On a Professional Quest: How to Choose Your Nursing Specialty

By Nan Callender-Price, RN, MA, Executive Director, Continuing Nursing Education at Nurse.com
Nan Calendar-Price, RN

Nan Calendar-Price, RN

Choosing or changing your specialty may seem daunting, but it may be easier than you think. You may get lucky and fall into a specialty you love. But more than likely, similar to any other career decision-making effort, it requires time and thoughtful consideration.

Whether just starting out or making a change, taking stock of your interests, strengths and priorities is an essential first step. Self-assessment tools abound. Richard N. Bolles’ book, “What Color Is Your Parachute? 2013: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers,” and free online surveys such from University of Pennsylvania (look under Engagement Questionnaires for VIA Survey Character Strengths) and JobHuntersBible.com and self-reflection can help get you started.

Then, put on your detective hat and start researching the specialties you’re interested in. Google the specialties and their journals and learn everything you can online and through social media. Find out the entry-level requirements and the steps for certification.

Attend local professional association meetings to connect with people in the specialty. If you haven’t already signed up with Nurse.com Profiles, our professional networking site, do so and reach out to other RNs who are in the specialty. Arrange informational interviews with nurses who are in the specialty to learn more about their day-to-day experiences and tips they may be able to provide you. Once you hone in on your chosen specialty, let as many people as possible know that you’re interested in making the transition. Establishing a solid preceptor relationship can help pave the way for the transition. Muster up support among your colleagues, friends and family.

According to Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, the nursing career guru, it takes three to six months to become comfortable in an new environment, sometimes longer depending on the complexity of the specialty. You can find her advice here: Nurse.com/Cardillo/Change-Specialities and Nurse.com/Cardillo/Forte.

The first step is often the hardest. As the Greek maxim says, “Know thyself.” The rest will follow. My most recent change was from the clinical setting to publishing, almost 20 years ago. I have another degree, in English literature, and knew I enjoyed writing, so I investigated the possibilities for combining both my interests. I pursued the steps outlined above, and the rest is history.

Below, two of my colleagues weigh in on how they chose their specialties:

Martha Tice, RN, MS, ACHPN, clinical nursing editorial director: “I was in my undergraduate nursing program when Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was beginning to publish her work on grief and loss. Her work, the integrated approach the faculty took to the nursing curriculum and the fact my first clinical rotation was in psych influenced me to spend time at the bedside of patients, listening to their stories of anger, fear, hope and psychosocial pain. While I didn’t give it a name, I was practicing the hospice skill of “being present.” Twenty years later, I made the decision to move to hospice, where I felt I could get back to a more holistic nursing model that would not only provide quality pain-and-symptom management but also aid in the healing of patients and families during transitions experienced at the end of life.”

Jennifer Chaikin, RN-BC, MSN, MHA, CCRN, executive director, educational initiatives:
“Twenty years ago, I chose pediatric critical care as my specialty for many reasons. First, I love caring for children. They are resilient in so many ways more than adults are, in my view, and are inspirational. Second, the autonomy that critical care nursing provides is exceptional. We use all our clinical knowledge and critical thinking to deliver the highest care possible in a manner that utilizes the highest level of technology. I also love the pace and excitement that comes with regularly saving lives. Yes, I’m a true adrenaline junkie, and critical care nursing fulfilled that need as well as the above-mentioned need to care for those most vulnerable.”

I have provided links to some continuing education modules that may help you in your transition to a new specialty below. Good luck!

Changing Specialties in Three Easy Steps

Networking for Career Advancement (This course is FREE until Dec. 31.)

Interviewing for Career Advancement

Precepting: The Chance to Shape Nursing’s Future

Novice to Expert: Through the Stages to Success in Nursing

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