Career Transition

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

Over the years, I’ve worked with many nurses who were at a crossroads in their careers and needed a little help to move forward. Here’s one story:

Janet is 42 years old and has been in nursing for more than 20 years. She’s worked as a med/surg nurse at the same hospital for the last 15 years. She feels worn out and doesn’t know how much longer she can continue on this path. These feelings are scary to her because she always envisioned herself doing just this for her entire career. Could this be the dreaded “burnout” she has heard about? If she were to make a move, where could she possibly go? She doesn’t feel qualified to do much of anything else and hasn’t even been on an interview in 15 years. Feeling lost and hopeless, she contemplates leaving nursing.

When Janet and I first met, her self-esteem was almost nonexistent. She felt she had backed herself into a career corner by staying so long in one specialty and one place of employment. She didn’t have a résumé because she never needed one. She knew she needed to make a change, but she dreaded “starting all over again” somewhere else. Besides, she thought, who would have her?

Janet first needed to realize that as an experienced RN, she had acquired a great body of knowledge and skills that could be used in an endless number of ways and places. Moving to a new specialty was not “starting over.” Rather, it was expanding on what she had already done and moving forward. She had to focus on the positive. I suggested she make a list of her experiences and accomplishments, both personal and professional. It took a little prodding, but she started to feel better when she realized how many different things she had done as a med/surg nurse and all the things she had accomplished in her life.

Janet needed to think about what she enjoyed doing at work, what she was good at, and what type of work schedule and setting she wanted. This took a little time because Janet was unaccustomed to thinking about her own needs and wants. She realized that she loved working with patients and was good at counseling, but she needed a slower pace and a more relaxed work environment.

The next step was to get a résumé together. Janet found several good articles on résumé writing for nurses on the Internet and, after several drafts, had a two-page résumé she could be proud of.

Janet had also become disconnected from her profession over the last decade. She had never bothered to renew her membership in professional associations and couldn’t remember the last time she had attended a nursing conference, convention, or seminar outside of her place of employment. I encouraged her to start making phone contacts with friends and associates she hadn’t seen in a while to let them know what she was up to and tell them she was looking to make a change in her career. This exercise started to further energize her, and she picked up several ideas and referrals in the process.

Janet decided to rejoin her state nurses association and get out to a local chapter meeting. She was nervous because it had been so long since she had socialized outside of her workplace. She didn’t even have a decent outfit to wear, so she bought a conservative business suit that she could use for interviews, seminars, career fairs, and association meetings. She read up on the art of small talk, making conversation, and shaking hands. She even had calling cards made so she could exchange information with colleagues and contacts.

Janet next attended a local nursing career fair. She spoke briefly with many of the exhibitors in an effort to practice her self-presentation skills, find out how marketable she was, and learn about job offerings. While there, she attended a CE lecture on palliative care and talked with the speaker afterward. It was there that she began to realize that hospice nursing met many of her needs, so she decided to target those agencies and organizations that offered such services.

After a month, Janet was offered a position as a hospice nurse for a home care agency. She chose this path after doing informational interviews with several nurses working in this specialty, shadowing a hospice nurse for a day, and finding an agency that offered training complete with preceptorship.

Three years later, Janet is now a supervisor and helps to orient and precept other nurses making the transition to palliative care. “I never realized how many transferable skills I had acquired,” Janet says. “I also never considered nursing positions outside of the hospital as ‘real nursing.’ How wrong I was! I am happier than I have ever been.”

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