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Easing your way back to school


Place a checkmark on the line next to each statement that applies to you:

  • You’ve seen how quickly your nursing knowledge becomes outdated.
  • You’d like to join a nursing faculty.
  • Your hospital has heard the Magnet™ call and wants to raise the educational level of its nursing staff.
  • You realize that with health care growing more complex all the time, lifelong learning is more important than ever for a nurse.

Whichever line or lines you’ve checked, the first step in meeting your goals and addressing your needs may be to go back to school. Going through another round of schooling won’t be easy. But knowing what to expect and planning for it accordingly can increase your chance of scholastic success and help you meet your other responsibilities at the same time. (See Tune up your time-management skills in pdf format by clicking the download now button.)

Find a program that meets your needs

On the Internet, you can find plenty of information on nursing education programs. Look for a program near your home, unless you plan to relocate or prefer a distance-learning program. Actually, many nursing programs offer a blend of classroom and distance-learning modalities, which may fit your schedule better than an all-classroom or all-distance arrangement.

Once you’ve narrowed down the choices, verify that the programs you’re interested in are accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. If you enroll in a program that’s not nationally accredited, you may not be able to achieve your career goal.

Identify potential sources of financial aid

Because of the current nursing shortage, this is a good time to seek scholarships and other types of financial aid to continue your nursing education. Many healthcare organizations offer tuition support, so start by inquiring with the human resources department where you work.

Other funding sources may include:

  • professional nursing organizations you belong to, such as the American Nurses Association
  • state government agencies (especially if your state has been hit hard by the nursing shortage)
  • federal government agencies, which may offer tuition assistance under specific circumstances.

If you need more help finding financial aid, make an appointment with a financial aid counselor at a local university, or visit

Grow your support system at home

Once you’ve made basic decisions and developed a preliminary plan, let your family know you’re heading back to school, and help them understand why. They may have trouble fathoming why you’re seeking more schooling when you already have a good nursing job.

You’ll need to get your family’s buy-in and commitment to support you while you’re in school. After all, you’ll probably expect them to make sacrifices and pitch in (more than usual) with chores—whether it’s babysitting, grocery shopping, house cleaning, or lawn mowing. Be sure to tell them when you expect to graduate, so they know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel!

Find a coach or mentor

Does a work colleague already have the degree you want? If so, perhaps she’d be willing to act as your informal coach or mentor. Tell her you’re going back to school. Chances are she’ll be excited for you and encourage you every step of the way. As someone who has “been there and done that,” she can provide valuable advice and may become personally vested in your success. Some professional associations and nursing education programs also offer mentor programs.

Use the buddy system

If one of your colleagues has voiced career interests similar to yours, try to fire her up to go back to school with you. She could be your “study buddy”—a peer who knows what you’re facing as you progress through the academic program. Study buddies count on each other to peer-review papers, brainstorm writing topics, and share the day-to-day trials of academic life.

Take a “precourse”

To better prepare yourself for a nursing education program, you may need to take a lower-level course first. Look to your community college or adult education center for classes that will help you brush up on your math, writing, or computer skills. A local librarian may be willing to help you update your knowledge about the databases you’ll need to do literature searches once your academic program begins.

Commit to a health management program

Plan to put yourself in the best physical and emotional shape to handle the stress you’re about to endure. You already know how to do this—exercise, good diet, better sleeping habits. But now you’ll need to get really serious about it. For a specific technique to help you deal with stress, see “Break the cycle of stress with PBR3” in the May 2007 issue of this journal. (To read that article click here) Whatever technique you use, you’ll need time to build good habits into your routine. Start now.

Make friends with your advisor

Early in the academic admission process, you’ll be assigned an academic advisor. Make an appointment with your advisor immediately. Be sure to present yourself as a dedicated, committed student who intends to succeed.

Throughout your academic experience, continue to visit your advisor regularly. At each visit, bring a written summary of how your classes are going and the questions you want to ask the advisor. Don’t leave the appointment without reviewing your plan and discussing the next steps you need to take toward completing your program of study.

Now rack up those As!

Going back to school can be intimidating, especially if you haven’t been in a classroom in a while. School will indeed be a challenge, but the reward of getting that next degree will be well worth the effort.

Selected references

Bartels J. Educating nurses for the 21st century. Nurs Health Sci. 2005;7:221-225.

Graner B. Break the cycle of stress with PBR3. American Nurse Today. 2007;3(5):56-57.

Sullivan EJ, Decker PJ. Effective Leadership & Management in Nursing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Parson Education, Inc.; 2005.

Mattie Burton is Chair of the Department of Nursing at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

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