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Making a Career Transition From Clinical to Academic Tenure in Nursing

Nurses desiring to move out of clinical practice might consider a position in a college or university academic environment. Moving from clinical practice to academia requires careful planning, however. This article discusses what a tenured position requires and offers three steps for when considering a move to a tenured academic position. 

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the National League for Nursing have expressed there is a growing nurse faculty shortage in the United States that is preventing more students from entering nursing programs and is contributing to the overall professional nurse shortage.1,2Nurses may seek a career change due to low job satisfaction, the physical demands and long hours of acute and long-term care nursing, a lack of progressive career opportunities, or simply feeling unchallenged. Nurses desiring to move out of clinical practice might consider a position in a college or university academic environment. While many master’s-prepared nurses find teaching fulfilling, others may aspire to earn a doctorate and eventually seek promotion and tenure. The move from clinical practice to academia requires careful planning, starting with the type of degree earned to successfully navigate the promotion and tenure process. This article discusses what a tenured position requires and offers three steps for when considering a move to a tenured academic position. 

Many nursing organizations support advanced degrees, especially for nurses earning degrees preparing them to teach in higher education.1-3The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) also supports nurses preparing to teach in higher education through the awarding of grants4and has reported that fewer than 30,000 of the 3 million nurses in the U.S. hold doctoral degrees.4Specifically, RWJF has looked at preparedness to teach and conduct research in nursing.4To assist with the growing need of doctoral-prepared nurses, RWJF has provided the monetary support to help double the number of doctoral-prepared nurses, from the mindset of conducting research and teaching is required to graduate qualified nurses while producing quality evidence-based practice.5Since many nurses have moved forward and earned advanced degrees, the change from clinical practice to academia might seem more achievable. Regardless of the reasons behind the career change, there are some specific considerations to make before making the leap from clinical practice to academia. 


There are college/university academic positions that require only a master’s degree to teach. These faculty positions will likely have a single academic year or a multiyear contract. These contract positions require master’s-prepared faculty to teach the didactic portion of the courses, and clinical requirements are part of that assignment. Contract faculty generally teach in their content specialty area (eg, med/surg, critical care). 

Tenured faculty members are those who have met the (lengthy) requirements for promotion and tenure. “Tenure-line” is the term used to describe a faculty member who is currently working toward promotion and tenure (generally a 5-7-year process). Similar to the contract faculty, tenured faculty members will teach in their area of expertise, but are also required to meet additional responsibilities, including conducting research, publishing, obtaining grants, and presenting their work at national and international conferences. For those master’s prepared nurses interested in pursuing a doctorate and considering a tenure-line position, it is important to fully investigate the requirements of tenure.


The first step toward a career in academia is to earn an advanced degree. There are many colleges and universities, but an accredited institution is essential to ensure the education is meeting at least the minimum academic standards and credits earned.6Understanding the difference in the types of degrees is important. A master’s degree is considered the minimum degree for teaching in higher education.7Master’s-degreed faculty may teach in licensed practical nurse, associate science in nursing, and baccalaureate science in nursing programs in most colleges and (some) universities. The doctor of philosophy (PhD) is a research doctorate that prepares one to conduct original research. The PhD candidate will complete all required courses, a dissertation, and written and oral exams to defend his or her research.8The doctor of education (EdD) focuses on teaching, research, and finding improved teaching methods.9The EdD candidate will also complete all required course work, a dissertation, and written and oral exams to defend the research. The PhD and EdD programs take generally 3-6 years to complete. A doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is a terminal degree in the professional practice area of nursing. The intent of the DNP is to prepare professional nurses as experts in the advanced practice area, advance healthcare policy, and education.10Generally, a DNP candidate does not complete a dissertation, written, or oral exam. 

The second step is to determine if a tenure-line position is appropriate. Contrary to popular belief, tenured faculty are not guaranteed a lifetime of employment, but are afforded academic freedom when teaching leads to new advancements in pedagogy and quality instruction.11It is important to understand tenure-line position, tenure, and post-tenure requirements. Prior to making a decision, taking time to shadow a tenure-line or tenured faculty member to gain a realistic picture of what the requirements are, is recommended. Requirements include teaching, scholarship (eg, publishing, obtaining grants, and presenting work at national and international conferences), and service requirements that should be considered prior to making a commitment. Tenure-line positions are highly competitive, and therefore the candidate should be well prepared for the interview process. The interview is important for faculty to understand more about the candidate and what the candidate may offer the program. It is also important for the candidate to gain knowledge of the program and the tenure-line expectations. Tenure-line candidates should be prepared to meet with several members of the department, the college, and university. Tenure-line candidates’ interview processes are typically scheduled over a two-day (or longer) period. Tenure-line candidates will usually be required to present a 45-60-minute research presentation or teach a class with faculty members evaluating performance.12 There will be a formal interview with questions for the candidate and time for the candidate to ask questions. The department may be interviewing several tenure-line candidates for a single position, so there may be a longer waiting period between the time of the interview and an offer for employment. 

The third step in consideration of a tenured academic position is extremely important to fully understand tenure-line requirements, including the post-tenure responsibilities.  Obtaining a copy of the institution’s tenure-line requirements will provide a guide to exactly what is required during each year’s annual review and for the cumulative 5-7-year probationary period. Universities make large financial investments in their tenure-line candidates, and the candidates put forth arduous effort during the probationary period. Therefore, careful consideration must be taken from the department offering the position and the candidate pursuing it. The primary reason for the probationary period is to allow the candidate the opportunity to develop and demonstrate excellence in three primary areas of teaching (eg, teaching development, application of research), scholarship (eg, publications, presentations, grant writing), and service (eg, committee membership and leadership at the department, college and/or university, and professional associations). During the probationary period, the tenure-line candidate will have specific requirements to meet annually that are established by the department promotion and tenure committee. Regularly scheduled meetings for progress review during the probationary period should be expected. In many colleges and universities, at years three and six the promotion and tenure committees also review documents and provide feedback.13Once the candidate has successfully completed the probationary period and all promotion and tenure committees agree, the candidate is awarded tenure. The awarding of tenure and promotion may come through the declaration of the college/university or the board of trustees.13 Once tenure is achieved, the faculty should begin to work toward promotion to full professor. Tenured faculty must continue to excel in the areas of teaching, and scholarship and service requirements will have periodic post-tenure reviews where the accumulated body of work is evaluated. 


The tenure-line process is challenging, but doable. Success will depend on self-determination, knowledge of the process, and personal commitment to do the required work. Strong time management and organizational skills are a must. Balancing work and personal life will help to reduce chronic stress and potential burnout. Establishing a mentor relationship is greatly encouraged, as this person will be present to help navigate the tenure-line process and beyond. Establishing a line of research that is sustainable for a tenured faculty career is vital. The ability to obtain grant funding to support research is an expectation in many universities. Publishing and presenting work at professional conferences will disseminate the information to a wider audience. Teaching is a wonderful career and an excellent way to impart expert knowledge to the next generation of professional nurses. The nursing profession relies on great faculty and nurse researchers to bring forth innovative ideas, pave the way for the future of nursing, and provide evidence as to why nurses do what they do.  

Cynthia M. Thomas and Constance E. McIntosh are co-authors of A Nurse’s Step-by-Step Guide to Academic Promotion & Tenurepublished through the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing. Dr. Thomas is an associate professor and Dr. McIntosh is an assistant professor in the school of nursing/college of health at Ball State University. 


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12. Becker K. Preparing for the tenure-track interview. UA/AU.2015. Accessed online:

13. McIntosh CE, Thomas CM, McIntosh DE. A Nurse’s Step-by-Step Guide to Academic Promotion and Tenure.Indianapolis, IN: Sigma; 2017.

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Cynthia M. Thomas, EdD, MS, RNc & Constance E. McIntosh, EdD, MBA, RN
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