By Beth Hawkes, MSN, RN-BC Nursing Professional Development Specialist

1. Find Your Passion

Nurse running up stairs illustrationFor some nurses, getting ahead means becoming a Nurse Practitioner. Just the thought of seeing patients and having a practice excites them. For others it means becoming a unit manager or a nurse administrator and influencing nursing practice through leadership.

Maybe you have an entrepreneurial spirit and want to combine clinical expertise with business. A friend of mine did just that, and teaches EKG interpretation to nurses at hospitals. Nurse entrepreneurs are a growing group of nurses who realize they have marketable skills. Your passion is meant to be expressed. Don't put limits on yourself. If you want it, you can achieve it.

2. Make a Plan

Determine what resources it will take to realize your goals. Will it take more education? Different clinical experience? For example, if your goal is to become a CRNA, you will need 2-3 years of ICU experience before you apply. Write your goals down to make them real and make a timeline with a to-do list to hold yourself accountable.

3. Find a Mentor

A mentor has been there before you and can guide you. It’s like having a personal and knowledgeable tour guide as you navigate career possibilities. Talk to others in your chosen career role. Most people are happy to talk about themselves. Ask ‘What do you like about the role?,” “What do you not like about the role?,” and “What would you do differently?”. Hang out with the people you want to learn from.

4. Network

Networking is essential to getting ahead. Connect with others and nurture relationships. Networking starts in school, when you exchange phone numbers with staff nurses you were assigned to in clinical and introduce yourself to the unit managers. The nurse who precepted you in first semester may be your nurse manager in a couple of years.  It is true that more often than not, promotions are based on who you know.

5. Be Visible

Closely aligned to networking is being seen. Be visible. Get out to meetings, conferences, and events. Approach people and introduce yourself. To become a Shift Leader or Charge Nurse, let your manager know you are interested. Now you are on their radar. Be positive and learn to express yourself constructively. Participate in unit-based councils and unit performance improvement projects. Volunteer to help inservices on a new piece of equipment, or to help with glucometer competencies.

6. Social Media

Become involved on social media. Follow the nursing leaders in your field. Top nurses are on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Benefit from their knowledge and wisdom. Be circumspect about what you post socially--you are branding yourself every time you go online. Brand yourself as a professional. Make sure you have a LinkedIn profile and connect with others.

7. Education

Further your academic education. If you have your ADN, getting your BSN is a must for career advancement. If your have your BSN, start looking at MSN programs. Having a master’s degree makes you exponentially more marketable.

Martha’s Story

Martha, an ADN nurse, fell in love with ICU straight out of school and spent the next twenty years perfecting her clinical practice. Her first Director of Nursing (DON) was Sue, a crusty RN who wore a white uniform every day to work.

As the years flew by, Martha’s small community hospital grew to a 300 bed facility and was eventually bought out by a large and well-known healthcare corporation. The DON was replaced by a CNO with a PhD. One day Martha woke up and her body told her that she could no longer work 12+ grueling hours at the bedside. She looked around for a less physically demanding job.With only her ADN and her Critical Care Registered Nurse (CCRN) certification, she could not so much as land an interview for a job in Infection Prevention, Case Management, or Employee Health.

The lesson is clear--Don’t put off going back to school.

8. Professional and Personal Development

Read nursing journals. Find out what journal your boss is reading and subscribe to it. Stay on top of industry trends and converse about recent topics. Can you answer the following questions?

Why is there a focus on preventing hospital readmissions? What is up with observation status in inpatient beds? What does value-based care mean? What are the statistics on Magnet® facilities and who accredits them?  What is the trend in new grad residencies?

In addition:

  • Attend at least one nursing conference a year. Nursing conferences are an investment in your career. You learn, you network, you are infused with energy, and you remain cutting-edge.
  • Join your specialty nursing organization and obtain your specialty certification.
  • Cultivate curiosity. Insatiable curiosity is a sign of a life-long learner.
  • Seek and accept constructive criticism. Professional development includes self-improvement and personal growth.
  • Study successful role models to become a better communicator and more effective.

9. Be Open to Signs

Often careers are a function of opportunity and passion and timing. This is not to say you shouldn’t plan but do keep an open mind when opportunity presents. It may be a sign for you to explore or follow. Jake, Med Surg unit manager, told Ashley during her annual performance evaluation that he expected her to be a shift leader soon. She visibly balked, actually shrinking into her chair. Jake sees something special in Ashley that she doesn’t yet see in herself. She needs to be open to the idea and talk to Jake more about the role. Does your family support you in your goals? It is possible to go it alone, but having a support group is important when starting a big life goal. Share your dreams with your loved ones.

Finally, cherish the journey and enjoy the growth. Know that you are an inspiration and an example to other nurses when you achieve your professional goals.

About the Author: Beth Hawkes is a career advice columnist, writer, speaker, educator and subject matter expert with a long and successful career in acute care. She blogs about professional development and all things nursing at nursecode.com.