Chart Your Career Course

How to find your passion and follow it through

Three nurses are talking. Two are in scrubs and one is in casual attire.

I’ve been fortunate in my professional nursing career, going from staff nurse to chief nurse for a global healthcare information solutions business. Over the years, many people have asked how I managed it. The simple answer is that I looked for opportunities and went after them. I hope that some of the lessons I’ve learned may be applied to your own nursing career.

Finding Your Passion: If you don’t have an “a-ha moment,” create one

The first and foremost lesson of my career journey has been, “Do what you love, and the rest will follow — find your passion and go after it.” I had the good fortune to find mine early on. When I first graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, I took a job as a medical/surgical nurse on the night shift at a local hospital. It was there that I discovered a passion for caring for critical patients.

One night, I was asked to assist in the ICU. When I first entered the unit, I encountered a 45-year-old male with myocardial infarction who had just experienced a cardiac arrest. The care team combined their collective skills to bring him back. By morning, he was stabilized and doing well. It was, in a word, impressive.

Seeing a patient brought back from the brink of death that quickly — and stabilized enough to say “thank you” less than 12 hours later — had a profound impact on me. I wanted to learn the skills that would let me provide such care in critical situations.

It’s possible that you will find your inspiration during one of your regular shifts, as I did. If not, you may need to go looking for it.

Talk to other nurses in different specialties about their work and see if anything clicks. Ask to shadow someone who works in that specialty to get a taste of what it’s really like and see if it speaks to you. Even if a particular area turns out not to be for you, the experience of trying different things can be extremely beneficial.

Taking Your First Steps: Read journals, shadow nurses, join organizations

Finding your passion is an important step on your journey, but it is only the first one. To turn your interest into a viable career direction, you must be ready to actively pursue what you want.When I watched the critical care team stabilize that heart attack patient, I knew that critical care was going to be part of my future. I also knew that I had a lot to learn, especially after witnessing how much of the ICU nurses’ expertise seemed like second nature. They didn’t have to waste time wondering what to do; they just knew.

After that night, I took it upon myself to read every critical care journal and book I could find. A few months later, I applied for and accepted a fulltime night shift position in the ICU at that same hospital. Even then, I remained determined to improve my skills and standing. I took a critical care course, joined the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) and continued to devour every resource I could get my hands on.

If you’ve found the specialty you want to pursue, make sure you’re willing to do this kind of groundwork, both before and after you apply for positions in that field. Take classes, talk to colleagues in the same specialty and learn what qualifications and credentials they recommend. Investigate what professional organizations, certifications and journals exist in that field. Create a reading list for yourself and add new books and articles even as you cross things off of it.

When you start applying for positions, seek out institutions that can provide you with an adequate orientation program. Nursing internships and residencies are especially helpful for nurses transitioning to a new specialty. Even if the orientation program is less formal than a residency, having a strong preceptor can make the difference between sinking and swimming in a new role.

Selling Yourself: Tips for interviewing to get the job you want

Once you’re ready to apply for positions in your chosen field, you face an additional challenge: selling yourself, both in your curriculum vitae (CV) and in interviews. This can be tough for nurses at any stage of their careers.

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Early in my career journey, a friend looked at my CV and remarked, “You always talk about your team. What about you? What have you done?”

It’s often difficult for nurses to talk about themselves objectively. We’re trained to work as a team and to focus so much of our attention on others that it can be hard to hold ourselves up individually. When asked to talk about what we do, we often describe our accomplishments in terms of “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “me.”

While not always easy, taking personal ownership of our achievements is critically important. When you update your CV, write a cover letter or sit down for a job interview, you’re selling your skills and motivation. The input of a trusted friend or objective professional can be a great help in articulating your individual accomplishments.

My friend’s feedback really changed the way I thought about myself and the way I presented myself on my CV. I realized I had to take into consideration all the places I’d worked; all the people I’d touched and influenced; and all the activities and experiences that got me to where I was.

When you go into an interview, the people on the other side of the table need to see your passion, your desire for lifelong learning and your commitment to immerse yourself in your chosen specialty. This is especially important when applying for your first job in a new specialty, when you may be vying with candidates who have more experience than you.

Try doing a practice interview, enlisting a friend or colleague to play the interviewer’s role. Doing so is an excellent way to practice your personal sales pitch and learn how to better explain your experience, your strengths and your weaknesses. Remember that weaknesses are actually growth opportunities. Knowing how to describe them in that light can make a strong impression.

Forks in the Road: Should you become an educator? A manager?

Finding a position in your specialty of choice is a great accomplishment, but remember that it is a step in the road, not a destination. Even after you land that job, you should continue to seek ways to move forward, whether it’s to advance in that specialty or follow the next fork in the road.

After I worked for a few years in critical care, I became a preceptor. It was in that role that I discovered my second passion: teaching.

I’ve always been one of those people who just naturally steps forward when someone needs help, and I believe that education is essential for all nurses to stay on top of their scope of practice. This has always been important to me, so teaching was a natural extension of my career.

I took a staff educator position in the critical care and progressive care units at another hospital, teaching my colleagues while also learning as much as I could. I made it my mission to keep my colleagues up to date on the latest evidence, most current trends and newest technologies.

As a nurse educator, I looked at several different critical care units and realized that the culture on the floor often starts at the top. The manager sets the tone for how care is delivered. I knew I wanted to provide the kind of direction that would elevate the standard of care to the highest level. So, I became a nurse manager in critical care, took steps to hone my skills and later became a director.

Back to School: Your support network goes beyond family

Being ready to take these next steps in your career may mean going back to school. If you want to become an advanced practice RN, manager, professional development practitioner or faculty member, you’ll need a graduate degree. If you want to move away from the bedside, that too will usually require that you further your education.

To take on the rigors of higher education — and of life — it’s important to have a personal support system. This doesn’t always have to be family; some of my strongest supporters are the friends and trusted colleagues I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way.

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Having a strong support system proved vital when I decided to go back to school for my master’s degree so I could become a nurse practitioner. There were many obstacles in my way: I had a small child at home, was pregnant and was on my way to starting divorce proceedings.

Fortunately, I had the support I needed to get through these personal upheavals, stay true to what was important to me and remain focused on my career growth no matter what was going on in my personal life. (I also met my now-husband, to whom I’ve now been happily married for the last 22 years.)

When considering your own plans for school, take some time to think about your support network. For example, do you have people willing and able to take on child care on nights you’ll be in class? Will your family be able to accommodate your new schedule and the time you’ll need for studying and homework?

Also, consider the cost burden. Going back to school is a huge financial commitment. Even if you continue to work while in school, you may have to cut back on your hours or change shifts. Consider whether there are other financial concerns that you’ll have to juggle simultaneously, such as a family member’s upcoming medical procedure or your partner needing to find a new job.

Picking a Program: Assess your learning style and level of discipline

Choosing the right program is also very important. Nursing education today provides many options, so make sure you choose one that best suits your needs.

I first looked at programs that emphasized the things that were most important to me, such as evidence-based practice, the evaluation of critical evidence, clinical leadership and the importance of culture change and transitional research. I also looked at programs with the highest success rates: how many nurses passed their boards after graduation.

Beyond that, I looked for programs that catered to and were mindful of adult learning styles. Programs oriented towards younger students don’t always offer the flexibility to suit those of us who have families and/or other jobs to manage. I also needed assurances about the overall rigor of the program. I wanted to be surrounded by top-notch peers when I graduated.

All modern nursing programs are moving towards a “flipped classroom” approach, where students learn the concepts on their own and then come together (in online or in-person classrooms) to collaborate and apply those concepts in actual real-life situations. Online programs may be tempting for their greater flexibility, but they best suit students who are highly organized and self-directed.

If you need more structure in your learning or thrive on face-to-face interaction, in-person classes may be a better fit even if they require more compromises in your schedule.

Talk to current students and recent graduates of the programs you’re considering and ask for honest feedback. Perhaps the most important question to ask is whether or not they felt they were adequately prepared to practice upon completion.

Above all, ask yourself honestly if you are prepared to make the commitment the program would require. Even if you decide to take only one course at a time, you’ll still need to allot time for your studies along with your clinical hours. (Graduate-level programs have a clinical component much like an associate or bachelor’s program, so be prepared for that as well.)

If you don’t think you could keep the momentum going once you start, it might be better to wait than to risk dropping out. I’ve spoken to many nurses who said they were just going to take one semester off, but then never ended up going back to finish their programs. Be prepared to commit the time and energy needed to succeed.

Giving Back: The rewards of precepting

Advancing your career often involves the help and support of others, so always be on the lookout for ways to return the favor. I believe that as nurses, we have an obligation to give back to our profession, whether that means reciprocating the support you get from a colleague in revising your CV or helping to educate the next generation of nurses.

Precepting is an excellent way to give back. It is work and takes extra time, but being a preceptor and supporting someone who is eager to learn can also be very rewarding. Often, your preceptee can teach you something as well. Working as a preceptor forces you to stay up to date on the latest evidence and best practices, which will benefit your own practice and help you to improve your patient outcomes.

Looking Forward

My career has continued to move forward, taking different directions along the way. After becoming an NP, I held onto my second passion by teaching as adjunct faculty member and writing for different publications. That led to another opportunity: becoming editor for a series of professional nursing journals.

After some years of working as both a nurse practitioner and a journals editor, I was promoted to chief nurse of the healthcare division of a large global organization. I continued to practice and to teach nursing, eventually completing my DNP and earning a post-master’s certificate for another NP specialty.

I am the first to admit that I’m very lucky: Every week, I’m able to provide lifelong learning to nurses around the globe, teach NP candidates and other graduate students and practice my passion as a NP. I hope that you too can find success in your career by following these tips and taking advantage of new opportunities as they arise.

ANNE DABROW WOODS, RN, DNP, CRNP, ANP-BC, AGACNP-BC, FAAN, is the chief nurse of the Health Learning, Research and Practice business unit at Wolters Kluwer, a leading global provider of information and point-of-care solutions for the healthcare industry.

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