Joining the Nursing Faculty

Nursing schools have growing numbers of openings for professors, but that doesn't mean the search process is easy, write Regina M. Cusson and Thomas Lawrence Long.

March 26, 2014

Unlike some science fields, there is no glut of nursing professors with doctorates. In fact, it’s often a challenge for schools of nursing to recruit faculty. However, early-career nursing scholars would be wise to understand that finding the appointment that they want is not guaranteed. Because most nursing professors earn their doctorates and enter academe later in life, after years in clinical settings, learning the culture of higher education is essential to their professional success. Here we offer some advice from the perspective of a dean and of a faculty member for increasing the probability of success on the job market and early career.

What Does a Dean Want?

Finding the right faculty members for a school of nursing can be a challenge. Although many schools of nursing have openings, applicants need to meet the needs of the institution. “Goodness of fit” is an important concept here. Creating this fit begins in graduate school.

Successful applicants will need to prepare diligently during their last year of doctoral studies. If they seek a position in a research-intensive university, a postdoctoral fellowship is a necessity to get a jump-start on an academic career. A postdoc provides advanced preparation in research methods under the guidance of a mentor, colloquiums  with other nurse researchers, and opportunities for professional networking. During that fellowship, applicants should analyze potential faculty positions for the best fit for their areas of interest and expertise. Completion of a postdoc also gives candidates the tools and momentum to start their research programs quickly upon being hired in their first full-time position.

If applicants are not seeking employment in a research-intensive environment, they still need to find a match of interest and expertise. While all nurses are health educators, their experience in formal higher education teaching may be limited. Because their preparation as teachers may not be a formal part of their curriculums, doctoral students should avail themselves of opportunities for courses in education. For example, at the University of Connecticut, graduate students can complete a certificate in inter-professional health education to prepare themselves as teachers. In addition, the National League for Nursing offers preparation and formal credentialing for Certified Nurse Educators.

The nursing dean at a research-intensive university looks for applicants who present themselves professionally from the very first moment of contact. That means that the application letter and the curriculum vitae are both clearly written and organized, as well as pristine in appearance. That first impression is a reflection of the dedication candidates will put into the process of becoming educators and researchers. The application materials are also an indication of the nursing applicants’ familiarity with academic culture.

Many universities conduct phone or Skype interviews for initial screening purposes. Because coming across as an excellent candidate by phone requires a different approach from in-person interviews, applicants should consider how to stand out during a phone interview. Being ready to describe one’s area of research expertise, clinical experience, examples of accomplishments, as well as how one overcame professional challenges or handled a difficult situation, is also important. Once the invitation for an on-campus interview is extended, candidates need to inquire about the process and plan for the interview. Interviews vary from a few hours to a full day or two.

If an applicant makes it though the initial screening process, the good impression needs to continue. Successful candidates will do their homework, coming to the interview already having studied the school’s website and having a good understanding of the university and the nursing school. Deans also look for applicants who demonstrate a temperament for teamwork and collaboration while possessing the singlemindedness needed to be successful as scholars in their areas of research.

During the on-campus interview, applicants will meet with the faculty search committee and will do a professional presentation that meets the requirements for the individual position and appointment track. For example, for a tenure-track position, a research presentation is the norm, usually reporting on dissertation results with a discussion of next steps and plans for developing a program of research. Some deans will attend the presentation, but many will not be able to fit that time into a very busy schedule. Whether the dean is present or not should influence what the applicant says during the interview with the dean. If the dean is not present for the presentation, during the interview with the dean a candidate should discuss plans for developing a program of research.

Candidates should also have a good idea of what support they will need to successfully launch their research careers and should discuss those with the dean. Many schools offer startup packages that include a reduced initial teaching load, funds for needed equipment, research assistant support, travel funding to present research results, and other valuable perks that support novice investigators. In addition, candidates should find out what research support is available for all faculty beyond that specially negotiated. For example, UConn’s Center for Nursing Scholarship and associate dean for research and scholarship provide in-house qualitative and quantitative methods mentors and biostatistical consulting, technical editing, and grants management to all faculty and doctoral students.

An initial interview with the dean is usually not the moment for negotiations, but it should give candidates an opportunity to explore whether the school will be a good fit for them and whether it will support their research. The nursing profession isn’t known for tough-minded personal negotiating, so candidates should research ways of succeeding in this arena. While the successful candidate will not initiate a salary discussion, if the dean discusses salary, the candidate should be prepared with desired goals. There are usually ranges of salary available so that some negotiation is possible.  However, it is also important not to price oneself out of the desired position.

Following the interview, a candidate should send written thank-you notes to the dean, as well as the search committee and any key faculty members met during the interview process. Attention to these details will be seen as a sign of a potentially committed faculty member who will make a contribution to the mission of the school.

What Do Faculty Colleagues Want?

Most new nursing faculty members come to an academic career after spending years in clinical settings. What they know about professionalism, they know from the expectations of that work place. So the first thing that they need to keep in mind about becoming professors is the phrase “peer review.” From the moment they submit an application for a position, to the process of submitting grant applications for funding or journal article manuscripts for publication, and to the process of applying for tenure or promotion, new nursing faculty will be evaluated by peers.

Know thy audience. Each job application is a rhetorical performance designed for a specific audience and purpose. At the very least, a new nursing faculty applicant needs to master the job search genres of the curriculum vitae and the application letter. However, there is no one-size-fits-all for these genres, and search committees reading application materials bring to their review a sense of what will make a good fit in their school’s culture.

What a faculty search committee expects depends on the type of college or university in which they teach. A search committee at a community college is interested in three things: Teaching, teaching, teaching. A search committee at a comprehensive university’s nursing program offering baccalaureate and master’s degree programs is interested in teaching and some forms of scholarly dissemination, like the scholarship of application or the scholarship of teaching.

A search committee at a research-intensive university looks for teaching potential, to be sure. After all, a university school of nursing has a curriculum that needs to be taught. However, for the tenure track they want to hire new colleagues whom they are confident will successfully secure research funding, publish results, and build a coherent research program that draws national or international attention, attracts new graduate students and postdocs, and distinguishes the school. Even for non-tenured clinical appointments they want faculty members who can contribute to the scholarly life of the school.

The aphorism of Archilochus, as philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously reminded us, might be apt: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Community colleges and comprehensive universities are looking for foxes; research-intensive universities are looking for hedgehogs. One mistake that applicants for research tenure-track positions sometimes make is presenting a scattered array of interests and what we call “fantasy research projects” or “fantasy article manuscripts.” It is unlikely that those studies will be conducted, much less funded or published. That career fails to thrive.

After becoming a new faculty member, the nurse scholar’s audience still includes peers: grant funding reviewers, anonymous reviewers for journals, and a tenure and promotion committee. Because each of those audiences has its own expectations, the simplest advice that we can give is: Read and follow instructions. Know what grant funders want in a proposal and provide it. Know what journal editors want and give it. Know what your peers expect and do it.

Know thyself. The question that needs to be asked in graduate school is: Where do I want to be and what do I want to be doing 5 or 10 years from now? The answer to that question can shape the focus of the dissertation and the creation of a focused, coherent research agenda that should give the new nurse scholar intellectual and professional momentum for a decade. A new nurse scholar who loves teaching nursing students and engaging in clinical practice but struggles with writing and publishing should think twice about applying for a tenure-track position in a research-intensive university, although a full-time clinical appointment there might be rewarding.

Paying attention to what nursing deans want and what faculty peers expect will increase the probability of finding the right academic appointment and securing a career as a nursing professor.


Regina M. Cusson is dean and professor of the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing. An advanced practice nurse with a specialization in neonatal care, she is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.

Thomas Lawrence Long is associate professor-in-residence in the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing, co-chair of its recruitment and selection committee, and a member of its clinical advancement and promotion and tenure council.

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