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Head Nurse Career Guide

How to Become a Head Nurse

Skilled in both patient care and nurse management, a head nurse is responsible for providing valuable medical services while ensuring efficient nurse operations on their floor. Head nurses fulfill employee leadership and medical roles, to improve patient outcomes at their facility.

As a head nurse, you will take steps to confirm that all nurses operate efficiently and correctly. At times, you might instruct new nurses on correct operating procedures. On other days, you might spend time building nursing teams.

If you’re passionate about both leadership and patient care, the role of a head nurse may prove a rewarding career option.

A man in a suit talks to a group of doctors.

What Is a Head Nurse?

A head nurse is an individual who oversees nursing operations at your healthcare employer’s place of business. Whether you’re located in a hospital, outpatient clinic, or another medical setting, you will lead teams of nurses in providing effective, high-quality care for all patients.

As a specialized position, the role of a head nurse is best filled by an individual with both an undergraduate and master’s degree in nursing. In addition, head nurses are often characterized by years of experience in specific nursing fields.

What Does a Head Nurse Do?

Head nurses fulfill a variety of administrative duties in the medical setting. You might train new nurses, authorize operations, and provide direct patient care.

The exact responsibilities of a head nurse can include:

  • Ensuring that all nurses operate properly in a medical setting.
  • Providing hands-on patient care.
  • Observing nurses providing patient care and ensuring that they interact with patients in ways that improve outcomes.
  • Communicating with nursing teams, doctors, and other healthcare professionals to ensure high levels of patient care.
  • Educating new nurses in all facility operating procedures.
  • Training all nurses whenever a new procedure is implemented, or whenever an existing procedure is updated.
  • Handing out assignments to nursing teams.
  • Reviewing daily and weekly nursing procedures and signing off on all operations.
  • Forming nursing teams that work together cohesively.

These and other responsibilities help head nurses thrive in a variety of medical settings. Especially in urgent or emergency medical environments, it’s important that head nurses understand the roles of all their staff, as well as how to correctly fulfill all responsibilities.

What Education Does a Head Nurse Need?

Before you can begin a career, you’ll need to satisfy a few educational requirements. First, aspiring head nurses will need to obtain a bachelor of science degree in nursing. This will familiarize you with many of the skills that are necessary for a head nurse position, including checking vitals, understanding anatomy, and facilitating basic nursing operations. There are options for current nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree, or for those who want to become nurses to earn a BSN and RN at the same time.

Individuals who have already obtained their bachelor’s degree can continue their journey toward a head nurse position through a Master of Science Nursing Leadership and Management program. This degree is tailored for individuals looking to deepen their nursing skills and will teach you to influence the future of healthcare through new nursing leadership, patient management, and healthcare business skills.

If you are already a registered nurse and want to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), then an RN to BSN program for current registered nurses is ideal for you. Similarly, current registered nurses seeking an MSN degree — Master of Science in Nursing — can expedite their education and certification processes through an RN-to-MSN Master of Science program.

Best Degrees for a Head Nurse

Nursing (Prelicensure) – B.S.

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN and a baccalaureate-prepared nurse:

  • Locations: offered in FL, IN, TX, and UT only.
  • Tuition and fees: $6,575 per 6-month term.

WGU offers the prelicensure program in areas where we have partnerships with healthcare employers to provide practice sites and clinical coaches to help teach you and inspire you on your path to becoming a nurse.

If you don't live in one of our prelicensure states or don't qualify to apply, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry, while also working directly with patients who need help.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (RN-to-MSN) – M.S.

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a substantial leap toward becoming a nurse leader.

  • Time: 75% of RN-to-MSN grads finish within 42 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,795 per 6-month term during undergraduate portion, $4,385 per 6-month term during graduate portion, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

If you're driven to lead, this online nursing degree will provide you everything needed to make that career a reality.

Compare degrees
This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

Nursing (RN-to-BSN Online) – B.S.

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking...

An online BSN degree program for registered...

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking the added theoretical depth, employability, and respect that a bachelor's degree brings:

  • Time: 66% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition and Fees: $3,795 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.
  • Transfers: On average, students transfer 81 credits.

With over 35,000 BSN alumni, this is one of WGU's most popular online degree programs. View our RN to BSN degree guide.

If you don't currently have an RN and don't qualify for your nursing prelicensure program, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry in a unique way.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (BSN-to-MSN) – M.S.

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for greater responsibility:

  • Time: 82% of grads finish within 24 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,385 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Sample careers and jobs this degree program will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of medical and health services managers to grow 17% by 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Compare degrees

This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

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No need to wait for spring or fall semester. It's back-to-school time at WGU year-round. Get started by talking to an Enrollment Counselor today, and you'll be on your way to realizing your dream of a bachelor's or master's degree—sooner than you might think!

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A nurse manager speaks with a nurse in a hallway.

What Skills Does a Head Nurse Need?

Proficient in both team management and patient care, head nurses depend on a variety of skills each day. These skills allow head nurses to connect patients with high-quality care, improve their outcomes and positively contribute to their quality of life.

Head nurses regularly depend on many of the following skills:

  • Nurse management: The ability to effectively oversee all nurse operations, to ensure that they maintain efficient operations while advocating for patient health and recovery.
  • Interpersonal communication: The ability to correspond effectively with all nurses, doctors, patients, and healthcare staff regularly.
  • Patient care: The ability to provide expert-level care to all patients in need of specific treatments, therapies, and modalities.
  • Instruction: The ability to teach new nurses about your facility’s standard operating procedures while updating existing nurses on any new procedures.
  • Public speaking: The ability to confidently address a group of gathered nurses, answer questions, and inform their understanding of your clinic’s processes.
  • Problem-solving: The ability to identify, address, and solve issues as they arise in a healthcare environment.
  • Technological proficiency: The ability to correctly use all pieces of technology in a healthcare setting, including any computers, tablets, phones, electronic health records, and online resources.

These and other skills help head nurses protect the integrity of the healthcare environment, oversee operations, and connect patients with appropriate treatments.

How Much Does a Head Nurse Make?

$69,328

As a head nurse, your exact income will depend on several factors. These can include your employer, employer’s location, employer’s public or private funding, your years of experience, your education, and any accreditations you currently hold.

The salary of a head nurse can average $69,328, with a range of roughly $37,000 to $101,000 earned per year.

What Is the Projected Job Growth?

7%

From 2019 to 2029, employment for registered nurses is expected to grow 7%. This projected growth rate is well above the average across all occupations.

Aging populations are largely behind the forecasted increase in required healthcare services. As baby boomers grow older, they will need long-term care for chronic issues, increasing the need for nurses and head nurses to provide efficient services and oversee facility operations. Head nurses in particular will be needed to educate nurses on any issues that patients might be facing.

Where Do Head Nurses Work?

Varies

Because head nurses are in charge of nursing teams, they commonly work onsite at their employer’s place of business. Whether you are monitoring nurse operations, signing off on operations, or providing immediate patient care, you’ll need to remain physically close to the medical floor you oversee as a head nurse.

Head nurses may work in any of the following locations: hospitals, emergency medical clinics, outpatient organizations, rehabilitation facilities, nursing clinics, inpatient centers, nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

 

Interested in Becoming a Head Nurse?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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