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COVID-19 has been a game-changer for a lot of what we would consider normal life activities. Many nursing students are learning virtually now. But they still need to think about future career goals — even if they end up changing.

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN, is a staff nurse in the ICU at Kaiser Permanente as well as the owner of Critical Care Academy, where he teaches critical care certification to aspiring ICU nurse. He is a preceptor and mentor to nursing students and took time to give advice to nursing students about how to set their career goals.

What are the first steps you would advise that nursing students take in order to outline their career goals?

The first step I recommend in outlining career goals is to take an honest self-assessment. Much like fingerprints, everyone has unique goals and aspirations that they need to fit with their obligations.

A good start is to outline short-term and long-term goals. For example, compensation is usually one of the first things nursing students think about as they get closer to graduating. This might be important in the short-term as student loans and other debts accrued during school must be paid back. But there may be more important factors to consider in the long-term such as autonomy, flexibility, or overall job satisfaction. Do you plan on traveling? Or do you plan on having a family? Most seasoned nurses would advise starting with long-term goals first. Focus on building your skillset, formal education, gaining experience, and finding your passion. The money will always follow.

Suppose they feel overwhelmed and aren’t sure what facet of the field they want to work in? What are some tips they can use to start defining what they want to do?

The great thing about most nursing schools—that are often undervalued—are the clinical rotations and internships. This is perhaps your greatest opportunity to experience first-hand how nurses in each field function. I didn’t know what field I wanted to work in until my last semester of nursing school when I watched a nurse in the ICU manage a very sick patient. Many of my colleagues fell in love with newborns and went on to work in the NICU. And many others enjoyed their skilled-nursing rotation and went on to work with the elderly population.

Once you begin each clinical rotation, try to imagine yourself in that role long-term. Then ask to be paired with a nurse in that facility who shares that same passion and observe their work. Most nurses are happy to share their career successes, and more importantly, career regrets. Take good notes here.  

What should they do when thinking about their first jobs? If they have strong feelings about working in a specific area, but can’t get a job in it, what should they do?

In the field of nursing, persistence pays off more often than not. Find creative ways—such as volunteer opportunities or local organizations to join to increase your visibility and establish rapport. Once you find an area that you are determined to work in, find out who the hiring manager is and make yourself and your intentions known to him/her.

It’s a good idea to keep your resume available and be ready for an impromptu interview. Chances are likely that they will ask others around the unit how they perceive your attitude, work ethic, and ability to maintain patient safety.  Nursing is a very small community and your reputation—good or bad—will quickly precede you.

Should they have mentors? Why?

Mentors can serve a pivotal role in helping nursing students to establish a career path and grow in any position. Even without a formal program or agreement, many seasoned nurses become mentors to newer nurses because advancing nursing practice simply depends on it. You should always be seeking opportunities to align with a preceptor or mentor in your chosen field. 

If they don’t have a mentor, how can they go about getting one? Should they simply ask someone they admire? Please explain. 

Finding a nurse to mentor you depends on a few factors. Perhaps the easiest way would be to search online through social media like LinkedIn or allnurses.com. Facebook has a large nursing group called “Show Me Your Stethoscope.”

You should also consider joining a local nursing organization or chapter such as the American Association of Critical Care nurses. There are plenty of ways to seek out official nurse mentors through these channels, but be prepared to provide compensation.

Another way is to align yourself with a nurse during your clinical rotation or internship. Ask around the unit about who is available or would be willing to teach you about the job. Most nurses enjoy teaching students and watching them grow. Quite often a student develops a natural rapport with a nurse and a mentorship is formed. Just be sure to provide them with a return on their time investment. If you are eager to help me with my patient care or answering call lights, I will be eager to teach you whatever you want to know. 

What are the biggest mistakes nursing students should be aware of when they begin to outline their careers?  

Many nursing students make the mistake of “chasing the money” first. They may have several job offers in front of them and choose the one with the highest salary over the one with the greatest potential for growth and experience. You will quickly regret it when you lose those nursing skills you worked hard to achieve.

Another thing to consider is your education. It doesn’t—and shouldn’t—stop when you receive that nursing pin. Nursing is a career, but it’s also a calling. The profession is always evolving, and we are always learning more. This requires continuing education. Make sure you save a space in your life to continue your education an increase your value as a nurse.

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