You've gone to school. You've worked for a while... or even decades.
But something is tugging at you to rethink your course and become a nurse.
The reasons for going back to nursing school are as diverse as the academic options available. Many of us were inspired by positive encounters with nurses either when we or our family members were patients. Others may have had experiences that encouraged them to become nurses and lead by example.
Anne Taliaferro, a public health nurse, was working in research and considering a career in health care. "I knew I was interested in science and in translational research," she says. "I love taking things from bench to bedside. Now I take ideas from academia to the community."
Taliaferro ultimately chose nursing over medicine because of the person-centered focus it offered: "There are so many reasons why I was drawn to nursing. The best one came up in conversation with a family friend as I was applying to schools. She explained that the difference for her between nursing and medicine is that when you enter the patient's room, if you're a doctor, you reach for a chart; if you're a nurse, you reach for a patient's hand."
One message is clear, however. If you are in it for the money, you won't last long. Contrary to popular belief, nursing is not "recession-proof", particularly for new graduates, and the monetary rewards will not sustain you through the emotional and physical demands of the job.
Audra Mattila, a pediatric home health nurse, advises understanding what this career really involves. "It is about entering a profession where you are truly invested in your job and your patients," she says. "Nursing is a way of thinking and a way of life, not merely a job with a good paycheck."
The decision to re-enter school should also not be made lightly. Despite the increasing prevalence of accelerated BSN and "alternate entry" graduate options, the process can be long and arduous. All nursing programs have a long list of prerequisites. Chances are you will spend at least a year taking these courses before you ever step foot onto a nursing school campus.
You may also find yourself having to explain your choices to skeptical audiences. Be prepared for questions and doubt in unexpected places, including from fellow nurses. "I have gotten some very blunt remarks about how I won't be as successful or as prepared as someone who did it the 'right' way," says Jennifer Vitti, an Alternate-Entry Nurse Practitioner Student.
Despite these challenges, many nurses are glad they took the leap. "I love nursing and would do it exactly the same way," says Taliaferro. "My education has been a long process, but I am who I am and am able to do what I do well because of the experiences I had throughout my education."
So how do you know if nursing is right for you? You'll never really know until you are in the trenches. There are some simple steps you can take, however, in preparation for your journey:
- Get trained as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Medical Assistant (MA) or Paramedic (EMT). Not only will you learn skills that will give you an advantage in nursing school, but you will be able to appreciate the roles these providers play... a valuable lesson to learn early!
- Find a non-clinical health care job. Learning systems and being comfortable in a health care setting is half the battle. Look for unit secretary and technician positions which will let you interact directly with patients and families (if you can, keep the job through nursing schoolso that you can apply internally for RN positions).
- Volunteer at a hospital. It really is valuable exposure. Plus, it is a great opportunity to meet nurses and pick their brains.
- Read nursing blogs. Learn about the good, the bad and the ugly now. Nursing is rewarding, but it is far from romantic. Don't be shy... many bloggers are very willing to answer questions via email.
- Ask your prospective nursing programs the tough questions. What percentage of their graduates have jobs within three (and six) months, particularly in this economy? Do they offer nursing career support? What is the process for airing grievances as a student? Also, find out if there are current students willing to speak honestly about their experiences. Make sure you really understand the degree requirements.
Second-career nurses are good for the profession. "I think that as a second degree nurse, I have strong critical thinking skills supported by life experience," says Mattila. "I am able to communicate with and relate to my patients and families in ways that I would not have been able to when I was younger."
The decision to go back to school and become a nurse is personal and individual. Make sure you are honest with yourself about the reasons for making the choice to go into nursing.
Q: What is your current position?
I am a floor nurse in an oncology unit.
Q: What motivated your decision to change careers into nursing?
It was a combination of two things really. I had a slow realization that I didn't want to be a professor the rest of my life. Then I became a mom, and I found being a mother rewarding. I wanted to be with people and take care of them in a concrete way. I never really thought about nursing. I had a midwife during my pregnancy, but it had never crossed my mind that I could become a nurse. Then a good friend, who is also a nurse, told me, "You could do that." I looked into it and was hooked very quickly.
Q: What education did you pursue to become a second career nurse?
I searched the Internet for programs. We were living in central New Jersey at the time. I found an accelerated nursing program. Anyone who already has a college degree in anything, be it English or psych or whatever, can do an accelerated nursing program and get a BSN. I had to take a lot of science prerequisites, and I ended up loving them. I really was not up for getting another college degree, so I had to find a nursing program that wouldn't take another four years, and then figure out what classes I had to take and when I had to take them. As soon as I knew I could get a BSN degree, it all just fell into place pretty quickly.
Q: How did your previous career impact your nursing practice?
Good communication skills are talked about a lot, but they really make a huge difference. Having a lot of practice communicating, having taught writing, I've really thought a lot about how to interact with people and get across information-that's invaluable. Having been a professor and being older, I think I came in more comfortable with doctors than a lot of nurses are, and that's very helpful too. It's easier for me to see them as colleagues who are doing different pieces of a very important job.
Q: Did you feel like your nursing school prepared you well for nursing on the floor?
I would say in some ways, yes and in some ways, no. I graduated from the accelerated nursing program at the University of Pittsburgh, which was a year-long program. In terms of the intellectual background and science training, Pitt did a great job. The one thing I wish we had more of, though, was more clinical experience or more in-depth clinical experience. I think because it's only a year, it felt like once I got on the floor, I could have used more clinical experience. A lot of nurses come out of school feeling that way, though. You're in fairly large clinical groups-five nurses and one instructor. Also, the nurses who are on the floor have to get their job done, and they don't always have the time to teach students.
Q: How was the accelerated degree perceived by other nurses you worked with?
There is a chapter in my book in which I talk about my first job because there was a lot of bullying, an unfortunate truth about nursing. To me, it felt like a combination of things: I had done an accelerated program and so I wasn't as clinically prepared as I could have been; I was older; I had a PhD in English. I've heard from other nurses at other hospitals that there can be hostility between nurses and sometimes a feeling that some nurses don't want someone who "has better credentials" or who "knows more" coming in and making them look bad. I work with BSN nurses, diploma nurses and nurses who went to community college, and they're all good nurses. My true and strong feeling is that all nurses should have a BSN because it would raise the professional profile of the job. When people say M.D., they know what that means, but with nurses you don't know. For everyone who wants to be a nurse to get a BSN though, there needs to be money available to financially help those nurses who can only afford diploma programs.
Q: How would you describe your first few days in your nursing position?
A whirlwind of activity! I was lucky because I started out with this wonderful and gentle preceptor, and she was so calm and patient. The first day I just shadowed her and I thought, "Oh, this looks okay." I tried to absorb as much as possible, and then when I started, she was just incredibly warm, and I could handle the work. It really was a blur of patients, doctors, other nurses, and aides, and I thought, "Who are all these people, and how am I going to talk to them? I don't know anyone's name."
Q: How long did it take you to feel comfortable in the environment?
Probably about six months total. I'll pass on a very good piece of advice I got from another nurse about when I would feel comfortable, "Someday it's just going to click in your head, and you're going to say ‘oh, I get it.'" I held on to that idea, and then it happened. There are still moments when I feel like I don't know something, but there was a point when I just got it. I can't put into words what that is or how it happens, but it does happen. And I tell other new nurses the same thing. People say it takes a year to learn any job, and I would say that after a year, you feel like, "alright I have my feet on the ground." Not that things can't come up that will knock you off your feet.
Q: When you started your first RN position, was there anything that surprised you?
How chaotic it was. Hospitals are incredibly chaotic, and a lot of what you have to learn as a nurse is how to navigate that chaos. For example: "I need to call the doctor. How do I find the phone number, etc?" All the stuff that now is completely second nature to me, I found incredibly confusing when I first started. Some things sound really serious but aren't, and other things are really serious, but don't come across that way. A lot of learning how to distinguish between the two is just experience.
Q: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of nursing?
I would say managing the chaos and all the idiosyncrasies of the system. Also, since I'm in oncology, there's the emotional work of the job. But overall, I feel like nurses have so much to do and are always being given more. Nursing also doesn't get the institutional respect that it really needs. We're working so hard, and we care so much about the patients, and often I feel like in health care in general, we aren't getting the help we need.
Q: What advice do you have for a new nurse about managing the emotional element of nursing?
Make sure you're somewhere where you can talk to your colleagues. Don't bottle it up. You've got to process it. If you're the kind of person who needs to get feelings out, and you're working on a floor where people tell you to suck it up, that's not going to work. You have to find a floor where you're emotionally comfortable.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the nursing field?
The patients. I love patients; I love helping the patients. I also love my co-workers.
Q: Can you describe your experiences with health care coworkers?
In general, I have positive experiences with coworkers and doctors, but there is a streak in hospitals of people handling stress by taking it out on other people. This often takes the form of bullying, shouting, and people losing their tempers. That needs to stop. Every person, whether it's a housekeeper, the chief nursing officer or the head of cardiology, needs to be held to professional standards of behavior. We have people's lives in our hands; we need to have good communication and work together.
Q: How would you describe your patients?
Brave. They're all brave. They're all dealing with this very scary diagnosis, and they handle it. They're not perfect; they're all human, but they handle it, and their families handle it. It's quite remarkable to see what families are willing to do for each other. This job has made me feel really good about being married because I see couples - whether it's the wife or the husband who's sick - who are really there for each other. It's quite profound to see that.
Q: Do you have any particular advice for those considering a career change into nursing?
Nursing school is a slog. You think you're never going to finish, but then you do. You start this great job, and it's so rewarding - the job makes everything you go through in school worth it.