Debra A. Wolff, DNS, PCNP, RN, author of Advancing Your Nursing Degree: The Experienced Nurse’s Guide to Returning to School, is president and CEO of Nurses Ready for the Next Step and adjunct faculty at Empire State College, Saratoga, New York.
As a faculty member, Wolff sees many nurses jump into and out of school after a couple of semesters. They frequently focus so intently on the financial and academic aspects of their experience that they overlook the big picture. They try to squeeze school into a small box and haven’t arranged their lives to accommodate it. Thoughtful preparation before returning to school is critical to success. Here’s how Wolff advises nurses to prepare themselves effectively before taking the leap.
Choose the right program
Take time to investigate all types of programs and assess which best fits your learning needs and lifestyle.
• In-person programs offer a live learning environment and face-to-face connection with teachers and other students and their ideas. However, they’re less flexible, and the travel required can be time-consuming.
• Online programs are the most flexible and can be a good choice if you’re computer savvy and have a heavy work schedule or work off shifts. You can do school work anywhere you can take your computer. It might be tempting to think that online programs are easier, but that’s not true. You should also know that teachers often can monitor your online habits to ensure you’re doing the work. There are two models of online learning:
• Independent study programs are models in which students learn completely on their own. If you’re self-disciplined and work best independently, then this might be for you. However, you’ll have no interaction with other students; some people feel disconnected from their peers in these programs.
• Cohort models are online programs in which students can meet each other through discussion boards. You also can see what your fellow students are writing, which can be a great learning opportunity. In some programs you might get to know the teachers as well. If that’s important to you, ask about the teacher’s availability. For example, some teachers might set up a phone call with every student at the beginning of the semester to help him or her get comfortable with the syllabus and course expectations.
• Hybrid programs are a great compromise for some students. They’re divided between in-person and online sessions, they’re more flexible, and they don’t require as much travel as in-person models. Hybrid programs provide opportunities for students to meet in person and share ideas and learning experiences with others.
Be cautious about jumping in feet-first
Some nurses are so excited—or want to get school over with as quickly as possible—that they sign up for the maximum number of classes right away. That may be fine for some students, such as those without families or full-time work commitments. However, for most nurses, especially those who’ve been out of school for a long time, it’s a good idea to start with one class at a time. This approach provides an opportunity to adjust to school and studying and to sharpen academic skills.
After you get comfortable with the demands of school, then you can consider adding one class at a time. Some schools might pressure you to take two to three classes concurrently, especially if you want to qualify for loans or financial aid. However, this can lead to burnout, and if you drop out, you’re left with student loans—and no degree. To avoid burnout, consider paying out-of-pocket. Many people can swing it financially if they take one course at a time.
Some nurses who want to finish school quickly end up worrying about flunking out so much that they take unethical risks. Be warned: Schools use sophisticated plagiarism software programs to catch cheaters. You can get kicked out of school and lose all your credits—and still have loans to pay back.
Consider the most efficient and effective way to study and when you’ll schedule it into your lifestyle.
• Commit a specific time and place to study. The kitchen table won’t cut it. Your study area should be a quiet place where you focus and store books and papers without having to move them.
• Get a dedicated computer that you don’t have to share with your family.
• Understand how you learn best and how to apply it effectively to your study habits. Are you an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner? For example, auditory learners might benefit more from downloading and playing audio textbooks than from reading them. Visual learners generally benefit from seeing information in writing. Kinesthetic learners may need to write out information. A combination of these learning styles might work for you, so take some time to consider what’s most efficient and effective for you before dedicating a lot of time to study.
Adjust your attitude
Even if you’re a well-seasoned nurse, you’ll be critiqued by faculty. For some nurses, that’s a hard pill to swallow, but the best way to grow and succeed is to embrace feedback. Some RN-to-BSN students may think they won’t learn anything they don’t already know. However, there’s always something new to learn, and going back to school is an opportunity to learn from nurses with different expertise. Open your mind to a more global picture of healthcare. Nurses with the right attitude can overcome anything and will get the most out of their education.
Negate the naysayers
A support system is critical to your success. It can include fellow students, teachers, colleagues, friends, and peers. However, differentiate between people who are supportive and those who should be but aren’t. Learn to spot the naysayers, the people who will ask you, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” or “Why are you bothering with a higher degree?” Surprisingly, this attitude may come from people who are supposed to be supportive, such as family and other nurses.
Prepare yourself to respond to those who don’t have your best interests at heart. Think about why you’re going back to school. For example, do you want to have better options for your family’s financial future? Are you looking ahead for options that can take you all the way to retirement? Remember that you don’t have to justify yourself or your education. A simple, effective response to naysayers is, “I’m not doing this for anyone but myself.” How can anyone argue with that?
Catherine Spader is a medical and healthcare writer/editor in Littleton, Colorado.