Five considerations for the journey.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”
“I want to be a nurse practitioner. I’m going back to school!” As soon as I spoke the words, I felt their weight and intensity.
We were a group of night-shift nurses—weekend warriors, we called ourselves—commiserating over all that seemed to be missing, not only on our unit but in our careers. We were a mixed bunch. Some, fresh out of nursing school, were dismayed by their new reality, an overwhelming set of responsibilities that hardly matched the “Grey’s Anatomy” image of nursing. There were no organized Code Reds with a well-scrubbed physician yelling “Stat,” nor was there a faculty preceptor to lean on. Some, much older, reminisced about the “good old days,” when nursing didn’t involve complicated EMR systems, committee meetings and unit-based research projects.
As soon as I made my declaration, questions and rapid-fire judgments quickly followed. How? With what resources? Why? Who in their right mind would want to take on student loans, late-night studying, clinical rotations and research papers at this stage in an already established career?
These questions, common for nurses who feel the urge to pursue graduate studies, are surely valid. Graduate school is expensive, requires self-directed study and ongoing individual assessment of learning style and learning needs, and it demands focus if one is to successfully juggle multiple tasks, set priorities, and meet deadlines. More importantly, especially for aspiring nurse practitioners who will incorporate unpaid clinical rotations into their schedules, graduate school usually requires students to reduce their employment workload, which lowers personal income over the course of the program.
Bedside nursing has tremendous perks, not the least of which are shorter workweeks; open and continuous opportunities for overtime; and casual “uniforms,” the cost of which pale in comparison to the professional wardrobe required in corporate settings. However, advanced practice nursing has its own share of perks, including opportunities for leadership, scholarship and management, as well as regular work schedules and potential for independent practice.
The barrage of who, what, where, why and when can lead to doubt, worry, and complete derailment of one’s quest for professional and personal growth. Success requires not only a leap of faith but the parachute of careful planning. The following are five key considerations for the journey to becoming a nurse practitioner.
1. Do your research.
Nurse practitioner programs are not all created equal. Speak directly to program directors and admission counselors about the number of credits required, the average length of time for completion, and graduation rates. Assure that the program holds solid accreditation and sufficient faculty-to-student ratios. Check national ratings for each school and the length of time the program has existed. Investigate the experience levels of the program’s faculty members, to ensure you’ll be learning from experienced nurse practitioners, rather than novices. Beware of new programs “awaiting accreditation” and lacking a track record. Speak with other nurse practitioners you know, to be sure you understand the role and responsibilities of a nurse practitioner. Consider “shadowing” an NP for a day or two, to get a clear picture of what the career path entails.
2. Assess your needs.
Carefully consider your learning style and weigh the options between traditional on-campus programs and those designed for distance learning. While distance learning may offer convenience, it also requires discipline, strong commitment, and strict time management. There is no one to hold you accountable for showing up to class, viewing lectures, reviewing content, and reminding you of deadlines. It is very easy to fall behind or become distracted by everyday life responsibilities, family and work obligations, and unexpected emergencies. Because traditional on-campus programs require a reduced employment workload to accommodate classes, clinical rotations and exams, you may need to line up additional financial resources to replace lost income.
3. Create a financial plan.
Add up all costs for the program, including tuition, books, clinical supplies, fees, parking, and commuting costs. To help offset these costs, investigate existing scholarships, graduate assistantships, grants and nursing education loans. When creating your budget, allow a reasonable amount for unplanned expenses such as car repairs, fluctuating gas and commuting costs, and household repairs that may occur. Realistically decide how many hours you will be able to work each week and compare this figure to current expenses. If attending graduate school requires you to move to another city, fully investigate the complete cost of living in the new location. Will you need a car to get to school and clinical sites? Is reasonably priced, safe housing affordable? What are average costs for utilities? Your NP studies will prove difficult enough. Inadequate income will not only create stress; it will distract from the time and focus needed for your studies.
4. Rally support.
If you have a spouse, significant other, or children, be sure you have their support early on in the decision-making process. In all fairness, these are the people who are going to be most affected by your decision. They will endure your late-night studying, early-morning clinical rotations, and perpetual absence at family events and affairs. Openly and honestly explain the time and financial commitments you’re planning to take on. Be realistic about the time you will need to study and the help that others will need to provide for day-to-day household management. If you are an adult learner with children, be sure to include extended family and friends in these discussions, and ask for their support as needed for carpooling and assistance with after-school activities. Once in the program, be considerate of their time, and remember to thank your “village” for helping you succeed.
5. Make your decision and stick with it.
If everything aligns properly, stick to your decision and move confidently in the direction of your passion. Equipped with your research and careful planning, beware of pessimists and naysayers who lack the insight you now have. No matter which direction the economy turns, graduate education in nursing will always yield a high return, and there will always be room for new nursing leaders who seek out opportunities for professional growth and advancement.
Consider every minute and every dollar spent an investment in yourself. Opportunities for nurse practitioners are endless and include such specialties as clinical research, global health, teaching, consulting, independent practice, and much more. Take your leap of faith with passion and optimism! RNL
Angel V. Shannon, MS, RN, a registered nurse with more than 19 years' experience in critical care, community and public health, and managed care, and a recently inducted member of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, graduated in December 2012 as an adult-gerontological primary care nurse practitioner from the University of Maryland School of Nursing.