*Original article released on 10/28/2020
Many students enter nursing school with a specific professional goal in mind. Others discover their passion along the way to becoming a registered nurse (RN) or even after completing their BSN degree. Either way, this article is for you! Maybe you want to become a nurse practitioner, an educator, or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)… Regardless of the pass you’ve chosen, I’ll highlight some general tips for things you can be doing at each stage of nursing to help you get to YOUR end career goal. We’ll discuss what you can do prior to nursing school, while in nursing, and as a new graduate RN or LPN to make those dreams a reality.
First thing’s first, you have to get into nursing school to be able to pursue a professional title/job within the nursing field. This can definitely be a rough journey and a long one at that. During this time, you’ll need to have a program in mind that you’d like to attend for nursing (either an ADN or BSN program) and take the required pre-requisites necessary to gain admission. If you’re in this stage, that’s perfectly fine! In fact, I’d even argue that YOU are in the best position to set yourself up for success in knocking out your goals!
Tips for this stage would be to do your best to ace those core science pre-requisite classes, especially if your selected program “ranks” its applicants. Many programs do this and it consists of a scaling system based on attributes like your overall GPA, science GPA, volunteer/work experience, interview scores, and possibly even hands-on assessment data. You’ll want to beef up your application resume in every way possible by getting active in clubs on campus, maintaining a part-time job, taking any leadership/volunteer opportunities, traveling and doing mission trips, etc.
You might be a little overwhelmed by all of those items and even feel like some of those aren’t possible. That’s alright! This is where your life experiences and personality can make up for those missed opportunities; however, they can’t always make up for poor grades. So do your best to keep grades at a B or better average. If you’re one of the many people that have to work during school (don’t worry, I was one of them!), try to get a job in the healthcare field! Any aspect of healthcare will help you in your journey, but some of the best roles I’ve noted are pharmacy technician (PhT), medical assistant (MA), certified nursing assistant (CNA), patient care technician (PCT), and EKG technician. These roles will not only provide you with insight into the healthcare field, but they’ll also help you become familiar with medical terminology, billing, basic care activities, patient teaching, and so much more. Think of it as getting paid to learn on the job and prepare for success later on.
Once you’ve applied to and been selected for a nursing program (ADN or BSN), the real fun begins! You’ll finally start to enjoy your coursework more, because you’re learning the material that interests you most. Don’t let your grades slack now that you’ve been admitted; just because you don’t have to compete for admission any more doesn’t mean that the whole “C’s get degrees” motto is the one to live by. If your plans don’t stop with getting your ADN or BSN, this is the time to work even harder to maintain your grades and truly strive to understand the material you’re learning.
If your program has a simulation lab, take advantage of any “open hour” availability and go practice the skills you’re learning! Not only will it provide a break from studying, it will give you an opportunity to utilize a kinesthetic style of memory retention. This means the information will stick better in your mind because you’re performing a skill with your hands…kind of like creating muscle memory for the nursing material. When in clinical, always ask for the hardest patient assignments as those are the ones you’ll likely experience the most with. Not only will the situation be intellectually challenging, but the staff on that unit will remember the student who has the gumption to ask for those assignments (trust me). While working with your assigned nurse, always be willing to help with any task. This means avoid sitting, ask what you can be doing to help (and if they say nothing, ask another nurse if they need help), and seeking out opportunities as they arise. If you hear a patient is going to surgery, ask to follow along! If you suck at inserting IVs, ask the charge nurse to let you know if anyone needs an IV started or replaced! Take initiative with your learning because no one else will do it for you. Use these opportunities to form connections within your nursing community.
Let’s discuss a few other tips during this time! Ask each unit’s leadership about internship and possible part time job opportunities as a PCT, CNA, or EKG tech…but preferably towards the end of your rotation after you’ve proved your worth and level of effort/knowledge. Who knows? Maybe they could use extra help during times of shift change or in the late evenings/early morning for bed baths. Any experience IS experience, and any connection is better than no connection when it comes to finding a new grad nursing job after you graduate from your nursing program. Speaking of this, be sure to start your job search towards the end of your second to last semester. This allows you to be interviewing early on in your final semester (*hopefully*). I did this, accepted a job offer mid March, and had the remainder of the semester to focus on school and prep for the NCLEX-RN. I was able to take my NCLEX the first available date after graduation while all my classmates were either partying or worrying about securing a job. Trust me in saying that the level of stress relief and comfort of job security was more than worth the extra work early on.
Okay, so now you’re finally a registered nurse or vocational nurse…now what? Well, the answer here is that it depends. I know, not what you were hoping to hear, right? If you’re an LPN/LVN/ADN, the next step for you to complete would be completing an RN or RN-to-BSN program. Believe it or not, many employers (especially hospitals) will require you to do this within a certain time frame anyway. BUT, the perk of your situation is that not only are you working and gaining experience as an RN while going back to school, your employer may also cover some or all of the cost of your program as well! How awesome is that!?! Be sure to check with your HR department to see what options are available to you!
Now, once you’ve completed your BSN, start thinking of what professional goal you have in mind. If you already know what that goal is (professor, clinical instructor, NP, CRNA, etc.), scope out some different programs and start to jot down a list of admissions criteria. Many professional routes will require you to return for either your master’s or doctorate degree. If that’s the case, you’ll want to think about taking the GRE. This is a step you can do at any time after graduating with your bachelor’s degree. Honestly, the sooner, the better. The GRE covers a verbal (vocabulary), quantitative (math), and an analytical writing section. Best to utilize those collegiate skills you spent the past four years developing before they start to fade. Keep in mind that this is currently a $205 exam for those of us in the United States, and this is WITHOUT the cost of study materials, practice exams, and/or any preparation services (like Kaplan) that you might need to utilize. Keep in mind that for most health professions, a score of 300+ is considered competitive, so take it seriously or have to take it again…
Some additional things you could be doing as a registered nurse while waiting to apply for or start your dream program include gaining clinical experience, narrowing down a specialty (for those pursuing NP or clinical education), and obtaining related certifications. For example, those wanting to pursue acute care NP or CRNA school typically need a minimum of one year critical care experience (ICU, Neuro ICU, CVICU, ER, etc.). Sometimes, programs can choose not to include an area of practice in their definition of critical care (typically ER is excluded from meeting this requirement). This is why it is incredibly important to do your research, know which programs your interested in ahead of time, and what their requirements entail. As far as certifications go, pursue certifications over certificates and typically those that relate most to the type of experience you hold. For example, a trauma certified registered nurse (TCRN) certification holds more weight in the admission process than a trauma nurse certification course (TNCC) certificate.
Don’t forget to do those pre-nursing tasks, such as volunteering and working to gain experience, in the meantime while you wait for admission. Research how the program’s admission process works and if they have an interview, what format is it in? Practice interviewing with someone, IN PERSON, in the same manner you expect to be interviewed. Side bar, the pandemic has us all living in a virtual world lately…so if your interview will be in that arena, be sure to practice via Zoom or Teams or whatever application they’ll be utilizing.
With every intentional step you take in your career, you’re getting closer to achieving your dreams. But, that’s literally the thing about dreams…they aren’t achieved by happy accident. It takes planning and intentional actions and sacrifices to do what it takes to get there. Let me tell you, each mini accomplishment is like a sweet little reward along the way. Be sure to set aside something small for yourself each time you complete one of the items on your checklist. It could be as simple as getting to take PTO for a spa day or letting yourself read a “fun” book for a change. Don’t let yourself get caught up in only pursuing the end result, otherwise you’ll have no idea what to do when you’ve gotten there. I’m definitely guilty of doing that to myself.
I find you’re either one of two types of people: those that do and do and do and do until they get what they want, or those that constantly need nudging to get there. Whichever type of person you are, find someone to hold you accountable throughout your journey. Accountability doesn’t always mean that you’re checking off each step on your list of things to-do. I mean, it very well could. For me, my accountability person makes sure that I take time for myself to stop and appreciate each accomplishment along the way and to make time for self care activities. Regardless, having a person to whom you’re accountable will make your dreams more likely to become a reality AND help you enjoy all of your accomplishments as well. Keep in mind, relationships are about give and take, so be their cheerleader too.
I truly hope this helped you all, wherever you are in your journey! If you have tips for anyone based on your past experiences at any of those nursing stages, drop a comment below. Until next time, happy studying!