1. Modic, Mary Beth MSN, RN
  2. Schoessler, Mary EdD, RN

Article Content

Dear Mary and Mary Beth,


I really enjoy your articles in the Journal for Nurses in Staff Development. At our facility, in our Nurse Educator committee and Preceptor Excellence group, we have had several discussions on the differences among a preceptor, primary preceptor, and mentor.


Would you be willing to shed some light on their definition, commonalities, and differences?


Thank you for any assistance you give us!


Betty Borlik, BSN, RN


Staff Development Coordinator


Elkhart General Hospital


Elkhart, IN


Dear Betty,


We have been pondering our answer to your question about our definitions of preceptor, primary preceptor, and mentor and would like to share our thoughts and reflections with you in this column.


Not all preceptors are created equal. Preceptors have different talents, strengths, and degrees of clinical sophistication. As educators, we should keep this in mind as we assign preceptors to new staff. Most organizations rely on Alspach's (2000) definition of a preceptor, which is "A preceptor is an experienced and competent staff nurse who has received formal training to function in this capacity and who serves as a role model and a resource person to new staff nurses" (p. 2). Alspach offers three primary roles of precepting: role model, socializer, and educator. The difference in preceptor versus primary preceptor, in our view, is the overall expectation of the primary preceptor. The primary preceptor has an additional role: that of designer of the environment. In this role, the primary preceptor considers the acuity of the patient population, the work flow, the tenure of the staff, the potential for interruptions, and the resources available to optimize learning for the new nurse. In addition, the primary preceptor facilitates the "hand-off" process to other preceptors and oversees the required documentation for orientation. The primary preceptor may receive compensation for assuming this additional responsibility. Lastly, primary preceptors are usually the individuals who initiate the first phase of orientation on the clinical unit. These individuals are the proficient and expert preceptors. Novice preceptors may be best utilized near the end of orientation, when the new nurse is more self-directed and confident.


We believe that there are two types of mentors used in nursing practice: the assigned mentor and the chosen mentor. The unit manager or educator can assign the first kind of mentor to a newly hired nurse at the completion of orientation. Once the newly hired nurse has met orientation outcome criteria and is officially "off of orientation," the mentor provides the guidance that the nurse needs to support ongoing development and integration into the unit and organization culture.


Mentors should be good listeners, approachable by other nursing staff, positive influencers on the unit, committed to the nursing profession, team players, able to face difficult situations with a positive attitude, and role models for expert nursing practice. Mentors help us discover our talents and expand our thinking. It would be ideal if the mentors worked the same schedule as the new nurse, but that may not be possible, so mentors must develop skills in keeping communication open, seeking out the new nurse for conversation, and debriefing difficult situations. Establishing a regular check-in time can facilitate building the necessary relationship.


The second type of mentor, the chosen mentor, is selected by the nurse to further his or her professional career. These mentors may come from inside the organization or from the broader professional community. Chosen mentors guide nurses in moving toward expertise, in caring for self, and in maturing as a person. Although the mentee may only be interested in developing toward his or her professional goals, the mentor knows that to achieve expertise, the nurse must travel both a personal and professional journey. It is a journey that involves opening one's thinking to other's points of view, learning to care for self while caring for others, coping with trying situations that trigger one's emotions and raise ethical concerns, and honestly acknowledging one's failures and successes.


The organization can support the mentoring process by offering educational programming and coaching for mentor development and facilitating connections between mentees and potential mentors.


Mary Beth and Mary


Dear Readers,


We have received an inquiry about compensation for preceptors. Would you please let us know by e-mail whether preceptors receive financial compensation for precepting at your hospital. If they do, could you e-mail us the following information:


1. How large is your facility?


2. How much is the preceptor paid?


3. What are the criteria the preceptor must meet (if any) to receive compensation?


4. What are the pros and cons to this practice at your organization?



Please e-mail your response to or If we receive a sufficient response, we will devote an entire column to the topic.




Alspach, J. G. (2000). From staff nurse to preceptor: A preceptor development program (2nd ed.). Aliso Viejo, CA: AACN. [Context Link]



Faut-Callahan, M. (2001). Mentoring: A call to professional responsibility. AANA Journal, 69, 248-250.


McKinley, M. (2004). Mentoring matters: Creating, connecting, empowering. AACN Clinical Issues, 15, 205-214.


Nigro, N. (2003). The everything coaching and mentoring book. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation.


Parsloe, E., & Wray, M. (2000). Coaching and mentoring. Sterling, VA: Kogan Page.


Stewart, D. (2006). Generational mentoring. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 37, 113-120.