CareerProfessional DevelopmentWorkplace Management

Plan a career, not just a job


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll

Whether or not you plan it, your nursing career and your life will happen. Even if you pay no attention to your career, it will mosey along.

But at the end of the day—at the end of your life—will the path you’ve moseyed down be the one you wanted to travel? Or, like Alice in Wonderland, do you just want to get somewhere—anywhere? Alice hopes the Cheshire Cat can tell her which way to go, but the wise Cat knows only Alice can determine that.

Real life is like that, too. Only you can determine the right nursing career path for you. Many nurses don’t take the time to create a career plan. Those who’ve just landed their first job may be breathing a sigh of relief, thinking they no longer have to worry about their career. But that first job is just a stepping stone in a long nursing career.

Nurses with young children may be tempted to let their careers take care of themselves while they put out more immediate fires—figuring out who’ll pick up Danny at day care or drive Sarah to soccer practice. And some experienced nurses may decide it’s easier just to put in their time and focus on the day when their can finally retire their scrubs.

But no matter what your circumstances, your work life eats up a huge portion of your day and your life. So you have two choices—just show up for work and put in your time, or create a career that enriches and fulfills you. If you choose the former, your job will manage you. If you choose the latter, you get to decide where your career will take you and how meaningful it will be.

Setting your objective

Few professions offer the flexibility and variety of nursing. You can work per diem, part time, or full time in all types of different settings.

So let’s look at some ways you can fine-tune your career. Grab a notebook and set aside some quiet time to think. Start by figuring out what your ideal nursing job would be. Look for clues: Do you enjoy reading murder mysteries and never miss an episode of CSI? Then consider a career as a nurse death investigator or a forensics nurse. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, perhaps you’d love the thrill of being a flight nurse. If science and research appeal to you, a career in clinical trials or research could be just the ticket. (See Six tips for exploring a new nursing career below.)

Six tips for exploring a new nursing career

The following suggestions can help you investigate career options:

  1. Network. Attend association meetings in the specialty area that interests you, and network with members to find out what’s happening in that field, what the trends are, and what educational opportunities exist.
  2. Go on an informational interview. Meet with a nurse who practices in the specialty area you’re interested in and ask a lot of questions. What does this nurse like the most—and least—about that specialty? What recommendations can she or he give you?
  3. Volunteer. Use a week of your vacation time to “shadow” a nurse practicing in your area of interest. This will give you an up-close and personal look at that career choice.
  4. Create a support group. Gather supportive friends and colleagues to cheer you toward your goal and hold you accountable for taking the necessary action steps. Avoid naysayers; choose only people who want the best for you.
  5. Find a mentor. A mentor—especially one in the specialty you’re exploring—can be a valuable guide who can support you and help you avoid pitfalls.
  6. Seek opportunities right under your nose. You can probably find nurses in other specialties in your workplace. Try those specialties on for size.

Take some time to brainstorm about a career that excites you. Finish this sentence: If no obstacles stood in the way, I’d love to explore a nursing career in _________. You’ll know you’ve hit on something if you feel a sense of excitement or butterflies in your stomach—and if that inner critical voice begins to second-guess you. Ignore that critic; you’re in charge now.

Here are some key questions to help you figure out your ideal nursing job:

  • What conditions or activities must you have in your career to feel fulfilled, happy, and challenged?
  • What conditions or activities would be nice to have in your career but aren’t absolutely necessary?
  • What obstacles are standing in your way?
  • What obstacles can be eliminated?

Establishing a battle plan

Having a goal is great—but it’s not enough. After setting your objective, you need to take action steps to make it a reality. Even if obstacles seem to litter the path toward your goal, you’ll spot opportunities if you keep your eyes open. Once you leap over, break down, or go around an obstacle, you may find yourself face-to-face with an unexpected opportunity.

So grab that notebook again and list the steps that will make your dream job a reality. Under each step, write down the date by which you’d like to complete it. Doing this creates the momentum that propels you toward your goal. You can achieve simpler action steps faster than more difficult ones, so tackle the easy ones first to create momentum.

Next, list obstacles to achieving your goal, along with the steps and timeline for overcoming each obstacle. Say, for instance, you’re interested in forensic nursing but the cost of furthering your education is an obstacle. Brainstorm some strategies and steps to break through that obstacle. Your steps might look something like this:

  • Research scholarships and student loans. Done by: _____.
  • Check into certificate and continuing education through the American Forensics Nurses or International Association of Forensic Nurses. Done by: _____.
  • Contact organizations and agencies that might be able to help fund your education. (For instance, Rotary International, at, offers scholarships in health awareness and education. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing, at, lists dozens of scholarship and financial aid programs. Even your healthcare facility may have money available for your studies.) Done by _____.
  • Explore online forensic programs that allow you to keep working while enrolled, such as Kaplan University. Done by: _____.

Calling in the SWOT team

Another helpful tool is SWOT analysis—a strategic planning aid used in the business world to evaluate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. To use it, write down your career goal (for instance, a certificate in forensic nursing) at the top of a page. Then divide the page into four quadrants—one for strengths, one for weaknesses, one for opportunities, and one for threats.

  • In the Strengths quadrant, list all the positive factors under your control. These might include work experience or a strong science background.
  • In the Weaknesses quadrant, list negative factors under your control—for instance, “no specific knowledge of forensics.”
  • In the Opportunities quadrant, list external positive factors that you can’t control but might be able to take advantage of, such as a community organization that offers grants to adult students.
  • In the Threats quadrant, list negative factors that you can’t control but might be able to affect to some degree. An example might be that no universities in your area offer forensic nursing courses.

You’ve just plotted out a specific, measurable plan of action. You know what strengths and opportunities to leverage—and you know the obstacles. Now decide on their action steps and their deadlines, and you’re on your way!

The path to an enriching career

Every nurse brings a unique set of skills and assets to her or his career. And every nurse deserves an enriching career. What will your career path look like? Simply decide what you want, create a plan, and take action. That’s no fairy tale.

Selected references

Borgatti J. Frazzled, Fried…Finished? A Guide to Help Nurses Find Balance. Borgatti Communications; 2004. Available at: and

Cardillo D. Career Alternatives for Nurses. Available at: Accessed February 19, 2007.

Orman S. The Laws of Money. The Lessons of Life: Keep What You Have and Create What You Deserve. New York, NY: Free Press; 2003.

Rimm S. How Jane Won: 55 Successful Women Share How They Grew from Ordinary Girls to Extraordinary Women. New York, NY: Crown; 2001.

SWOT analysis. Available at: Accessed February 15, 2007.

Joan C. Borgatti, MEd, RN, is the owner of Borgatti Communications in Wellesley Hills, Mass., which provides writing, editing, and coaching services. Her website is

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