Navigating a Career Shift into Nursing: A Guide for Aspiring Registered Nurses
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The decision to switch careers is a significant one. It’s an opportunity for someone unhappy with their current path to align their professional life with their personal values. For those who identify as empaths drawn to a career that offers learning, growth, and the chance to make a real difference, nursing could be their calling.
While Covid-19 was rough on nurses and the entire healthcare industry, it did contribute to increased demand for the next crop of qualified, compassionate, and ready-for-anything nurses. Nearly 32 percent of burnt-out, overworked nurses said they planned to retire or leave the field in 2022, according to a study by Incredible Health. The pandemic heightened the nursing shortage that began before Covid-19 and made travel nursing more prevalent and lucrative.
Travel nurses are registered nurses with clinical backgrounds who work temporarily to fill gaps in high-need areas. This vocation could be a smart one for new nurses willing to relocate temporarily, as they can gain valuable, hands-on experience and be compensated well for their flexibility. In August 2023, Vivian Health, a recruitment platform for healthcare workers, listed weekly pay for travel RNs from $4,300 to $5,800.
This guide is designed to support aspiring nurses in their transition regardless of which area of nursing they decide to pursue. It will address critical concerns including work environment, financial prospects, and age considerations. The field is as diverse as it is stimulating, and nurses can work in high-traffic hospitals, lower-key places like physician offices, or in government or educational settings. For non-nurses eager to make this career switch, it is a decision that can provide financial stability, stimulating and rewarding challenges, and plenty of growth opportunities.
Understanding Work Environments for Registered Nurses
The nursing profession is unique in its breadth and depth, offering a diverse spectrum of healthcare settings that cater to various personal preferences and career goals. Each setting has its unique rhythm, responsibilities, and rewards, which influences how it fits into a career shift strategy.
Public, private, and state hospitals provide a dynamic, fast-paced environment and employ about 60 percent of registered nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). With a diverse patient population and health issues, fast-paced hospitals offer invaluable learning opportunities. For those shifting from a high-pressure industry who’ve learned to stay cool in times of stress, a diverse, team-oriented hospital can be a strategic choice.
Former teachers, childcare workers, and those who worked in customer experience/service likely possess the empathy, compassion, and supportive problem-solving soft skills working in a hospital requires. Those who led teams in management roles or who tracked projects across teams will have a leg up on the multitasking, prioritization, and communication skills needed to thrive in a hospital setting.
Not every hospital nursing job involves racing from one life-threatening emergency like they do in medical drama shows. Hospitals have multiple departments, so a typical day can differ widely depending on a nurse’s specialty.
Pros: Nurses get their steps in during each shift! Once nurses get the hang of the volume of record-keeping and constant prioritizing required at work, they will start amassing memories of grateful patients and their families. “As a nurse, I often remember when a patient goes out of their way to say thank you,” says Steven Polega, RN and chief nursing officer at the University of Michigan Health-West.
Cons: Hospital jobs can be surprisingly competitive. Despite the ongoing nursing shortage, many hospitals have residency programs that only accept a set number of new grads, shares Ciji West, a registered nurse.
Working in the ER or intensive care unit can also take its toll on a nurse’s mental and sometimes physical health.
“The unfortunate reality is that people come to us many times when they are scared, hurting or in crisis. During times like these, it is easy to be demanding and sometimes even rude and hurtful. As an RN in an emergency department, I rarely worked a shift where I wasn’t yelled at, threatened, or harassed,” shares Polega.
Ambulatory Healthcare Services
Ambulatory healthcare services comprise 18 percent of the 3.1 million nursing jobs in the U.S., says the BLS (2023), and include physicians’ offices, home healthcare, and outpatient care centers. Nurses who work in home health drive to patients’ houses, and public health nurses can travel to schools, community centers, and other sites.
Ambulatory care nursing often includes registered nurses (RNs) caring for many patients in short periods. The patient issues they deal with daily can be unpredictable, but ambulatory care nurses partner with other healthcare professionals to address patients’ wellness, acute illnesses, chronic diseases, disabilities, and end-of-life needs.
Pros: “Being present during moments of healing, providing comfort, and advocating for patients’ well-being brings a sense of fulfillment like no other. The camaraderie and support among healthcare teams create a strong sense of belonging and purpose,” shares Stewart Parnacott, a certified registered nurse anesthetist.
This diverse nursing landscape can appeal to career changers who are accustomed to shifting priorities quickly, consulting with others to make decisions on the fly, and can meet the unpredictable with a clear head.
Cons: Ambulatory nurses need stamina and endurance, and burnout is real— particularly if for nurses who tend to work overtime. Ambulatory nurses may be exposed to less serious conditions than inpatient nursing (this can appeal to some), so they may not make as much dramatic impact on patients’ lives.
The Covid-19 pandemic increased demand for traveling nurses, with job postings growing by 120 percent from January 2019 to January 2022, reported AllBusiness.com. “The pandemic accelerated the retirement of many nurses and caused many to leave the bedside altogether. This resulted in a proliferation of agency nursing to fill the staffing needs and resulted in some very large hourly and weekly compensation packages for travel RN staff,” shares Polega.
For those open to working on a contract basis and potentially commuting far or relocating temporarily, travel nursing can provide a varied experience more quickly than a staff role—and it will likely pay better. This could be a great option for mid- or late career changers who are accustomed to earning a higher salary and have the flexibility to move around or be comfortable with contract work. Travel nurses can work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, community health centers, and even in underserved centers in rural areas.
Pros: Greater earning potential overall, and more opportunity to accumulate diverse nursing experience more quickly.
Cons: Travel nurses may need to pop from place to place every few months, and they’ll lack the stability of a more traditional staff position. Travel nurses could also encounter some resistance from in-house nurses who may not be a fan of the travel nurse setup.
Nursing and residential Care Centers
These facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living centers, offer a slower pace and the opportunity to build long-term relationships with patients. Residential care nursing can offer a rewarding path for individuals shifting from careers where interpersonal relationships and continuity are key. Career changers whose soft skills include patience, excellent listening skills, and fostering meaningful interactions who seek work-life balance may find a home as a nurse in a retirement or residential care center.
Pros: Residential care nurses benefit from stability, security, and the opportunity to be involved in the day-to-day lives of their patients. This role also gives nurses the chance to build their pharmacology skills.
Cons: Nurses in this role may need to cope with the difficult temperament from some elderly patients who may suffer from chronic pain or dementia. The pay for this role may also be lower.
Most people remember going to the school nurse’s office when they weren’t feeling well or they fell on the playground. School nurses deal with illness and injuries during the school day, assess the need for urgent care, monitor students with chronic conditions, administer medication at the approved request of parents, maintain immunization records, and conduct screenings for illness.
They played a vital part in testing, quarantining, and communicating with school administrators and parents during the Covid-19 pandemic.
School nurses can also work at colleges, universities, and vocational schools. Nurse educators teach classes, supervise clinical training, and prepare students for the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN) and certification. They may also design courses, advise students, and work with faculty and administrators on programs and budgets.
Teachers and school administrators can transition well into working as a nurse in academia, and the predictable schedule and working with youth may also appeal to parents, childcare workers, and nannies.
Pros: Can anybody find fault with summers off? School nurses also get every school holiday off, and can depend on a regular daytime schedule.
Cons: Lower salaries, potential clashes with parents, and long preparation hours can be drawbacks for school nurses who teach or need to prepare programs or budgets.
Government agencies employ nurses in various sectors. At federal agencies, nurses may conduct disease control and epidemiological research. Military nurses provide essential care at military bases, in war zones, and in disaster areas. Nurses can even treat imprisoned patients in correctional facilities.
Those transitioning from other government agencies, the armed forces, or the corporate world may be accustomed to the bureaucracy and structure that is typical when working for the government. These jobs also typically offer job security and stability that aspiring nurses may value.
Pros: Government agencies typically offer good benefits, job security, and possibly a pension.
Cons: Nurses working in government agencies may find that their salaries are capped, policy changes can take a long time, and they don’t have as much control in their decision-making. In a government role, there are also inevitably myriad rules and regulations to follow, which can be cumbersome.
A nurse’s choice of work environment is pivotal in their career shift into nursing. When nurses align their chosen setting with their lifestyle, professional goals, and previous work experience, they can make a strategic decision that eases their transition and sets them up for a fulfilling nursing career.
Financial Aspects of Nursing
The financial aspect of a career is undeniably a significant consideration, especially when contemplating a career shift. Prospective nurses are likely curious about the salaries in nursing and whether they can afford to buy a house (or continue paying an existing mortgage). In this section, we’ll provide financial planning insights for making a career shift into nursing.
Various factors, including geographical location, specialty, level of education, certification, years of experience, and work setting influence nursing salaries. Salary.com estimates that a staff registered nurse in the U.S. makes a median salary of about $68,344 annually as of October 2023. This median salary doesn’t factor in the value-add of the benefits package staff nurses typically receive; Salary.com estimates that 401k, pension, time off, disability, healthcare, and social security add an extra $30,528 in value.
Certain specialties tend to offer higher salaries for nurses looking to maximize their earnings. Nurse anesthetists (CNA), nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives, for instance, can make well over six figures annually, but these roles require advanced degrees. Salary.com says a CNA in California can make an average of $231,662 a year, a nurse practitioner in Maine can make $117,485 a year, and a nurse midwife can make $128,222 annually in Minneapolis.
Investing in advanced education or specializing in high-demand areas are strategic maneuvers that can increase a nurse’s earning potential. Student loan forgiveness could help nurses afford an advanced degree if they qualify. Some considerations include:
- Nurses who work for the government or a nonprofit can qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program if they make 120 monthly payments on federal student loans while working full-time for a qualifying employer.
- Nurses who work for a public or private critical shortage facility, or faculty at a qualifying nursing school can apply to receive up to 85 percent of loan repayment through the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program.
- Nurse practitioners and certified midwives may qualify for $50k in loan repayment after two years of full-time work through the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program.
- Nurses may qualify for certain loan repayment programs in the state, and additional support may be available for active duty servicepersons.
Decoding the Real Estate Market: Can a Nurse Afford a House?
Affording a house on a nurse’s salary is realistic. Still, it depends on multiple variables like the cost of living where a nurse is located, their personal expenses, and their financial planning strategies. The key is for nurses to understand the real estate market locally, budget wisely, and consider first-time homebuyer and other assistance programs. These can include:
- The Good Neighbor Next Door Program can provide up to a 50 percent discount on single-family homes in designated revitalization areas to full-time first responders.
- The Nurse Next Door Program offers grants and down payment assistance to nurses.
- Homes for Heroes assists healthcare workers with real estate agents and mortgage lenders who provide discounted services to qualified borrowers.
- Healthcare workers may qualify for down payment assistance in the state.
Tips to Increase Earnings and Plan for the Future
Financial planning is crucial to ensuring financial stability and achieving milestones like homeownership. Here are a few tips:
- Continue education: As mentioned earlier, higher degrees or specialties can lead to higher salaries.
- Work extra shifts: Many nurses increase their income by taking extra shifts or working holidays when pay rates can be higher.
- Budget and save: This goes without saying, but solid budgeting and saving strategies can help nurses reach financial goals like buying a house. This includes foregoing some conveniences like buying lattes daily or luxuries like a designer handbag.
- Invest: Nurses may be able to contribute to their employer-sponsored retirement account, and should consider squirreling away what they can in a personal IRA. They may opt to put aside part of any bonuses or overtime they earn into higher-interest money market accounts or CDs so they don’t lose their principal investment. Nurses open to more risk can consider stocks.
Age Is Just a Number: Pursuing Nursing Education Later in Life
Aspiring nurses may wonder if it’s too late in life to start a nursing career, or if they’re too old to go to nursing school. But when it comes to nursing education, age is just a number.
Dispelling Age-related Myths
Contrary to common misconceptions, “too old” for nursing school isn’t really a thing. Many programs welcome students of all ages, understanding the richness of experiences and perspectives they bring to the profession. Nearly 87 percent of students enrolled in RN-to-BSN programs are 26 years old or older, according to a survey from the National League for Nursing.
Advantages of Maturity and Life Experience
Age and life experience can offer invaluable assets in the nursing field. Mature learners often bring a unique blend of skills and qualities such as empathy, patience, and strong communication skills that are particularly beneficial in nursing. They may also possess better problem-solving skills and bring diverse professional backgrounds that can enrich their practice.
Nursing Education Paths for Mature Learners
For those entering nursing later in life, there are specific education paths designed to expedite the process and accommodate their life situation:
- Accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing (ABSN): These programs are designed for individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. ABSN programs are fast-paced, allowing nurses to earn their degrees in 12 to 24 months.
- Master’s entry nursing programs: These programs, also known as direct-entry or graduate-entry programs, are intended for individuals with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees who are interested in becoming registered nurses. These programs typically award both a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN)—or allow the student to bypass the BSN—and a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) upon completion.
- Direct entry nursing programs: Direct entry programs are an excellent option for mature learners interested in advanced practice roles, such as nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist. These programs typically award a BSN, an MSN, and may even offer a pathway to a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.
Resources and Support Systems for Budding Nurses
A wealth of resources and support systems is available for older nursing students. From academic advisors and student support services in a nursing program to online communities and professional nursing organizations, nurses and training shouldn’t hesitate to seek guidance and support.
It’s rarely too late or costly for someone to follow their professional nursing ambitions. For those in their 30s, 40s, 50s, or beyond, a fulfilling career in nursing is often well within reach.
Those looking to make a career switch into nursing should embrace their age and life experience as assets on this journey. Aspiring nurses should consider every step toward this new path as a step toward enriching their lives and the lives of those they will care for in their future nursing careers.