If you want a career that is both emotionally and financially rewarding, will keep you employed and gives you the chance to meet people from all walks of life, nursing could be for you. It’s a demanding career that requires hard work and will present you with some serious challenges, but it will empower you to do things you never thought you were capable of, and when you’re looking back on your life in old age, you’ll never for a moment doubt that what you did with it was useful. Getting into nursing is relatively straightforward, with clear paths to take at every stage. There is no simple endpoint to the journey because you can always improve your skills and move up the ranks, so to speak, but if you are ready to apply yourself, it need not be very long at all before you’re out on the wards and getting to grips with the work.
Where to start
If you want to take a nursing course, you will need to graduate high school, and if you want to go straight into a Bachelor of Nursing (BSN) program — the most efficient route to broadening your prospects after qualification — then you should really try to get a grade point average in the top 50% of your class. You will not, however, need to be at the very top of the class because there’s a lot of demand for nurses due to the aging population and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, so competition is not too fierce. Course administrators need to be confident that you’re literate, numerate, able to process new ideas in a reasonably intelligent way, and – most importantly – a hard worker, who will make the effort necessary to really get to grips with the syllabus.
If you struggled in high school, but you’re still sure you’ve got what it takes, perhaps because you were dealing with other challenges then that no longer affect you now, you can try applying to do your first year at college in a tangentially related subject, such as biology, anatomy or social care, then transfer to nursing after your first two semesters, once you’ve got good enough results and references to demonstrate what you’re really capable of. Alternatively, you can look for ways to retake your high school exams, perhaps after studying online, and apply for a nursing course a bit later in life. You’ll be pleased to know that there is very little ageism in nursing and that as long as you’re physically fit enough to do the job, you’re likely to find yourself welcomed no matter how old you are.
Learning the basics
When it comes to choosing courses, there are three ways to get the basic qualifications necessary to embark on a career as a nurse. You could choose the aforementioned Bachelor of Nursing (BSN) degree, you could get a diploma from a fully accredited RN program, or you could go for an associate degree (AN). All these are valid choices and, because people enter nursing from all sorts of different backgrounds, there’s no bias toward one or another. What works best will depend on your current situation in life and how you see yourself moving forward in the future.
Studying for a BSN qualification usually takes four years. Most of the modules in the course are compulsory, but there is some room for students to explore specific interests, and an effort is generally made to give students a flavor of different specialties so that they can go into the working world with a sense of how they might like their future careers to develop. As this suggests, it’s an option aimed first and foremost at those who want to start building toward the future, especially if they ultimately see their careers going in the direction of academic research and the advancement of nursing as a discipline. BSN graduates are able to take on more responsibilities, upon formally entering the profession, and have a wider range of roles available to them.
If you are not overly concerned with all that at this stage in your life, if you want to see how well you get on as a nurse before making that level of investment, or if you have limited resources and want to start working as soon as possible with minimal worry about debt, a better option might be a nursing diploma. This won’t qualify you to do quite as many things, but it will mean that you can be formally qualified in just two years, at which point you should be able to go straight into a job. You’ll still have the option of learning as you work in a profession well known for its commitment to developing the potential of all its members. If you want to, you’ll be able to take more formal qualifications after you have got established. Although it takes a little longer for them to progress, some nurses who start out with diplomas manage to work their way up to the very top of the profession.
As an alternative to these options, you could get an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). This too is usually a two-year course. The starting requirements can be a little tougher, and you will need to be able to demonstrate an aptitude for biology and chemistry. ADN programs are much more varied than diplomas so there’s a trade-off between the fact that they might not appeal to all employers, but they will leave you in a stronger position when it comes to moving forward and pursuing your specific interests within the profession. They’re a good choice for people who are passionate about particular aspects of nursing and can’t wait to engage with them.
After you have acquired your qualification, you will need to pass the National Counsel Licensure Examination (NCLEX) in order to get your license. It’s important to do this in the state where you wish to practice. If you move between states, you may need to get a new license. Exam schedules vary, but it’s unlikely that you will have to wait more than four months as long as you are prompt about registering.
Work as you study
If you’re keen to get down to the practical business of nursing, the good news is that you won’t need to wait until you’ve completed your course to do it. BSN, AND, and nursing diploma programs all contain practical elements, which are essential to making sure that you make the connection between theory and practice. They require students to undertake a set number of clinical hours based in a hospital or similar medical facility. Some courses have established relationships with particular institutions, while others expect students to make their own arrangements, though the educational institutions will often help with this. People who choose to study nursing online can usually make arrangements with the institution most convenient for their location.
This work is time-consuming but won’t add to the overall length of the course you choose. Part of the point of it is to teach patience. You will find yourself doing a lot of repetitive work, and it may be frustrating, but it will test your mettle and determine whether or not you’ve got what it takes to deal with the more mundane aspects of life on the ward. It will also ensure that what you learn in your classes becomes ingrained habits so that no matter how much pressure you may find yourself under in the course of your working life, you will perform basic tasks correctly and consistently.
Working as part of your course will give you the opportunity to find out what life on the ward is really like. You will see and hear things that are impossible for anyone to teach, and you will return to your classes and tutorials with new questions through which you can begin to direct aspects of your own learning.
If despite all this, the process of becoming a nurse seems far too slow for you, you may be interested in exploring fast track nursing programs online, such as the course offered at Elmhurst University. This can bring a two-year ADN program down to 18 months or a four-year BSN down to three years. You will still need to put in the standard number of clinical hours as an adjunct to what you learn in your classes.
The big advantage of online learning is that it means you won’t waste time traveling to and from classes, and you’ll be able to fit them into your daily schedule at much more convenient intervals. This means that despite the concentrated nature of these courses, you should still be able to keep up. There’s also the option of doing some advance reading in the period between booking your course and actually starting it.
Build skills by volunteering
Another way to speed up your progression as a nurse and to enhance the learning that you are able to take away from your courses is to spend your spare time doing relevant volunteering. Lots of charities carry out medical work, provide social care or work with vulnerable members of the public. As long as you’re good at following instructions and know when to take a back seat, you may be able to start assisting with such work straight away. Once you’ve received some training, or once your studies are considered to have given you enough understanding, you will be able to take on more responsibilities.
If you already have a sense of which areas you’d be interested in specializing in as a nurse, this can be a great context in which to advance your knowledge. If you’re interested in going into geriatric nursing, for instance, something as simple as volunteering with a Meals on Wheels outfit can be a great help because it will give you the chance to spend time with the kind of people you will one day be working with and to learn about the challenges they face. If you’d like to go into addiction services, helping out at a homeless shelter will bring you into contact with people with wide-ranging experience of substance misuse issues, enriching your understanding and improving your ability to empathize.
Enhance your qualifications
Once you have achieved your ambition, and have your initial qualification and your license, you can enjoy the rewards of being able to work as a nurse. It is highly unusual, however, for people to stop there. Most nurses who only have diplomas go on to do more formal learning within their first four years. There is no need to give up work to do so, as most employers are happy to support this kind of learning and make the necessary adjustments to schedules to make it possible. What’s more, once you’re working, your ordinary shifts can count toward clinical hour requirements for further courses as long as you have adequate supervision.
By adding to your qualifications, you will gain access to new opportunities in your chosen career path. This could mean running a ward, managing a clinic, getting involved in research, or becoming part of a specialist team. When we talk about becoming a nurse, we can’t really conclude that there’s a point at which the process is complete. You can always become a more proficient, more capable nurse, capable of providing a better service to your patients. This isn’t really a profession for people who want to achieve simple goals and then pat themselves on the back. It’s a profession for people who like the idea that they are continually becoming something better.
Develop a specialty
Many healthcare institutions do more than just encourage learning: They actually insist that all of their junior staff circulate between departments so that they are engaged with different types of work. A big focus on mentoring and peer-to-peer learning means that when this happens you can quickly pick up the basics associated with your new area, and you’ll then spend several months there acquiring a new set of habits and building up your confidence before moving again to try something else. It’s common for nurses to experience working in three or four different departments like this before encountering an area in which they feel naturally well-suited. Of course, if you have a special interest before you start, you can put in a request to make working in that area a priority, but, often, nurses are surprised by what they find themselves most excited by when they actually try it out.
Once they have developed a specialty, many nurses will continue to work within it for the remainder of their careers. Some elect to move every few years, often based on recommendations from colleagues. Of course, the reality of working in medicine is that the kind of problems you are trying to solve don’t necessarily fit into neat boxes, and many patients will be seen by more than one department. This means that nurses with several years of experience in two or three specialist areas, each of which happens to be relevant to a particular patient’s needs, are especially valuable. They can provide highly informed, patient-centered care, which makes a great difference to outcomes — and to patient morale.
An ongoing learning journey
In the early days of nursing, it was often seen as a primarily practical discipline, there to provide support to the more academic profession of working as a doctor. Today, it is understood very differently. Although it takes a different approach, focusing less on treating illness than on promoting wellness, it’s a profession that constantly produces new, high-quality scientific learning. It is highly focused on observation, data collection, and academic understanding, something which is no longer seen as being in opposition to the practical business of providing patient care.
Nurses today engage in constant learning. They also support the next generation, helping newcomers to refine their skills and develop their potential. Education keeps the profession energized, ensures the highest standards of care, and provides nurses with options as they get older. If you ever become ill yourself, lose your fitness or develop a disability that makes it impossible for you to continue in your job, you will have the option of shifting to a more academic focus, continuing to support your colleagues, and improve patient outcomes but doing so less with your body and more with your mind.
Because it’s such a supportive profession, internally as well as in terms of what it does for patients, nursing is often referred to as a family. It’s one that will be ready to welcome you, and you’ll love being a member, but don’t be in such a rush that you neglect to take the route that is right for you. Consider your options, find the right course, and then you will be ready to embark upon your journey with confidence.