If you’re looking for a new nursing job or hoping to take your career to the next level, there are a number of strategies that can help you make 2016 your best year ever.

“Nurses need to have a variety of skills and training experiences to be successful since nursing is so much more than just clinical bedside work,” says Philip Bautista, BSN, RN, PHN, a PhD student at the UC Davis Betty Irene School of Nursing in Davis, California. “I’ve met nurses with previous careers in law, business, technology, social work, public health, first responder backgrounds, and a multitude of other experiences that are all invaluable to nursing. I believe this is where nursing truly finds its humanity as we are caring for people, not just diagnoses and bed numbers.”

Whether you’re looking for new challenges, more flexibility, or seeking to maximize your earning potential, it’s possible to advance your nursing career in a number of ways. We asked some nursing stars to share their insights on career success.

Harness the Power of Professional Contacts

Networking isn’t just for sales people. Having a strong network of health care contacts is also the best way to find out about new jobs, advance in your career, and more.

“I keep a black book of professional contacts and get my nursing CEUs from attending seminars in person rather than taking them online in order to network with others in health care,” says Brandon Cloud, RN-NAC, director of nursing services for Life Care Centers of America, in Fort Worth, Texas. “We recently had a psychiatric hospital marketer come to our facility and I talked her into having her medical director tour our facility in the event they have discharges from their facility that need to be in a locked Alzheimer’s/Behavior unit.”

Cloud says these types of professional contacts are valuable since you never know when you need the expertise from a different field whether it be from psychiatric, hospital, hospice, or home health.

“It also gives you a valuable tool when looking to move forward in your career because you already have contacts on the inside of the institution,” Cloud says.

Consider an Advanced Degree

Continuing your nursing education doesn’t just make you a better nurse; it can also make you a more desirable candidate. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Initiative on the Future of Nursing, at the Institute of Medicine, has identified increasing the educational levels of nurses as a critically important component of professional development, and has recommended that 80% of all nurses have baccalaureate degrees by 2020. Consider getting an advanced degree or specialty certification if you’re looking to progress in your career.

“Advanced degrees in nursing should be part of any nurse’s five-year career plan,” says Fidelindo Lim, DNP, MA, RN, a clinical assistant professor at NYU College of Nursing. “The basic entry-level education of nurses is so short and with very limited hands-on experience. Some programs are only 11 months—how can anyone learn all that evidenced-based practice in such a short time?”

Find a Mentor

New nurses as well as those who are going through a career transition can all benefit from having a mentor. By sharing their own experiences, mentors can help their mentees navigate new skills and work environments, and serve as a sounding board and role model.

I was fortunate to serve in the United States Navy as a Naval Nurse,” says Denetra Hampton, founder of the Nursing Education and Study Center, an online education start-up for nurses in Suffolk, Virginia. “I did have a nursing mentor and as a young nurse this is an important experience. My mentor showed me what compassion was. She was a believer in ‘getting the facts,’ and even now as a leader, entrepreneur, and nurse, I reflect on the compassion she had towards me, and it helps guide a lot of my decisions.”

Join Professional Organizations

As the American Nurses Association’s California Membership Director, Bautista knows firsthand the rewards of belonging to a professional nursing group.

“My involvement began as a student leader in my local school chapter,” he says. “Overall, these experiences in leadership, networking, and professional involvement have helped push my career forward, most notably in my current experience as a PhD student.”

In 2011, at a convention for the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), Bautista met the recruiter for his current school.

“NAHN has provided me networking and mentorship,” he says. “Finding leaders, mentors, and role models can be worth years of experience, education, and skills.”

Stay Current on Health Care Trends

Cloud says professional organizations have also allowed him to stay current with new innovations and trends.

“Many professional organizations, such as AANAC [American Association of Nurse Assessment Coordination], have websites that update you with information, trends, and changes in the field and they also send out monthly or quarterly newsletters,” he says. “It’s important to keep abreast of changes in nursing as they happen very frequently when it comes to regulations and best practices.”

Pursue Lifelong Learning

A 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine noted that the nursing profession is called to lead change and advance health, and to meet that challenge, nurses must practice a commitment to lifelong learning. Whether that involves on-the-job training, taking CEUs, or pursuing a credential, lifelong learning equips nurses with the skills and knowledge they need to advance in their careers and to support patient needs.

“The first nursing manager I had when I worked in emergency services really taught me quite a lot about nursing, prioritization, and bedside manner,” Cloud says. “It’s really important to see all other nurses as part of your toolkit. The key to being a good nurse is to never be afraid to ask questions or to feed off the experience and knowledge of others. I always say the day I quit learning and growing as a nurse is the day I will retire.”

Lim notes that one of the first steps for nurses is to do a self-assessment and find out personal knowledge or practice gaps.

“When you know what you don’t know, the next steps you take in terms of professional development will be more obvious,” he says. “I also suggest nurses surround themselves with colleagues who are engaged in professional development and emulate them.”

Look to the Future

Nursing specialties such as geriatrics are expected to grow as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, creating an increased need for more geriatric, home health, and hospice nurses.

“No matter what area you decide to specialize in, geriatric nursing is bound to be part of your professional future,” says Cloud. “Older adults are the core business of health care in this country today, representing the majority of primary and home care visits, hospital admissions, and long-term care residents. Regardless of your choice in specialization, you will be dealing with a sicker population that is living to be much older.”

For this reason, Cloud encourages all nurses to consider obtaining additional education in the areas of geriatrics and dementia. For instance, Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders offers webinars to help practitioners enhance practice. Each webinar provides 1.0 contact hour. Additionally, the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners can prepare you to become a Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP) and Certified Dementia Care Manager (CDCM).

Seek Out Support

While all nurses face challenges, those from underrepresented groups often face additional obstacles including stereotypes, economic barriers, few mentors, gender biases, and lack of direction from early authority figures.

“There are certainly unique challenges faced by racial, gender, and sexual minorities in nursing,” says Lim, who also serves as the faculty liaison to various student groups at the NYU School of Nursing including (UNSO, Asian Pacific-Islander, Men Entering Nursing, and the LGBTQ). “My suggestion is for those affected to inform themselves of the general issues and those that may affect them directly. Be open and talk about it.”

For example, when applying for a nursing job, Lim recommends checking how the hospital meets the LGBT core measures set by the Healthcare Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign.

“Nurses can also start an identity or interest group where they work and build support among each other,” says Lim, who belongs to the group NYC Men in Nursing.

Think Outside the Box

If you don’t believe that your current nursing job is a good fit, consider changing to a different type of nursing job. In addition to working in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and medical clinics, nurses also work as researchers, travel nurses, entrepreneurs, and flight nurses, and in settings such as corporations and insurance companies.

Hampton became a small business owner after seeing a need in the nursing market. “My entrepreneurial path was not something I decided to pursue since I was comfortable being a Naval Officer, and quite frankly, did not want to leave,” she says. “It all started with me seeing a struggling nursing student not able to pass their NCLEX. I offered to help, they were successful, and the word spread around. Soon, students were coming to me for guidance, and I created this study course that turned into the Nursing Education and Study Center.”

Practice Self-Care

It’s impossible for nurses to continue giving to others, if they aren’t taking care of themselves. Handling stress in a positive and proactive way can also keep nurses from experiencing burnout.

“As a male nurse, I have been ridiculed, mocked from both patients, and even my own social circles,” Bautista says. “I have had many people ask me, ‘You’re so smart, why not just become a doctor instead of a male nurse?’ My response has evolved over the years, but carries the same basic message.”

Bautista says he learned from his former dean and mentor, Dr. Michael Russler, who always responded to inappropriate comments by saying, “I’m not just a male nurse; I take care of females too!”

“Finding humor and turning around potentially detrimental situations is an important skill not just in life, but also in nursing,” Bautista says. “Some advice given to me by another professor was to respond to situations instead of reacting to them so that we do not say or do things that we may later regret.”

Linda Childers

Linda Childers

Linda Childers is a freelance writer based in California.
Linda Childers

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