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Even if you plan to spend your entire career in nursing and never take off your scrubs, you probably won’t work for years and years in the same specialty. While it may seem daunting to change your specialty—especially if you’re early in your career and have never done it before—it’s very common and many nurses do it every single year. If you’re contemplating a specialty switch, here are seven strategies to keep in mind as you prepare for the transition:
1. Take time for self-evaluation.
If you’re thinking about changing your nursing specialty, that’s a pretty clear sign that something about it isn’t working. Before you make the leap, take a deep dive and seriously reflect on why you no longer like your current specialty. Have you hit a plateau and grown bored as a result? Did you realize that you’d rather work in pediatrics as opposed to gerontology? Do you need to transition away from a high-intensity unit such as ICU so you can take care of your own family and health? Switching your specialty is no small task, so doing this self-evaluation upfront will help ensure that you make the right decision.
2. Do your research.
Now that you’ve evaluated yourself, it’s time to start evaluating specialties. Read industry publications, news articles, reputable blogs, relevant journals—whatever materials you think might be helpful. If you can, try attending nursing conferences and job fairs in addition to your online research. These events can often be a really efficient way to explore different career options in a short amount of time, and they’re a great chance to meet colleagues and recruiters whom you would never cross paths with otherwise. You never know–that person you sit next to at a conference panel might one day become your new coworker or boss!
3. Get some hands-on experience.
Once you’ve narrowed down the list of possible specialties that you are interested in, it’s time to get a real-life taste of them. Ask to shadow nurses in the units that are on your shortlist, just as if you were in nursing school again. While it may feel a little weird to go back to shadowing after you’re already an experienced nurse, you simply can’t get a full picture of what it would be like to work in a specialty from reading articles or talking to people. You actually need to be there in the middle of the action. So put on your scrubs and get shadowing!
4. Network, network, network.
The majority of jobs are found through networking and employee referrals rather than traditional job search methods. Estimates for how many jobs are “hidden” (i.e., never advertised) range from 60% to as high as 80%. But don’t get discouraged over their high numbers. Networking with others in your chosen specialty will increase your chances that a colleague will know of a relevant job opportunity they can refer you to. It’s smart to start the networking process early on, before you’ve even necessarily decided on a specific specialty. Reach out to colleagues, tell them that you’re thinking of making a switch and ask if they would be willing to answer some questions about their work. Once you’ve decided on a specialty and built that networking relationship, then you can let them know what sort of position you’re looking for.
5. Consider further education.
Depending on how drastic of a switch you’re trying to make, you might need to get some additional education to help you successfully recruit for a new nursing specialty. This additional education might be as simple as day-long workshops or certification courses, or it might require more work, such as auditing classes at a local college or even getting an advanced degree such as your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Look up job postings for positions that you would be interested in and see if any additional educational requirements are listed. If you have a more experienced mentor, you can also ask their professional opinion on whether or not you need more education.
6. Time your transition wisely.
Choosing a time to switch specialties is almost as important as choosing a new specialty itself. Transition too early, and you’ll look like you’re a job hopper with commitment issues—but transition too late, and it might be difficult to catch up with younger colleagues (not to mention you might have to take a significant pay cut, too). Generally speaking, the best time to make the switch is after you’ve mastered your original specialty and your growth has plateaued, but not so late that you’ve moved up the ranks and would have to swallow a significant demotion in title and/or compensation. Of course, major personal events such as moving and having a baby are also part of this equation, so don’t forget to account for those, too!
7. Have your application materials ready to go.
Preparing the basics of your application in advance will make it much easier and less stressful to apply when you do hear about a job opening in your new chosen specialty. Make sure your resumé is up-to-date and proofread, and have the basic outline of a cover letter drafted as well. (However, you will need to customize your cover letter for each individual job posting.) You should also have some answers brainstormed out in advance for common questions, including “Why do you want to switch your nursing specialty?” so you’re not scrambling for answers in the middle of an interview.
These seven tips will help you make the transition to a new nursing specialty as smooth as possible. It may seem like a lot of work—and it is—but it’s far from impossible, and many nurses do it successfully each year. Just think of how much more fulfilled you’ll be in your professional life after you make the switch, and best of luck with changing your specialty!
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