Making tough decisions about your career

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By Shelley Cohen, RN, BS, CEN

Many nurse managers are faced with daily decisions that require them to prioritize items such as staff, materials, and their time. In the midst of all this constant motion, a point has come for many of us where we must make decisions about our careers.

Have you heard yourself asking these questions?

  • Is this the time for me to go back to school to further my education?
  • If I do decide to return to school, what major do I focus on?
  • Will I be able to balance the challenges of family, work, and school?
  • Can I afford to go back to school? Can I afford not to?

Some of you may be in a position where your organization is requiring you to develop a plan to obtain your BSN, MSN, or possibly other degrees. Others are looking at the future and asking questions that frame the next 10 years of their career: Do I want to still be in a nurse leadership role five years from now? Do I want to help the nursing faculty shortage and return to school to be eligible to teach at the college level? Do I want to use my nurse leadership skills in a community based non-profit effort?

These professional and personal decisions are long-term and are directly related to finances and time. With that in mind, they deserve some self processing and research to assure you make the decision that best fits you. If you are ready for the next step of information gathering, I recommend you look at this from three perspectives:

  1. What are your professional goals for the next three, five, and 10 years?
  2. Do these goals involve the need for a higher degree?
  3. How do you determine which degree best suits your goals?

Be cautious with item No. 2, as you might not believe your goals "should" require a degree. But many of them will. Begin by connecting with two or three nurses who have attained goals similar to those you are looking to attain. Chat with them about their education and how their degree choices have served them in their role.

For me, getting input from at least three trusted mentors made all the difference in finding my way through a maze of multiple MSN specialty areas. Some degrees might be areas you would "love to do," but may not be as likely to practice as often. For example, I would like to be a nurse practitioner, but realize it is not part of my goal of teaching as nurse faculty at the college level. I wanted to go to law school so I could better advocate for foster children, but that is not a full-time focus. I am still very fulfilled as a practicing staff nurse and want to focus on being part of the solution to the nurse faculty shortage because of my passion to teach.

Here are a few more tips to take with you:

  • Make time to review curriculum in each nursing program you are assessing.
  • If you are thinking of a degree outside of nursing such as an MBA, be sure the format of the program matches your personal goals, not just a job description.
  • Obtain the name and email of at least two students from any program you are considering and get their perspectives on the course content, etc.
  • Be realistic in your plans. It's easy to say you will balance work, home, and school . . . doing it is a whole other task.
  • Once you are engaged in this process of returning to school, do not make it a race. Make it a life experience. That extra year can mean extra time and a lot less stress.

Taking an honest look at your current and future roles as a nurse will help to shape a better decision for your next opportunity. Being great at what you are presently doing does not chain you there, it merely keeps you constant. Everything around us is changing at lightning speed, and, for many, the reassurance of knowing you are going to be in the same role five and 10 years from now is beneficial. We will always need experienced and forward thinking nurse leaders and are ever grateful for their willingness to be a steady fixture for staff.

For those of you who are looking for that change in perspective and practice, you are not deserting staff or other leaders. You are moving forward to help assure the change around us will always be in the best interest of the patient, regardless of your role.

Editor's note: Shelley is the owner of Health Resources Unlimited, a company she founded in 1997 to meet the ongoing professional development needs of nurse managers and emergency department nurses. Read more about her educational experiences on our blog.