Career Advice for New Nurses, from Seasoned RNs

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If Janet Patterson, RN, could go back in time, she would learn the answer to a simple yet overwhelming question: What exactly do nurses do?

For most people, images of bedpans and needles pop into their minds, says Patterson, a nurse for 33 years who now works as a home care nurse at Maxim Healthcare in Santa Rosa, Calif. “We think we know [before going to nursing school] what [nurses] do, but we really don’t. I became a nurse and I couldn’t talk about it with anyone who wasn’t one.”
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A realistic job description tops the list of information veteran nurses say they wished they had known before embarking on their careers decades ago. Experienced nurses recommend that new nurses and students talk to people doing the job they want. Ask questions in person, by phone or online in chat groups for nurses.


Nursing is intimate

Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, NP, wished she had known that “I would be changed as a human being because of the intimacy of the moments that you share with patients.” New nurses must prepare for this, she says. The impact of witnessing many life-changing experiences such as birth, death and serious diagnoses lingers beyond the workday, says Brook, a nurse practitioner at Stanford Hospitals and Clinics in Redwood City, Calif. After the workday, “It’s not your muscles that are sore, it’s the mental muscles,” Brook says.

It’s important for new nurses to create a routine to unwind, learn healthy habits and stay socially connected, seasoned nurses advise.

Keep learning

When Cynthia Ringling, RN, BSN, started nursing in 1990, she had no idea “that the personal touch of nursing would have changed with the age of computers. It made the RN much more of an administrator and documenter,” says Ringling, a chief clinical officer at Interim Healthcare in Colorado. “A lot of the personal tasks we did have been pushed to unlicensed or trained people.”

Nursing is an evolving profession with changing technology. New nurses must stay open to learning from patients, peers, physicians, professors and other professionals.


Squash conflicts

Another discovery Brook wished she had known before pursuing her career are the challenges of working with colleagues. “It’s not the patients who are hard, it’s the other nurses, managers, physicians — that whole interplay that professionals experience, unless you are working independently,” she says.

Ask for help. Make building a support system a priority, veteran nurses recommend.


Remain flexible

Adjusting to an intense work schedule also topped the wish-I-had-known list for longtime nurses. Meeting the demands of patient care can be exhausting. Add nights, weekends and holidays to the mix and maintaining a social calendar requires patience and flexibility. Brook says she wishes someone had told her in advance she would be late for every party because her shift did not end on time.

Accept that people get sick every day and require care. Imagine patients as your own loved ones who need care, says Sheri Cosme, MSN, RN-BC, a clinical educator at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

“Nurses work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. So to think as a new graduate nurse that you will only work days, Monday through Friday, is not realistic,” advises Cosme.

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