Preparing for a nursing career: tips and advice from professionals

According to a recent report by the World Health Organization, there is a global shortage of nurses.

While in one respect, this growing global shortage of nursing staff reflects the importance of nurses to the healthcare system as a whole – with highly skilled nurse practitioners now fulfilling a wide range of roles in healthcare settings – the global demand has been exacerbated by a number of specific factors.

This includes an aging nursing workforce, which threatens the stability of the profession and global healthcare systems as a whole. There is also the reliance of high-income countries on being able to attract nursing talent from abroad.

This situation has been made even worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen thousands of nurses across the world taking leaves of absence from the profession.

For those of you just getting started on the path towards becoming a nurse, however, there has never been a better time to start thinking about joining the profession. While working conditions were put under strain during the pandemic, in North America nurses are now commanding the highest salary levels they ever have across the profession.

Prospective nurses considering a potential transition into this career path also benefit from greater access options. Thanks to the rise of online education and learning, there are now a number of degree programs you can take to earn a nursing qualification that will allow you to work in this sector. This includes online accelerated BSN programs, which are designed for career changers looking to follow this path.

Why a career in nursing?

As is noted in the WHO’s report on the challenges facing the profession, nurses play a crucial role in the healthcare sector. In fact, nurses and midwives make up by far the largest proportion of healthcare workers, with 27 million men and women across the world currently working in this profession. This accounts for 50% of the global health workforce.

Nurses play a critical role in health promotion, disease prevention, and delivering both primary and community care. They also provide urgent care in emergency settings. Regardless of what aspect of the healthcare sector you are looking at, nurses are present and involved at all levels.

The sheer variety of work that nurses are involved in is one of the main attractions of the profession. This includes qualifying as a general registered nurse, as well as advanced qualifications such as a nurse practitioner.

There is also a wide range of specialisms you can pursue, including cardiac nursing, clinical nursing, nurse anesthetist, critical care nursing, emergency room nursing, family nursing, geriatric nursing, perioperative nursing and mental health nursing, among others, in addition to nurse educator and nurse manager roles.

Beyond the specialisms on offer, nursing is also more generally a career path with high degrees of job satisfaction. Not only is it challenging work, but it is also work that gives you the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives or to help address healthcare needs in a community.

Why a career in nursing now?

While the growing demand for qualified nursing professionals is part of a broad global trend – as we see in the WHO report – there are a number of reasons specific to the healthcare sector in the US that have made this demand so acute.

Firstly, the US has an aging population that will require care in the coming years. Secondly, the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 has increased healthcare access across the US, which brought with it a need for nursing professionals. And thirdly, the nursing profession is seeing significant attrition rates as older nurses retire or leave the profession.

The result of these trends is that not only has there never been a greater demand for nursing staff, but also qualified nursing professionals are now able to command higher salaries than ever. This is true for nursing staff at all levels.

According to the most recent information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses is largely positive.

Between 2020 and 2030, the growth rate for the profession is expected to be 9%, which is slightly over the national average. As of 2021, the median pay for registered nurses across the country is $77,600, with salaries rising sharply for those with advanced qualifications.

However, it should be noted that since the Bureau of Labor Statistics released these figures, the situation for registered nurses has improved slightly. As of 2022, the average – rather than the median – salary for registered nurses is $82.750, which has increased by 3.4% in the last year.

This varies across the US, however, with registered nurses commanding higher salaries on the West Coast in states such as Washington, Portland and California.

Making the switch: how to get started in your nursing career

If all of this sounds promising, it might be time to start thinking about making the switch to a career in nursing!

In terms of how you can get started on this path, registered nurses usually take one of three educational routes to qualify – a bachelor’s degree in nursing, an associate’s degree in nursing, or a diploma in nursing from an approved educational institution. Registered nurses will then have to undergo a licensing process, which allows them to work in specific states.

This process will take between two and four years, depending on what route you pursue. This can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Satisfy prerequisites: Before enrolling in a nursing program, you will need to satisfy certain educational prerequisites. This typically includes basic anatomy, physiology, biology, psychology and anatomy classes. Nursing schools will also generally set minimum grade requirements for these.
  • Earn a nursing degree: Once the prerequisites are satisfied, you can then enroll in a nursing program. Prospective nursing students can choose between an Associate Degree in Nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. The former offers the fastest route to qualifying – typically around two years – while the bachelor program will usually take up to four years. There are also accelerated bachelor’s programs, which condense a bachelor degree into a shorter timeframe.
  • Pass the NCLEX exam: Shortly before graduating, nursing students can initiate the licensing process by registering for the NCLEX exam.
  • Get board certified: Registered nurses who want to enhance their qualifications can apply for board certification. This involves two or more years of specialized clinical focus and examinations.

Although many nurses pursue a nursing program as their first degree, an increasing number of individuals are enrolling in them following another course of study. Many of these individuals do this via online accelerated BSN programs, which can be undertaken flexibly at any point in their careers.

Thanks to the rise of online education, there are now even more options available for those wanting to pursue this career path!

For those of you considering qualifying as a registered nurse, however, what are some tips to keep in mind as you progress down this path?

Never stop learning

Perhaps one of the best things about being a nurse is the sheer variety of options you have for specializing or increasing your skills. It really is the case that once you have your bachelor’s or associate’s degree in nursing, this is the first step in your career.

As you progress through your career as a registered nurse, be sure to take advantage of any opportunities for further education open to you.

This might involve starting advanced qualifications or pursuing board certification. On a smaller scale, however, it might also involve attending as many lectures, talks and conferences as possible. Seize any opportunity for skills and educational development where possible!

Be teachable

Building on the first tip, an important mindset to adopt when you are embarking on your nursing career is to be teachable. This doesn’t just apply to pursuing specific qualifications or certifications, however – it also means absorbing as much knowledge as possible from your surrounding environment and your work colleagues.

Regardless of how advanced you are in your nursing career, you should always be open to being ‘taught’ valuable lessons or information from those around you. Pick up on the lessons they are willing to share and think about ways of applying them in your own work.

Hospitals are filled with seasoned nurses and other healthcare professionals who bring with them a wealth of knowledge. This is a vital resource and will help you to progress in your career.

Be reliable

One of the most important traits to display at all stages of your nursing career is reliability. Showing that you can be relied on will be important not only to the functioning of the team you are part of, but will also help you to advance your career.

By displaying reliability, your coworkers will be more willing to trust you with important work. This will help you to increase your skills and to grow as a professional.

Reliability might mean showing up early or staying late when necessary, as well as being diligent in your work. Aim to be consistent rather than exceptional!

Ask questions

Much like the need to be ‘teachable’, continually asking questions is one of the best habits you can get into as a nurse early on in your career.

Nursing is a complex profession that is continually developing as new science and practices emerge. As such, it is important to ask clarifying questions whenever you are unsure about procedures, treatments, medications or any other aspects of the job.

By asking questions, you are given the opportunity to gain a better understanding of information that will inevitably be important to you. Once this information is clarified, you can then undertake your working responsibilities with greater confidence.

Asking questions also shows that you are actively engaged with your work, which is something that your managers and coworkers will take note of!

Be in it for the long haul

It is completely normal to feel overwhelmed as a new nurse. Not only is there a massive amount of information to take in, but you are also trying to adapt to an often highly pressurized working environment.

In the early stages of your career, however, it is important to be kind to yourself if you do feel overwhelmed. Accept it as a normal part of the learning process and understand that over time, you will feel more comfortable, in control, and on top of things.

Take a ‘long-term’ view and allow yourself to grow into the role rather than expecting to be able to perform at your best from the get-go.

Getting licensed is the first step in what will hopefully be a long and meaningful career. Allow yourself to get acclimated and to grow into the position. You can also develop a career plan, which can help to give you perspective.

Support your team

There is no getting around the fact that nursing is not an individualistic profession. It is only through expert collaboration between healthcare providers that a high level of care can be delivered to patients.

With this in mind, it is important that at all stages of your nursing career, you show yourself to be team minded.

Try to support your team members and fellow nurses at every opportunity. This might mean offering up help when your coworkers are overburdened, volunteering to take on extra responsibilities, and always working with the best interests of the ‘team’ in mind.

It is also important to consciously work towards building and maintaining respectful working relationships with your coworkers. Be supportive where necessary and always let your colleagues know how you are keeping. Nursing can be a difficult profession at times, and your success will ultimately be enabled by the team around you.

Develop organizational skills

Perhaps one of the most underrated soft skills that a nurse needs to develop and display in their career are organizational skills.

This will be particularly important when you are in the early stages of your career, as you will often struggle to balance all of the new responsibilities that are being asked of you.

Organizational skills can be honed just like any other competency. To this end, identify any systems, tools or resources that will help you to become more organized. Your colleagues will be an important source of information on this point, particularly those at the senior or managerial level.

Take care of your body

Although we most often talk about the mental toll that a career in nursing can have, it is equally important to understand the physical toll that it can take on your body. It should also be noted that physical and mental wellbeing are linked, with stress and anxiety always heightened when you are overtired or undernourished.

With that said, it is important to develop good habits when you are early on in your career. This can include taking simple steps such as ensuring that you stay hydrated throughout your shifts, as well as focusing on eating quality foods that provide long-lasting sources of energy. Both of these steps will ultimately put you in a better physical position to withstand the mental pressures of working as a nurse.

In addition to being physically mindful by staying hydrated, eating quality food and getting enough rest, it is also important to practice self-care to keep your body and mind in balance.

Although it might be difficult given the nature and demands of the job, try to develop ways of ‘switching off’ after work or on your days off. Don’t neglect your hobbies and relationships with friends and family, as ultimately these will help you to get through those difficult days at work.

Putting these tips into practice

There is no getting around the fact that nursing is a demanding profession. This has never been more true than in the last number of years, with staffing pressures created by an aging workforce and a growing population requiring healthcare workers to do more work with fewer resources.

Despite this, nursing is also an incredibly rewarding profession. It not only provides a stable career path with plenty of opportunities for personal and professional development, but also gives you the opportunity to do meaningful work.

By following the nursing tips set out above, you will put yourself in a better position to get the most out of this career path. And by putting theory into practice, you can give yourself the best chance of having a long and rewarding career as a nursing professional.