists engage intra- and interprofessional groups in problem-solving, team building, and incorporating changes in individual and organizational needs. They identify healthcare issues and help you stay current in the latest evidence for new practices and quality indicators through learning activities, inservices, and information-sharing. They might help you assess and address behaviors that interfere with your ability to get your work done effectively, such as showing you how to reorganize your time, prioritize your activities, and delegate appropriate tasks so that you are more confident and efficient in your work
  • Researcher. Nursing Professional Development Specialists facilitate evidence-based practice by bringing nursing research to the point of care. They advise, collaborate, translate, integrate, and evaluate research that is in the literature and/or in progress within the organization through practice, education, and reflective discussion with staff. If you have a practice question for which you cannot find an answer that satisfactorily explains the rationale given in the policy or by others orienting you, the NPDS becomes one of your most valuable resources. NPDSs guide you in the best ways to protect your patients from the potential for exploitation and harm when involved in clinical research. They directly engage you in research and evidence-based practice to help you improve your patient care outcomes and add to the body of nursing knowledge as you generate questions about better ways to care for your patients.
  • Servant leader. Nursing Professional Development Specialists provide encouragement, respect, support, boundaries, protection, and guidance that influence your transition into a professional, expert nurse. They integrate ethical principles, service, and leadership into all of their activities. In the process, they role model transformational leadership and professionalism, inviting you to do the same. They protect you from the wide chasms created by political and professional norms that can so easily be breached, especially when you are new and still finding your way. They show you how to engage your peers and other healthcare providers when you are asked to be the charge nurse or nurse leader for a team or unit so that you continue to work effectively in partnership with one another, with physicians, and with other services. This requires you to learn how to manage people ethically and responsibly so that you can influence them to focus their best expertise and experience in caring for their patients, even when you are relatively new to your position or workgroup.
  • Mentor. Nursing Professional Development Specialists guide you through the many pathways of your career, beginning with orientation to your first job. In fact, some began even sooner, when they met you in your college nursing courses and academic clinical experiences. They are the faculty members who assisted you with your professional development plan and showed you how to implement it. They advised you when you wrote your resume and later, your curriculum vitae. They listened as you struggled to decide which specialty to pursue and supported every false start until you found your way. They celebrated your graduation, your new job, and your first promotion with you. They pushed you to look beyond the ‘now’ to the future as you considered the many possibilities in advanced practice nursing, management, and a doctorate in nursing practice.

How would I become a Nursing Professional Development Specialist?
The answer to this question varies greatly from organization to organization, from state to state, and from job to job. There are some colleges that offer a master’s degree in nursing education. However, most academic programs focus on preparing the student to teach in a college or university program rather than in a clinical setting with graduate or experienced nurses. Traditionally, hospitals have hired a clinical expert without specialized training in adult learning principles, continuing education, or staff development as their nurse educator or clinical nurse specialist in education, or a similar role. This is changing. Many hospitals now seek clinical experts who also have specialized training, certification, and experience in staff development. The best “first step” for anyone wanting to know more about this specialization is to become involved in the National Nursing Staff Development Organization (https://www.nnsdo.org/) and network with the plethora of diverse nursing professional development specialists who practice in every conceivable type of healthcare organization.

Range of influence
Nursing Professional Development is like all specialties. It embodies the unique knowledge, skills, insights, and experiences of nurses who have advanced their practice into staff development, continuing education, and academia.

Nursing Professional Development Specialists work with a wide range of competencies, learning needs, and tiered academically prepared nurses across all practice settings and environments of care. They partner with healthcare providers and nurse leaders to ensure a safe, effective, and efficient environment of care. They are involved in project management, academic and clinical education, program and portfolio development, competencies management, continuing education and return on investment, leadership and relationship-building, research and evidence-based practice implementation, cybergogy (learning through technology), and nursing practice excellence. This is what NPDSs do. And they do this for you, the healthcare provider at the point of care.

Both authors work at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System: Diana Swihart, PhD, DMin, MSN, CS, RN-BC, is the Magnet Program Director. She also serves as a Commissioner on Accreditation for the American Nurses Credentialing Center and is a member of the National Nursing Staff Development Organization. Diane Johnstone, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, is the Chief for Nursing Education at Bay Pines VA. Both are certified in their nursing specialties.

Selected references

American Nurses Association. (2000). Scope and standards for nursing professional development. Silver Spring, MD: American Nurses Association (ANA) Nursebooks.

Avillion, A. E. (2008). A practical guide to staff development: Evidence-based tools and techniques for effective education (2nd ed.). Marblehead, MA: HCPro, Inc.

Bruce, S. L. (Ed.). (2009). Core curriculum for staff development (3rd ed.). Pensacola, FL: National Nursing Staff Development Organization.

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2 thoughts on “What does a Nursing Professional Development Specialist (Nurse Educator) do?”

  1. Maureen Cremard says:

    I’m very interested in joining the NNSDO but the website is unavailable? Any ideas on how to get in touch with them?
    Thank you

  2. Karen J. KellyThomas says:

    Thank you for a well developed article about this specialty; having practiced in this field for more than 25 years some years ago, I appreciate how beautifully this critical role has evolved. Those who practice professional development or who are interested in it have many high quality resources to help create the best practices required in our contemporary and ever changing environments; it’s heartening to see that the core principles established more than 35 years ago continue. Thank you!

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