How to Change Specialties

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

While a small number of nurses retire from the same specialty in which they first started out, most are likely to change specialties once or more in their professional life. And why not? One of the great things about nursing is that there are so many different paths to take. Additionally, nurses are staying in the workforce longer than ever before. It’s common for nurses to “retire” from one specialty and then look to work in another. But rather than blindly jumping from specialty to specialty, take some time to be introspective and do some research to find the right spot. Here are some tips for exploring your options, deciding where to go, and being successful once you make the change.

Do a self-assessment. Start by asking yourself some basic questions: What do I enjoy doing? What am I good at? What type of work schedule am I looking for? For example, do you need flexible hours, part time or full time, summers off, regular hours (M-F 9-5), shift work, or weekends and holidays off? Now, list areas that have always interested or intrigued you. Envision your ideal work environment. Do you want to work behind a desk? Do you prefer high drama and close patient contact? Are you looking for a slow or fast pace?

Shed your preconceived notions. Many of us think we know all there is to know about various specialties. But if you’ve never actually worked in those areas or spoken at length with someone who does, chances are your perceptions are inaccurate. I once thought I knew all about various clinical specialties. When I decided to get involved in career management work for nurses, I began to interview nurses from various specialties to learn more about what they do. I was quite surprised to hear a different and positive insider’s view of areas that I never gave much thought to or was less than enthusiastic about. All of the specialties, and others offered more challenges, rewards, and complexities than I could have ever imagined. Be open-minded.

Explore your options. Get out to nursing career fairs or nursing conventions on a regular basis. This is a great way to find out what’s out there and learn more about different specialties. You’ll meet and get to talk with nurses working in different areas. You can also find out which employers offer what services, which have special internship programs, etc. At a recent career fair, I attended, there were company representatives from many different specialties, including mother/baby home care, blood bank, psych and rehab, general home care, telephone triage, pediatrics, chemotherapy, research, and others. Not only will these representatives tell you about opportunities with their facilities, but they often can provide literature and other resources about the specialty. Most of these events offer continuing education programs in various specialties, too.

Do some research. Locate the related professional associations for areas that interest you and visit their websites or give them a call and ask for some literature. Find the appropriate professional association through networking or by doing an Internet search for “(the specialty) nurses association.” Many websites have discussion forums where you can “talk” with other nurses already working in that area. Social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are good for this too. If you don’t have access to the Internet at home or work, you can usually log on at the public library or a friend’s house. Information gathered from professional associations can help you learn the specialty’s buzzwords, some of the hot professional issues, where the jobs are, and some of the specialty’s trends and predictions for the future. Another great way to learn more about a specialty is to read its journals, which are available at health services and college libraries.

Rub elbows with those that have been there and done that. One of the best ways to get the inside scoop on a specialty is to get up close and personal with those already working in the specialty. If you’re currently working in a facility where you have access to these people, talk to them and tell them of your interest. Have lunch with nurses from that specialty or make an appointment to talk to the department manager. Ask about the pros and cons, what a typical day is like, and any issues that you might need to know about. See if there’s an opportunity to observe or shadow for a day. Ask for a tour of the unit to get a feel for the work, the patients (if applicable), and the setting. Find out which professional associations nurses in this specialty belong to and get out to some local chapter meetings as a guest. This is another great way to access others in the specialty and learn about opportunities.

Take steps to successfully assimilate. Once you’ve decided to make the change, immerse yourself in the specialty. Immediately join that specialty association. Get out to meetings, read the journals, go to state and national conferences, and consider getting active by joining a committee. Many nurses make the transition to a new area and then bail when they feel like a fish out of water. They don’t give themselves a chance to learn and grow into the new position. They also don’t give themselves a chance to develop expertise in this new specialty. Remember that it takes three to six months to master a new environment – sometimes longer, depending on the complexity of the specialty. Do what you can to support that transition.

Don’t stay in a rut, whether in your mind or on your job. Take advantage of all that nursing has to offer. Use the above tips to at least explore your options. If and when the time is right to change specialties, make an informed decision by doing the appropriate field work, then take steps to ensure your success in your new home.

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