According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average worker changes careers three to five times during their lifetime. Nurses are in a unique field because within our scope of practice and licensure, we can change specialties and areas of practice more easily than other professions. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
In my own nursing career, I’ve worked 5 clinical areas, oncology med-surg, home care, home infusion, nurse coordinator, and cardiac step down. Since transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry, I’ve held positions in sales, specialty sales, training, and clinical education. When I survey my closest nurse friends, they’ve also worked in just as many clinical and non-clinical areas, if not more.
In this rapidly changing economy, moving into a new specialty may be a choice or it may become a necessity. Whether it’s by choice, or by force, you still want to do as much as possible to set yourself up for success.
Here are three simple steps for getting off on the right foot with this big decision:
1. Conduct a Self-Assessment
Browse for free and paid –self-assessments online. There are many free online tests that are effective in giving you a general idea of your talents and abilities. Some are based on the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Other paid, easy-to-take self-assessments include StrengthsFinder® and Standout®. I’d encourage you to invest in yourself and take at least one of these assessments to see if the results are consistent with how you see yourself. These assessments will give you insights into how you best work, the type of roles in which you can excel, and how to think about where you would be a good fit.
Hire a career coach. For more precise guidance and support, you may want to hire a nursing career coach. To help evaluate possible career coaches, look for relevant experience, such as past or current work experience in clinical or non-clinical areas in which you are interested, and ask for references from people in situations comparable to your own. Regardless of who you hire, you want to work with someone who gets you, understands the nuances of the nursing profession, and how to best support your career path.
Review your career history. Wherever you work, you bring yourself with you. Be honest about recurring patterns like gaps in employment, lack of certifications and experience in the areas in which you’ve worked, or challenges with management so you can resolve them and move ahead. When it comes to problems you’ve encountered with former employers, potential employers won’t automatically disqualify you if you can provide an appropriate explanation and how you’ve applied this information to improve your performance. We’ve all quit jobs where the environment was dysfunctional or due to burnout. The key is to not just vent about it, but use the past constructively for determining where, and how, you want to work going forward.
Invite feedback. Ask friends, family and fellow nurses for their views on what they think you’d be good at. Maybe you have the type of personality that thrives on high energy and fast-paced activity, so you’d be a great fit for the emergency department, or maybe you want to only work part-time, so working in a clinic or per-diem would be a better fit. Don’t underestimate how much useful information you can gather when you ask supportive friends and family for feedback. They may confirm your own thoughts or offer you different viewpoints to consider.
2. Research Your Chosen Field
Evaluate future job prospects. Browse online for projected employment outlook for the areas in which you’re interested in working, be it clinical or non–clinical. The Labor Department’s Occupational Outlook Handbook and industry publications can help you identify fields with high growth. [https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm]
Learn more about specific positions. Narrow down the kind of position you want. Job listings on sites like Indeed, Glass Door, Career Builder, and Monster.com can give you a sense of the type of nursing positions available and the qualifications employers are seeking. Pay attention to common keywords that suggest skills that would make you a strong candidate. Also pay attention to the trends for the specialty in which you’re interested. If looking for a non-clinical position such as a Case Manager, Clinical Educator in the pharmaceutical industry, pay attention to the availability of jobs in your geographic area or if those types of jobs are remote and can be done from home.
Network. Now is the time to set up virtual informational interviews. See if you can join the local chapter of the specialty nursing association you’re interested in, or at least visit some functions as an observer. LinkedIn is an excellent, free resource to utilize for virtual networking. It’s a social media platform for professionals. Through LinkedIn, I’ve landed 2 positions that I would have never been aware of if I wasn’t active on the platform. Not only can you network with other nurses, you can follow healthcare systems, hospitals, and get updates on openings. I have over 500 connections which were priceless when I was looking for a new job after being laid off a few years ago. If you don’t have a profile and need help getting started, contact me to discuss further.
3. Strengthen Your Qualifications
Go back to school. Your employment prospects may improve if you get some additional education and training. On my [Beyond Med-Surg Nursing podcast], I interviewed an RN who at 65 is earning her doctorate degree. Think about your career long-term and not just short-term. Yes going back to school is expensive, time-consuming, and can be scary if you’ve been out of school for a while. Many graduate schools have online and evening programs to accommodate working adults and offer online programs you can take anywhere. I completed my BSN by attending classes every Wednesday night for 22 months and completed my MA attending classes for a full weekend once per month.
Shadow a nurse. Take a trial look at a new specialty by shadowing. Even if you want to work in a non-clinical setting, you can start getting real-world experience by taking the initiative to spend time with an experienced nurse, learning the day-to-day responsibilities, what the specialty entails, and if the pace is a fit for you. You’ll get the inside track by meeting nurses (networking) and be able to include the experiences as a part of your portfolio of experience.
Edit your resume and cover letters. Focus on transferable skills that are applicable to that specific setting, such as credentials, certifications, working in a related specialty, and how you will add value to the unit or division. Briefly explain why you’re making a change and how you can contribute. Use stories to make your documents and interview materials more interesting. Also pay close attention to the information from the job listing and use it to customize your cover letter and résumé. When you can specifically adapt your resume and cover letter, you’ll stand out from the crowd. Use a résumé template that’s specific for nursing.
Changing specialties, or seeking an alternative career path, will have a big impact on your future, so approach the decision carefully. Strive for a specialty or setting which is a better match for your life stage, schedule, and your strengths.
When you get to know yourself better and follow these steps, you’ll be starting off on the right foot when it comes to making a change. As a result, you’ll be doing the kind of nursing that will make you excited to show up on Monday morning, or Tuesday night.