How to Become a Nursing Professor

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A nursing professor uses a model of a spine to teach three students.

A years-long shortage of nursing professors continues to worsen, with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reporting that 60% of nursing schools had full-time faculty vacancies in 2021. The vacancy rate was 8%, up from 6.5% just one year prior. The lack of available professors is among the reasons that U.S. nursing schools turned away 91,938 qualified student applicants in 2021.

The increasing need for professors in nursing is consistent with the demand for postsecondary educators overall. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects faster-than-average employment growth for postsecondary educators as more students seek higher education to help them pursue and advance in their careers.

For the nursing profession, the gap between the number of aspiring students and the availability of nursing professors to teach them could have dire consequences. The nursing field is working to overcome a shortage of practicing professionals exacerbated by stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With an increasing need for nursing professors and the importance of their role in preparing future nurses, it’s critical that more individuals pursue the steps required to become a nursing professor. For many faculty positions, the necessary steps include earning a doctoral degree in nursing.

Nursing Education Requirements for Nursing Professors

Nursing professors educate future nurses, generally at colleges and universities. These professionals typically need to hold at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), but many colleges and universities require nursing professors to have doctoral degrees.

Certification is another important consideration in how to become a nursing professor. Certification specifically for nursing education is not always required. It can, however, provide additional evidence of nursing expertise and teaching skill, giving individuals seeking nursing professor roles a potential advantage in their job search.

Nursing Education Requirements

In 2021, more than 80% of full-time nursing faculty openings required or preferred a doctoral degree, according to the AACN.

Doctorates in nursing include the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The PhD’s primary focus is research, while the DNP’s main goal is to build advanced clinical expertise. Combined with a strong interest in teaching, the clinical expertise a DNP offers can be a solid foundation for becoming a nursing professor.
A common prerequisite for both types of doctorates is an MSN. Some programs — BSN to DNP programs, for example — include bridge courses that allow students with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to proceed directly to working toward a doctoral degree.

Regardless of the selected degree path, nursing professors should have a strong academic background in subjects such as advanced health assessment, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. The AACN recommends that nursing professors specialize in a clinical or research area, and many nursing doctoral programs offer this opportunity. DNP programs often include tracks that focus on the nurse practitioner (NP) role and its areas of specialization or tracks that prepare students for leadership roles.

Nursing Certification Requirements

Another AACN recommendation for nursing faculty is to go beyond doctoral training to bolster teaching skills. The National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice (NACNEP) reinforced this position in its 2020 report, recommending an added emphasis on the practices of teaching and learning.

Preparing for and obtaining a certification in nursing education can provide this focus on teaching, and it can show potential employers evidence of a nursing professor applicant’s commitment to nursing instruction.

The National League for Nursing offers certifications for nursing instruction. Certification requires post-baccalaureate nursing education and a registered nurse (RN) license. Applicants also must pass an exam. The exam and periodic certification renewal include a fee, and renewal has experience and continuing nursing education requirements.

Gaining Experience in the Field

Another important step in becoming a nursing professor is to practice nursing in a clinical setting. Aspiring nursing professors can gain experience through working as licensed nurses and by completing clinical requirements for a degree program.

MSN and DNP programs typically include requirements for clinical hours, helping students go beyond theoretical concepts to develop expertise rooted in evidence-based practice. This experience can provide essential in-the-field knowledge that nursing professors need to effectively perform tasks such as developing curriculum and overseeing clinical work.

Real-world experience is valuable for building teaching skills as well. Some master’s and doctoral programs require students to assist in teaching courses. Experience as an assistant professor also can provide opportunities to develop teaching practices that help prepare future nurses and nursing leaders.

Challenges to the Nursing Professor Profession

Those preparing for nursing professor roles should equip themselves for the challenges facing nursing education. Many of these issues — like many of the concerns facing the overall nursing profession — have become more prominent since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nursing professors may face the following challenges, among others.

Evolving Technologies

Nurses must be adept at managing changes in technologies that aid in capturing patient data, diagnosing conditions, and conducting telehealth visits. Nursing professors also must adapt to changes that call for increased use of online education and simulated clinical experiences for nursing students.

Changing Populations

Nursing professors should be prepared to focus their education on changing patient and student populations. Patients and students are becoming more diverse, and an aging patient population demands a greater emphasis on the complex conditions they often face.

Increasing Workload

The increasing percentage of faculty vacancies can leave nursing professors with a larger workload and at risk for burnout. With so many nursing professors leaving their positions, a faculty may lack cohesion — even as staffing shortages call for increased collaboration to cover course assignments.

Shifting Policies

Members of a nursing faculty must stay abreast of ever-changing health care policies and regulations, including those that affect which services they provide and how frequently they offer them. In addition to helping nursing professors meet recertification requirements, continuing education can help them stay current with the policies, practices, and research that their students need to know.

Building the Future Today

As the nation addresses its shortage of nurses, increasing the number of professors to educate future nurses and nursing leaders will be vital. For those exploring how to become a nursing professor, consider Bradley University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice.

With five specialty concentrations, the DNP program offers a variety of opportunities to develop the clinical knowledge and leadership skills to help shape the future of nursing. It provides the flexibility and convenience of online learning while also encouraging collaboration among students and faculty.

Explore how Bradley’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice can help prepare you to educate aspiring nurses and meet your professional goals.


Recommended Readings

Career Profile: Nursing Professor Salaries, Skills and Responsibilities

Ethical Leadership in Education: Resources for Developing Future Education Leaders

Nursing Theories: An Overview



American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, PhD Education

American Nurse, ANA Enterprise News April 2021

Incredible Health, “Overview of the Nurse Educator Position”

National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice, “Preparing Nurse Faculty, and Addressing the Shortage of Nurse Faculty and Clinical Preceptors”

National League for Nursing, CNE Academic Nurse Educator

National Library of Medicine, “The Future of Nursing 2020-2030: Charting a Path to Achieve Health Equity”

NPHub, “Should You Get a DNP? Here’s the Answer!”

The Nurse Practitioner, “Lifelong Learning: A Key to Competence”

The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, “Faculty Formation: Philosophical Perspectives, Issues, and Considerations”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Teachers

Wolters Kluwer, “Nursing Faculty Shortage in the U.S.: Has a Pandemic Compounded an Existing Problem?”