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The Ultimate Guide to Starting Your Nursing Profession

The Ultimate Guide to Starting Your Nursing Profession
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Raise your hand if the first time someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up and you answered, “A nurse!” For many of us, nursing is a lifelong passion and more than just a job. But the path and requirements for entering the nursing profession isn’t always an easy one, and definitely not the same for each type of nurse.

How do you find nursing jobs to apply for, and how do you make sure you’re qualified to get them? What licensing exams do you need to pass, and how do you prepare to take them?  Let's discuss a few of these topics and others that may help you figure out which path is right for you so that you can land your first nursing healthcare job.

What Do Nurses Do?

Before we dive into how to become a nurse, let’s talk about what exactly it is that nurses do. Nurses perform a lot of on-the-ground duties of caring for patients after doctors diagnose them and give orders. If you’ve ever been in the hospital, nurses have handled almost every aspect of your care, from checking your vitals to administering your medicine.  They play vital roles for facilities and patients and are truly the life blood of any hospital.

In a standard day, nurses may conduct physical exams, take detailed health histories from patients, draw blood, check vital signs, and coordinate patient care with doctors and specialists. They also care for patients’ emotional needs, whether through counseling or education when it comes to their health care. Nurses also have to make time to stay up to date on the latest treatment protocols, as well as making sure doctors’ orders don’t conflict with patient health histories.

Deciding to Become a Nurse

Nursing is a challenging profession, and you want to make sure you have the right personality for the job before you dive into a nursing program. First and foremost you have to be empathetic; part of your job will be to comfort and educate scared patients who may be undergoing procedures they don’t understand much about.

You also need to be a strong communicator as a nurse, since you’ll be coordinating care with a number of doctors, the rest of the nursing team, and your patient. You need to be organized; missing a med or forgetting to do something during a routine check could put a patient’s life at risk. And you need to be able to work well with other people on your care team, as well as dealing with scared families.

Licensed Practitioner Nurses

There are a number of different types of nurses, but most of them fall under one of three levels: LPNs, RNs, and NPs. Licensed Practitioner Nurses, or LPNs have a lot of differences when it comes to what they can or can't do around patient care. They work under the supervision of a doctor, or an RN depending on the type, and there are completely separate steps, procedures, certifications and schooling you would need depending on which Nurse you are interested in.

If you want to become an LPN, you will need only to take a short certification course, although an associate’s degree in nursing can be helpful. An LPN certification is accepted nationwide, but some states require different training than others. Make sure you check on your state’s requirements for LPNs.

Registered Nurses

When you go to the doctor’s office or the hospital, chances are the people taking care of you are registered nurses, or RNs. RNs are more highly trained than LPNs and can care for patients on their own. They still need a doctor do diagnose a patient and provide prescriptions, but they can manage the other aspects of patient care on their own.

In order to become an RN, you’ll need to complete an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, though a master’s degree can provide you with more career opportunities. There’s a national licensing test you’ll need to pass, and your state may require some additional licensure exams. You may also have to renew your license every few years.

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners are among the highest trained professionals in the nursing field. Although laws vary from state to state, in most places, NPs can perform all of the same tasks and duties that doctors can. They can diagnose and prescribe, as well as providing needed patient care.

In order to become an NP, you must first become an RN, including getting a bachelor’s degree in nursing and passing the licensing exam. Then you must attend a graduate program and complete a certain number of clinic hours. You must also complete another licensing exam, and you may need more specialized training after that.

Basics of Nursing School

During a nursing program, you’ll have to complete a number of different science and math classes. You will take classes in anatomy, physiology, biology, microbiology, and chemistry. You will also need to take psychology and pharmacology courses, as well as specific nursing courses.

Some of your early classes may be classroom lectures, but the further you get in your program, the more practical labs you’ll have. You’ll practice different procedures on dummies and even on your fellow classmates. Your program may send you into a medical setting with supervision so you can get practice working with patients.

Getting Licensed

No matter which program you choose to go through, at the end of it, you’ll have to take a licensing test. Prospective LPNs will need to take the NCLEX-PN, while prospective RNs will need to pass the NCLEX-RN. Nurse practitioners will need to become certified as an APRN by a recognized certification board. 

The NCLEX is scored in logits, a measure that reports relative differences between candidate ability estimates and item difficulties. As of April 2020, you need -0.18 logits to pass the NCLEX-PN, an increase of 0.03 logits from the previous standard. For the NCLEX-RN, you need a score of at least 0.00 logits.

Join Professional Societies

One of the best things you can do in school to improve your chances of landing a nursing job after you graduate is to join professional societies. For one thing, these will help you build connections that may give you a leg up over other job candidates. But they can also help you stay up to date on the latest updates in the nursing world.

The American Nurses Association is one of the oldest and largest professional nursing societies in the United States. The National League for Nursing and Sigma Tau Theta International Honor Society of Nursing are also excellent choices. And if you want to get NCLEX resources and career planning tools, the National Student Nurses Association is a great option.

Talk to Your Career Office

When you get ready to start the job search, you should start at the career office at your college or university. Oftentimes, the career office will schedule a Nursing Career Day where local healthcare providers looking for new nurses will come set up booths. You can hand out resumes, meet potential employers, and even conduct mini-interviews during these events.

Even if your school isn’t holding a Nursing Career Day, the career office will be dialed into all the businesses in your area that are hiring nurses. They’ll be able to help you polish your resume and prepare for any interviews you have. They may also be able to help you run a nationwide search for nursing jobs that fit your requirements.

Check Nursing Job Sites

Aside from talking to your school’s career office, you can also run searches for nursing jobs on your own. In fact, there are whole websites dedicated to people applying and hiring for nursing jobs. These sites are tailored specifically to the needs of the healthcare profession and specialize in matching the right person with the perfect employer.

One of the benefits of working through a nursing job site is that these companies work frequently with major healthcare employers like the Mayo Clinic, Duke Health, and University Hospitals. These working relationships can give you something of an inroad with these companies. They can also provide you with career advice, paths, profiles, and more to help you find the most success possible. 

Getting Your First Nursing Job

One of the trickiest parts of getting your first nursing job is that you run into the experience conundrum. Most employers want you to have a certain amount of experience in the field before they’ll hire you, but in order for you to get experience, you have to get a job. There are a few ways you can overcome this to land a great first nursing job.

Internships and job shadowing opportunities are great ways to get experience before you get your first official job. Not only do you get to see what it’s really like to work in the field, but you can also start making valuable network connections. You can also look into getting work as a temporary on-call nurse, since those positions are always in high demand.

Polishing Your Resume and Cover Letter

When you find a job you want to apply for, you’ll want to have your resume polished to a mirror shine. Make sure you keep your resume formatting professional – use clear, easy-to-read fonts and keep things to one page if at all possible. Include any relevant skills or experience, as well as any professional associations you’re a member of.

Your cover letter is your chance to really show off why you’re the best candidate for the job. Don’t be shy about marketing yourself; employers want to know that you’re skilled and confident enough to be trusted with patient lives. Make sure you include specific details from the job listing, and explain why you’re interested in working for that company.

Nailing Your Interview

If you have a strong resume and cover letter, you may get an interview with one or more companies. The trick to nailing interviews is to be calm and professional. There’s no substitute for a good first impression, and you want to give your employers the impression that you’re someone they would trust to keep them alive if needed. 

Dress nicely on the day of your interview – a suit or a dress shirt and pants will work fine. Bring extra copies of your resume for the interviewers, and do your research beforehand. If you can mention specific things the company specializes in during your interview, it will give your employers the impression that you’re well-organized and invested in getting this job. 

After the Interview

One your interview is over, your work hasn’t finished yet. It’s always a good idea to follow up with your potential employer and thank them for considering you for their position. Write a thank you note to your interviewers and mail it the day after, if not the day of, your interview.

If all goes well, you’ll receive a job offer within a few days or weeks after your interview. In most cases, it’s acceptable to ask for a day to consider the offer before you accept. But make sure you respond within one business day; it’s not a good look to keep an employer on the hook for weeks on end.

Arranging Your Schedule

Shift work is one of the facts of life when you’re working as a nurse, especially in a hospital. Someone has to stay in the hospital overnight with the patients, and often new nurses get roped into doing these jobs. But there are also plenty of regular nine to five nursing jobs available, especially outside hospitals.

If you’re willing to work late shifts, weekends, and holidays, you’re going to have an easier time finding a job. But if you need a more normal schedule, look for nursing jobs in doctor’s offices and other non-hospital settings. Some nursing jobs will even let you set your own hours or work from home, though these jobs are not without their drawbacks.

Start Your Path into the Nursing Profession

Nursing is an amazing career, but it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to do well. The key to entering the nursing profession is to stay well-prepared. Make sure your resume and cover letter are in good shape, talk to your school career center, and check nursing job sites for listings.  Nurses are in very high demand over the next several decades and can be one of the most rewarding positions in the healthcare industry if you like helping people.