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Make dreams come true with goal setting

By: By Gertrude B. Hutchinson, DNS, RN, MA, MSIS, CCRN-R, and Debra A. Wolff, DNS, RN, PCNP

Nursing: One profession, many careers 

Professional nursing offers many career and educational paths. But how do you navigate all of the choices? Professional development typically highlights competencies and career ladders but doesn’t offer goal-setting guidance, and little information on this important topic exists in the nursing literature. To get started, begin with some self-reflection.

Consider the choices you’ve made in your professional and personal life, including your educational path, the work settings you’ve enjoyed most and least, and how personal choices or sacrifices have had an impact on your quality of life. Where do you see yourself in 2, 5, or 10 years?

Keep in mind that different parts of life can pull you in various directions. You only have so much time, energy, motivation, or finances, so without coordination, you may feel disjointed or rudderless. That’s why it’s important to set goals that consider both your professional aspirations (writing an article for publication) as well as your personal life (spending more time with family). Goal setting provides you with something to look forward to and celebrate as you reach each one.

Start with a self-assessment

Start by assessing your interests and abilities so you can maximize them. For example, are you adept at negotiation skills or do your strengths lie in organizing large projects? Next, identify the gaps in your knowledge, skills, or competencies. Finally, evaluate your resources: Who is your support network (family, colleagues, mentor, or manager)? Do you have access to what you need for success (courses, financial aid, technology)? Having available resources—whatever they may be—reduces barriers to success.

Setting goals doesn’t necessarily mean adding something to your to-do list. It also can include eliminating things, such as volunteer work, committee involvement, or belonging to a book club. If something isn’t rewarding or takes up too much of your time, consider removing it from your schedule, reducing your commitment, or taking a pause.

If your goal is behavior change, commit to at least 3 months so it becomes habit. For example, if your goal is to read professional literature at least three times per week, set Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays as days that you’ll get up early to read while having your coffee.

Be honest with yourself and identify what you consider barriers to your potential success. Do you do things (take on too many commitments) or lack skills (organization, time management) that sabotage your goals? Acknowledge your fears. For example, are you afraid you’ll fail if you return to school? Are you concerned that if you apply for a particular position, you’ll be turned down? Remember the old adage: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And consider what’s the worst that can happen in each situation? In most cases, the worst isn’t all that bad.

Goal-setting stages

Several theorists have created models for nursing development. Cohen recognized the socialization stages of student nurses—dependence, negative dependence, independence and mutuality, and interdependence. Wineman and Kinion used Cohen’s model to describe the socialization and evolution of nurse researchers—neophyte/dependence, negative dependence, autonomy/independence and mutuality, and expert/interdependence. Benner created a model to describe patient care skills development—novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Using these models as a guide, four categories to describe nurses’ goal setting stages emerged—neophyte, skilled, authority, and legator.

When you first begin a nursing career or change practice areas, you’re a neophyte. At this juncture, focus your goals on acquiring the necessary skills (suctioning, phlebotomy, documentation), knowledge (unit policies and procedures, immunization schedules), and time management for success and confidence in your work setting.

Once you feel confident, consider yourself a skilled practitioner. At this stage, focus goals around developing collaborative working relationships, getting involved in professional issues, advancing your career, using evidence-based practice and research, and achieving competencies in your practice area. As you accumulate years of experience, new nurses will look to you as a role model and a conduit of knowledge and professionalism. You may function as a preceptor to new nursing staff or students. (See Competency resources.)

Competency resources

Use these resources to determine the competencies you’ll need to reach your goals.

Clinical nurse specialists

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists: Clinical nurse specialist core competencies

Community/public health nurses 

Quad Council Coalition Public Health Nursing Organizations: Community/public health nursing competencies 

Forensic nursing 

International Association of Forensic Nurses: Core competencies for advanced practice forensic nursing

General nursing

Quality and Safety Education for Nurses: QSEN competencies

Interprofessional practice

Interprofessional Education Collaborative: IPEC core competencies

Nurse educators

National League for Nursing: NLN core competencies for academic nurse educators

World Health Organization: Nurse educator core competencies

Nurse leaders

American Organization for Nursing Leadership: AONL nurse leader competencies

Nurse midwives

American College of Nurse-Midwives: Core competencies for basic midwifery practice

The Midwives Alliance of North America: Core competencies

International Confederation of Midwives: Essential competencies for midwifery practice

Nurse practitioners

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties: Nurse practitioner core competencies

Nurse researchers

Oncology Nursing Society: 2016 oncology clinical trials nurse competencies

The Association of Clinical Research Professionals: Core competency guidelines for clinical research coordi­nators

For the next several years, your skill proficiency will elevate you to the next level—authority. At this stage, you might seek certification or advanced education to continue your professional growth. You may become an agent for change via unit-based research, participate in advocacy activities, disseminate practical and academic knowledge through publications and presentations, or teach.

The culmination of your career may lead you to reflect on what you’d like to leave to the nursing profession. In other words, what’s your legacy? At this point, you become a legator (one who leaves a legacy). You might become a consultant, establish a scholarship, write a memoir, mentor a successor, be an invited speaker or author, or bequeath your professional regalia and ephemera to a nursing archive or museum.

Be smart

You probably do a good job of goal development with your patients. Now it’s time to use that same skill set to assess your own career path and set professional short-term (next 6 to 12 months) and long-term (years or decades) goals. Interweave your professional goals with what you’d like to achieve in your personal life (have children, save money for a house, have more leisure time, plan for retirement). Make your goals more concrete by writing them down, and share them with others so you feel a sense of commitment. As motivation, use positive language. (See Short-term goal examples.)


Use the SMARTER acronym as a guide to document and track your goals.

  • Specific: Goals that are too general or don’t move you along the path you’ve set usually aren’t achieved. Break down each goal into specific steps. For example, instead of a goal to improve time management without any direction on how to achieve that goal, break it down into detailed steps: Keep a daily calendar to determine how my time is spent. Attend a time management seminar or webinar. Reduce my volunteer hours with the booster club.
  • Measurable: When goals are measurable, you know when you’ve achieved them, which gives you a feeling of accomplishment. For example, complete a skills checklist, take a leadership course, or present a poster.
  • Achievable: Make sure you have the resources, knowledge, and support to reach your goal. For example, if you want to get a degree, what options are available to you? How do you plan to finance your degree? Do you have the support of your family and workplace?
  • Realistic: Set practical goals that you can achieve. Ask yourself if each goal fits in with the direction of your other goals and whether they’re actually in your control?
  • Time-based: How much time do you predict you’ll need to reach each goal? Does the sequence of steps make sense? Did you allow for setbacks? Deadlines can help you prioritize.
  • Engaging: Does the goal excite you? Will you have the necessary motivation to achieve it? Is it the right thing to do?
  • Rewarding: How will you celebrate reaching your goal? You might take a trip, have a party, or simply frame your diploma. Also ask yourself what you’ll do if you can’t achieve a goal. Do you have another direction in mind?

Making dreams come true

As a nurse, you have limitless opportunities for professional and personal growth. Don’t view goal setting as simply another task you must complete. View it as a guide that helps your dreams come true.

Gertrude B. Hutchinson is an assistant professor at Russell Sage College School of Nursing in Troy, New York. Debra A. Wolff is president and chief executive officer of Nurses – Ready for the Next Step, author of Advancing Your Nursing Degree: The Experienced Nurse’s Guide to Returning to School, and adjunct professor of nursing at SUNY Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York. 


Benner P. From novice to expert. Am J Nurs. 1982;82(3):402-7.

Brown G, Leonard C, Arthur-Kelly M. Writing SMARTER goals for professional learning and improving classroom practices. Reflect Pract. 2016;17(5):621-35. doi:10.1080/14623943.2016.1187120

Buffington BC, Melnyk BM, Neale S. Career wellness. Am Nurse Today. 2018;13(6):20-1.

Cohen HA. The Nurse’s Quest for Professional Identity. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley; 1981.

Day-Calder M. How to set clear goals and achieve them. Nurs Stand. 2017;31(22):35-6. doi:10.7748/ns.31.22.35.s42

Wineman NM, Kinion ES. From neophyte to expert: The socialization of nursing faculty as researchers. J Nurs Educ. 1995;34(9):430-2. doi: 10.3928/0148-4834-19951201-08z

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