Career Advice: Which of the Terminal Degrees Do You Suggest for a Nurse Educator?

This month’s career advice question came from a comment on my YouTube video about nursing doctorates. The writer, a hospital clinical educator, asked which terminal degrees I suggested for a nurse educator to pursue.

I could really go into the weeds to answer this question – because it’s more complicated than it looks! But I’ll try to hit some key points about different degree levels and end with a discussion of the terminal degrees for you to consider as you make this decision.

Whether you are a preceptor, a unit educator, a hospital educator, or an academic faculty member, educating the next generation of nurses is an awesome responsibility! What you do as an educator will influence how your students treat patients and families, nursing and medical colleagues, and themselves in the future. My philosophy is to remember what it was like to be a student – and then treat each student with kindness and understanding of their anxiety, fears, and overwhelm. Remember the support that you needed – and maybe didn’t get – and do better for your students. Thank you for stepping up to teach. You are appreciated!
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats
Degrees for Teaching Nursing
Baccalaureate Degree in Nursing
Okay, so first let’s talk about minimal degrees for teaching. You don’t necessarily have to have a four-year degree to teach in a hospital setting. But I would submit that you have to understand a variety of theoretical approaches to teaching and learning, to be the best educator that you can be. I know there are wonderful educators out there who are self-taught and keep up with the education literature who don’t have a baccalaureate degree, but the reality is that if you want to advance in the hospital hierarchy you will need to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Many hospital educator job requirements will state that a bachelor’s degree is preferred.

There is a certification for nursing professional development that nurse educators can apply for through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), by the way. The credential is Registered Nurse-Board Certified (RN-BC). This certification requires a bachelor’s or higher degree in nursing and clinical practice of at least 2 years full-time as a registered nurse, along with practice hours in professional development. Certification is a voluntary credential, but it shows a dedication and commitment to excellence that is personally satisfying and professionally desirable by many institutions.

Master’s Degree in Nursing
If you want to teach nursing, you have to have an unrestricted registered nurse license and need to hold at least one degree higher than the level of students you want to teach; a baccalaureate degree is required at a minimum. Many nurse faculty will start their academic careers teaching baccalaureate-level students, so a master’s degree is the first step. However, to move up the ranks in academia, a doctoral degree is required.

You can get a master’s degree in nursing as an advanced practice nurse (APN) or as a nurse educator, nurse administrator/leader, nurse informaticist, public health specialist or many other tracks. Master’s degrees in nursing education are best because you are sure to get nursing education courses as part of your curriculum. Getting your master’s as an APN or in another nursing track will mean you will have to seek out separate nursing education courses on your own – these won’t be required for your non-education track, so you have to initiate this quest! Either way, you can teach as long as you have a master’s in nursing. FYI – Master’s-prepared nurse educators are not considered APNs — because they do not have a clinical practice. The only four nursing roles considered advanced practice are the clinical nurse specialist (CNS), nurse practitioner (NP), certified nurse midwife (CNM), and certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

When making the decision as to which master’s track you want, a question to consider is:

Do I want to practice in a hospital or institutional setting?


Do I want to have an independent practice?

The answer to this question may help you to consider which APN role you may want to pursue. The route to an APN role has been mandated to be a DNP and many nursing programs are changing their curricula to meet this mandate. The APN organizations (NP, CNS, CRNA, CNM) have differing deadlines for if and when their members need to have a DNP for entry into advanced practice.

Also, you will need a master’s degree to get into a PhD, EdD, or post-master’s DNP program. (You will “get” the master’s on the way through a BSN-DNP or BSN-PhD program.) So, if you do not want to be an APN, maybe nurse administration or informatics or public health may be the master’s degree path for you. Note that the DNP, though it was created to support an advanced level of advanced practice, is available for other tracks such as executive and healthcare systems leadership, administration, and informatics.

To sit for the Certified Nurse EducatorCM (CNE) Examination, a master’s degree or higher is required.

Bottom line: You can be hired as nurse faculty or as a nurse educator in the hospital with a master’s degree. How far you can move up the ranks after that will depend on your institution’s policies.

Terminal Degrees in Nursing Education
A terminal degree is the highest level of education for the professional or academic track for a specific discipline. So it’s the highest degree one can earn; in some professions, a master’s degree is the highest degree. The terminal degrees in nursing are the PhD/DNSc/DNS, DNP/DSN, or EdD. Professional degrees are practice-focused and are required for licensure (e.g., MD, JD, DDS).

So you have your master’s degree in nursing and now you want to advance your career by obtaining your doctorate. First, good for you! As I said in my other posts about doctoral education — we need doctorally-prepared nurses, desperately! So, congratulations on taking that first step of considering your next steps — because considering leads to planning, planning leads to implementation, and implementation leads to you being able to say, “Hi, I’m Dr. (fill in the blank). I’m a nurse educator, nursing professor, nurse practitioner, (again, fill in the blank).” YAY!

Once you’ve made a decision to get your doctorate, the first question is which of the terminal degrees should you obtain?

I would say that which degree to get depends on a lot of things. Which route you go depends on how you answer this question —

Do I want to primarily create knowledge (conduct research, create theory, etc.) to build the science of nursing?


Do I want to primarily use knowledge to change practice?

The main purpose of the doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D. or PhD) in nursing is to create researchers and scientists to study and report on the clinical and professional issues of our profession. The main purpose of the doctor of nursing practice degree (DNP) is to create scholars who will take the knowledge created and change practice to produce positive patient, nurse, and organizational outcomes.

Please realize that both a PhD or DNP can create and use knowledge, (again, it’s complicated) — which is why I qualified with “primarily,” but this is a simple way to differentiate the main purpose of each degree.

A doctorate in education (EdD) is another route that some nurse faculty take. The EdD is also considered a research doctorate, but its curriculum is focused more on administrative and higher education leadership than the PhD curriculum (, n.d.). Both research doctorates focus on a higher level of teaching and learning knowledge and on conducting educational research.

The doctor of nursing science (DNSc, DNS) are research-focused degrees. The doctor of science in nursing (DSN) may be a research or a professional degree. However, because of confusion over the credentials and unclear outcomes for the educational programs and practice, these programs are either being converted to PhD programs, or being discontinued (Reid Ponte & Nicholas, 2015).

You can teach in a nursing college/university with any of the terminal degrees: PhD, EdD, or a DNP. There is a major nursing faculty shortage, so nurses with a doctoral degree are and will be in demand! At this time, in some colleges and universities, the path to tenure may be limited for DNPs. But as more DNPs graduate and universities and nursing faculty get used to the DNP degree, I expect that thought process to change.

Again, if you will be going to school to become an APN, I would advise you to choose a DNP program at the get-go. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has pushed for the DNP degree to become the entry into practice for advanced practice nursing — that is, in the future, to become an APN you will have to be a DNP. While the deadlines for when this will happen for the different APN roles differ, my advice is to just do it now!

If you are still not sure whether to go for the research doctorate or the clinical doctorate, check out my posts and video on doctoral education:

PhD or DNP: Which One to Choose?

PhD or DNP: Is the Pain Worth It? The Benefits of Doctoral Education in Nursing

Video: Why Should You Get a Doctorate in Nursing?

My Story: Hands-on education practice in the hospital often leads to an academic career. It did for me. I was a unit teacher in a 41-bed cardiovascular recovery/ICU. I had an associate’s degree in nursing when I started in this unit. By the time I left I had obtained my BSN, and then my MSN as a critical care clinical nurse specialist. Once I had my MSN, I was recruited, by the university I attended, to teach. I hadn’t even considered teaching in academia when I went back to school! So I worked full-time at the university and part-time as a Faculty Associate/CNS at the hospital. I was counseled by my Associate Dean that if I wanted to stay in academia and hold an academic rank, I should get a doctorate. So that’s what I did. Completing this level of education was the best thing I ever did! Less than 2% of nurses in the US hold a doctoral degree. I’m proud to be one of those doctor nurses!

Reid Ponte, P., & Nicholas, P. K. (2015). Addressing the confusion related to DNS, DNSc, and DSN degrees, with lessons for the nursing profession. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 47(4), 347-353. doi:10.1111/jnu.12148