How to Become a Chief Nurse: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Oct 20, 2021

Learn how to become a chief nurse. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements to find out how to start a career as a chief nurse.

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Should I Become a Chief Nurse?

Chief nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who work at the administrative level. They ensure that nurses throughout a medical facility consistently provide patients with quality care. Nurses in this supervisory role also work with other healthcare professionals to establish overall goals and objectives for their health care facilities. Supervising others can be challenging, but may bring great rewards when workers' accomplishments are later observed.

Career Requirements

Chief nurses demonstrate outstanding communication, personnel and time management skills. They practice active listening, critical thinking, and decision making. Strong computer skills are required as they relate to scientific, classification, and database usage. Proficiency in document management and medical software are also necessary job skills. reported in February 2020 that the median salary for chief nurse officers was $127,762.

Degree Level Bachelor's degree is required; master's degree or higher is preferred
Degree Field Nursing at the bachelor's level; nursing, health administration or business at the graduate level
Licensure and Certification RN licensure is required; voluntary certification is available
Experience Clinical experience is required
Key Skills Communication, personnel and time management, active listening, critical thinking, decision making and writing skills, computer skills relating to scientific, classification, database user interface and query, document management and medical software
Median Salary (2020)* $127,762

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, *, O*Net Online, October 2012 job listings

Steps to be a Chief Nurse

Becoming a chief nurse requires extensive preparation through formal education and training.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Although diplomas, associate's degrees, and bachelor's degrees all qualify one as an RN, those who would like to become a chief nurse need a bachelor's degree if they plan to pursue graduate studies. Nursing students receive both clinical and classroom instruction, which typically includes courses in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, nursing, and psychology. Students gain supervised clinical experience in a number of areas, including pediatrics, surgery, and psychiatry.

Step 2: Pursue and Maintain Licensure as an RN

Graduates of approved nursing programs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become a licensed RN. Specific requirements for licensure can vary by state. A current RN license is usually required to obtain employment as a chief nurse.

You may be able to get ahead in this field and take continuing education courses. Chief nurses typically must engage in lifelong learning since continuing education credits are required by some state boards of nursing to maintain licensure.

Step 3: Pursue a Master's Degree

Employers often prefer, and sometimes require, at least a master's degree in nursing, business, or health administration for chief nurse positions. Master's degree programs generally take two years to complete. Graduate-level nursing students learn advanced nursing concepts and leadership skills. They also learn to analyze health problems and apply nursing solutions, as well as evaluate nursing and healthcare systems. Both business and health administration students study leadership, finance, information technology, and business operations, but health administration programs are tailored specifically to the healthcare industry.

Step 4: Become Certified

Chief nurses can seek voluntary national certification in nursing management. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers the Nurse Executive (NE-BC) and Nurse Executive, Advanced (NEA-BC) certifications. The NE-BC designation is available to registered nurses who have at least a bachelor's degree and have held a mid-level administrative position or higher, a graduate-level faculty teaching position, or a nursing management or consulting job for at least two years. Those who don't have a master's degree also must complete continuing education credits in nursing administration.

The NEA-BC credential is for licensed RNs who have at least a master's degree and two years of full-time work experience as a nurse executive or teacher at the graduate level. Continuing education credits are required for those whose master's degree is not in nursing administration. On both the basic and advanced levels, nurse executive certification is earned by passing a computer-based test and must be renewed every five years.

Step 5: Join a Professional Organization

Joining a professional organization, such as the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) or the American Nurses Association (ANA) can enhance the careers of aspiring chief nurses and provide avenues for advancement and professional growth through job listings, networking opportunities, continuing education, industry-related events, and other resources for career empowerment.

Chief nurses require a bachelor's degree in nursing plus state licensure as a registered nurse (RN). They also often hold a master's degree in nursing or a related field, like business or health administration to prepare for their supervisory role in a healthcare organization. Voluntary professional certification and membership in professional nursing organizations may improve job prospects.

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