Is Your Nursing Career Headed in the Right Direction?

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By Jennifer Larson, contributor 

July 13, 2013 - If you’ve ever muttered something like “I need a new job” after a long shift, you’re not alone. All nurses have days that strain their patience, even if they love what they’re doing. 

But it’s important to consider what kind of nursing job you want to have in 5 or 10 years, or even further out than that. Do you have a good idea what you want? Or are you completely unsure? Either way, it may be time for a career self-assessment.

Here are some strategies to help you focus on your goals and steer your nursing career in the right direction--and improve your chances of achieving long-term, professional fulfillment: 

1. Take stock of your current situation. 

Before you know where you want to go, career coaches point out that you need to assess where you are right now. 

As the founder of Nurse Keith Coaching in Santa Fe, N.M., Keith Carlson, RN, often sits down with clients and starts by asking them how work is going and how it makes them feel when they’re at work. That’s a good place for you to start, too. Then he recommends asking yourself, “What do you really want? What’s the feeling you want?”

And Barbara Dossey, PhD, RN, suggests that you delve deep within yourself to find out what drives you. 

“What really re-ignites your inner fire and your motivation?” said Dossey, co-author of The Art and Science of Nursing Coaching: The Provider’s Guide to Coaching Scope and Competencies and co-director of the International Nurse Coach Association.  “Because where you make change is in your intrinsic motivator.”

Phyllis Quinlan, PhD, RN-BC, a legal nurse consultant and coach, asks her new clients a similar question: “Do you still feel find some joy in practice?”

“That truly is one of the first things I need to know,” she said, explaining that it can shape the direction their goal-setting takes. If they still feel joy or satisfaction with some aspect of their job, then their career may continue along that path, but if they don’t, the road ahead may look very different.

2. Dream of the possibilities. 

One way to know where to take your nursing career is to begin imagining all the possibilities. At this point in the process, don’t rule anything out due to practical or logistical concerns. You can address those concerns a little later. 

Do you dream of getting an advanced degree and teaching nursing students? Do you want to move from med–surg into critical care? Do you want to get into leadership? Think about what you would do if you could do anything. Dossey suggests being optimistic because optimism can propel you forward, out of a rut and onto a new path. 

“If I continue to look at what my weaknesses are, I am going to continue to have that same old habitual pattern with myself,” she said. 

3. Set long-term and short-term goals. 

Once you know what you’d like to do, you can set goals for achieving that dream.

“Now we talk about realistic steps to get there,” said Quinlan, who owns the consulting firm MFW Consultants to Professionals. “What’s doable first?”

Career coaches frequently use the SMART mnemonic when it comes to helping clients set goals, meaning that goals should be:

S: specific

M: measurable

A: attainable 

R: relevant or realistic

T: timely

As you set long-term goals, you will also want to research the opportunities and options to help you achieve them. That may include looking into advanced educational programs, finding a mentor, beginning the process to get a specialty certification or looking at other types of nursing jobs that appeal to you. 

For example, your long-term goal might be to become a professor of nursing. Since you don’t have a graduate degree, you may need to set yourself some educational goals to get there. But you may have to also break those goals down even more. You might not be able to quit your job and return to school full-time, but perhaps you can start by taking a couple of online courses. 

Or you might decide to pursue certification because it may give you a leg up on future jobs. Indeed, specialty certification can definitely impress future employers, Quinlan noted.

“You’ve demonstrated not just competency in your chosen specialty but national competency,” she said. “That’s an achievement. It certainly speaks to your mastery of the subject and the clinical hours that you put in to obtain that national recognition.”  

Keeping a written log of your goals and steps can help you stay on track--and remind you what you’re working toward if you hit a rough patch in the road. 

4. Take time to reflect.  

Dossey stresses that it’s also important to spend time reflecting on a regular basis. She likes to spend some time doing needlepoint while she thinks, but the activity that works best for you might vary. You might take a walk outside on a nice day, or you might prefer to do your reflecting during relaxation exercises. 

This will give you time alone to gauge how you’re feeling, what questions might be bubbling up inside you and then consider the possibilities ahead. It will also give you the chance to assess how you’re feeling about the direction you’re taking. 

“You’re literally creating that threshold of separation from your ordinary way of thinking and taking sacred, reflective time for yourself,” she said. 

5. Don’t be afraid to make a change. 

It’s natural to have some fear if you’re planning to make a major change in your nursing career.

“It’s often fear of the unknown that holds some people back,” said Carlson. “It’s hard to strike out, to try to get into a new specialty, or do something new.”

“Change requires that we let go of things that no longer work anymore,” said Dossey. “And this is why people really have a lot of trouble changing. We get used to hanging on to the same old, same old, whether it works or not.”

But stepping outside of your comfort zone can be eminently worthwhile if that change is going to put you on the path to long-term success--and a career that will satisfy your unique talents, desires and needs.

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