From Student to Nurse: Six Tips for a Successful Transition

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

You’ve dreamed and planned for your career as a nurse. You’re working hard on that goal and the big day is rapidly approaching. But don’t wait until you graduate to take steps toward making a smooth transition. Now is the time to start building a great foundation in nursing. Here are 6 building blocks to get your started.

1. Join and become active in professional associations.
Joining the National Student Nurses Association is a given. But simply paying your dues isn’t enough. Get active by attending meetings and conventions locally and nationally. Get on committees and consider running for office. Not only will you find support and information, but you’ll also be developing your leadership, communication, and negotiating skills, all attributes of a successful nurse. You’ll also be building an impressive resume. Involvement in professional associations, as a student or a professional nurse, will keep you at the cutting edge with knowledge and information. It also demonstrates to others that you are an involved and informed member of your profession.

If there is a specialty that you are interested in or have already made up your mind to work in after graduation, see if they have a student membership category. Many professional nursing organizations do. Some examples are the Emergency Nurses Association (www.ena.org), the Association of Critical Care Nurses (www.aacn.org), and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (www.awhonn.org) just to name a few. For a nominal membership fee you can access “members only” areas of their web site, get association publications, and be able to partake of conferences and conventions at member rates. You’ll also have access to experienced nurses through local chapter meetings, online bulletin boards, and through mentoring programs. You’ll be a step ahead of the competition. Besides, having specialty affiliation will give you a competitive edge when seeking a position as an RN in a specialty after graduation.

Be sure to join your state nurses association and the American Nurses Association (ANA), along with your specialty association as a full member after graduating and getting your license. You will immediately have a sense of belonging to your new profession and it will continue to support you. Membership will remind you that you are part of a greater whole and serve to tell the world that “you’ve arrived.” If you don’t belong, you put yourself at a great disadvantage.

2. Seek related part time work.
Look for positions as a patient care technician, an EKG tech, or a nurse’s aid. Not only will you gain relevant experience and have an opportunity to hone valuable skills, but you will have a chance to work in an independent capacity as a healthcare professional. Of course you won’t be expected to know everything, but you will start to build confidence working solo, rather than under the watchful eye of an instructor.

Look for student externships in local hospitals. These are usually offered during the summer months to nursing students with a certain level of education. An externship may or may not be paid but you will get to work with experienced nurses. These programs are specifically designed to allow students to gain experience with common nursing procedures and practices.

If possible, find part time work or an externship at a hospital that you hope to work in after graduation. This way, you will become familiar with the facility, the people, and the procedures. If you can master some of the environment as a student – where supplies are, how to use the phone system, how things work – and get to know the people beforehand, you’ll be that much better prepared when you get your first job as an RN. Of course working somewhere as a student doesn’t guarantee employment there after graduation. But it certainly goes a long way to help.

3. Make the most of your student clinical time.
Don’t miss any of this valuable and unique time to work with your fellow students, instructors, and experienced nurses. And don’t just be concerned with your own patients. Listen and learn from your colleagues. Show up for pre and post clinical conferences and regular classes, too! This is an important training ground.

Be proactive with your hands-on experience. Look for opportunities to observe, assist with, or actually perform procedures under the watchful eye of an instructor or experienced nurse. The more practice and exposure you get as a student, the more confident you will be as a graduate nurse. And it’s always better to do things several times with a pro at your side before you have to do it on your own.

4. Get out to career fairs and conventions.
Attend recruitment events, student lunches, your state nurses association convention, and nursing career fairs when you can. You’ll start to get a sense of what is available out there and what your options are for the future. Because each employer offers different orientation programs, specialty internships, and benefits, you’ll have time to compare and consider which facilities may be your best fit. If you’re interested in a particular specialty you can start researching which facilities have the best reputation for that specialty. It’s never too soon to start making contacts and inquiries. In fact, the sooner you start, the less panicked you’ll feel upon graduation. And the more informed your decision will be when the time comes to accept a position. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there are many things more important than salary when looking for your first job.

These events are not just for job seeking, either. Usually there are educational offerings on career development, clinical topics, and professional issues such as writing and speaking. In addition to prospective employers, you’ll have an opportunity to meet with representatives of schools of higher learning and professional associations as you plot your future.

Be sure to maximize your time when attending these events. Dress your professional best. If you don’t own a business suit or can’t get one, wear your best outfit. This is no place for casual dress. Don’t ever underestimate the power of first impressions. You’ll be making some important industry contacts at these events and you want to present your best self. Don’t just run around gathering pamphlets and giveaways. Make good eye contact and extend your hand to shake when approaching exhibitors. Introduce yourself and ask questions about the facility. Be sure to ask for the business card of anyone you speak with so you can contact them at a later date. Be prepared with a copy of your student resume and business cards to leave with prospective employers.

5. Network, network, network.
It’s never too soon to start building and maintaining professional relationships. There is an expression that no one succeeds alone and that certainly applies to nursing. There is help and support all around you if you know where to look.

The term “networking” refers to the act of initiating, cultivating, and maintaining professional relationships. In simple terms it means making an effort to meet new people, develop relationships, and stay in touch with people on an ongoing basis. Think of it as building a support team. Your network can help you in many ways. It’s a great place to turn for information and advice and can be a great source of support and inspiration. And networking, or “word of mouth” is well known to be the best way to get the good jobs.

Be sure to stay in touch with your fellow students and instructors after graduation, as well as any other healthcare professionals that you have developed a relationship with. It can be a staff nurse that was particularly helpful to you, it could be a speaker you met at a conference, or could be a nurse that you met in your community. Of course your network doesn’t have to be just nurses, and shouldn’t be. But it sure is nice to know and be able to rely on others who have “been there.”

Stay in touch with your network by sending an occasional card or e-mail or by periodically picking up the telephone to say, “Hi.”. Ask how they’re doing and post them on your progress. Don’t just contact your network when you need something. Professional associations are a great place to develop ongoing, supportive relationships, too

I recommend that you have business cards made for yourself, even while a student. This is part of your professional image. Business cards are simply a calling card, a reminder of who you are and how to reach you, and are a necessary tool for professional networking. You can have these cards made relatively easily and inexpensively at a local print shop. Get a white card with black lettering. Include your name and appropriate contact information such as an address and phone number. Include your e-mail address, web site, and fax number if you have one. Carry these cards with you at all times. You never know who you’ll meet where.

Note: Computer generated cards are not ideal although they’ll do in a pinch. They have a “home made” look and feel.

6. Consider volunteering.
While paid work is great if you can get it, there is much valuable experience to be gained by volunteering. Consider volunteering for the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association, or other social service agency. Open the yellow pages of your phone book to “Social Services” and call a few organizations that interest you. If you’re interested in a particular specialty, look for related volunteer work. For example, if you’re interested in pediatrics, you might volunteer at a medical day care center. Not only will the experience look great on your resume, but you’ll be building experience and confidence and making some great contacts.

Get a running start on your future career by taking steps now to make a successful transition from student to professional nurse.

©Copyright Donna Cardillo. All rights reserved.

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