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Set goals to propel your nursing career

By: Luis Figueroa, MSN, RNC-OB

Education, certification, teaching, and active association membership are keys to professional growth.

Many of us view nursing as a calling. We study hard, graduate, pass the NCLEX, get our first job, and earn required continuing nursing education (CNE) credit. But can we do more to progress our careers? Florence Nightingale once said, “Nursing is a progressive art such that to stand still is to go backwards.” We can all take steps—continuing our education, getting certified, teaching, and being active in nursing associations—to help ensure the profession continues its forward momentum.

Continue your education

As professionals, we should always look for opportunities to advance. If you’re a licensed practical nurse, go for your RN; if you have your associate nursing degree, go for your baccalaureate of science in nursing (BSN), master of nursing, or doctoral degree. This education strategy not only puts you in a better position professionally, but it also benefits patients. Several studies show that a high number of nurses with BSNs in an organization is associated with more positive patient outcomes.

Get certified

Whether you’re a medical-surgical, cardiac, or labor and delivery nurse, or if you work in a surgery center, you will find that nearly all nursing specialties have certifications. Being certified in your specialty distinguishes you as a competent professional. It signifies that you have the advanced skills and knowledge to provide quality, evidence-based care for a specific patient population. Certification also is associated with improved patient safety, higher organizational performance scores, and increased nurse credibility.

In addition to your nursing education, specialty certification typically requires that you have a certain amount of experience before sitting for the exam. Knowing the timeline for the specialty you’re interested in will help you plan for the exam. For example, check with the specialty association for classes that can help you prepare (and which can count toward your CNE requirements).


One of the best ways to demonstrate your level of knowledge and establish yourself as a professional is to teach. We’re taught in nursing school that education is one of the many nurse roles, but don’t feel limited to teaching patients; we can educate future nurses as well. As you gain experience, you can begin to teach. You may choose to teach in a formal setting, such as a school of nursing, or you may prefer teaching new grads in your hospital or orienting new hires on your unit. You also can teach within your community or at local or national conventions by giving poster presentations.

Teaching establishes you as an expert, demonstrates your level of knowledge and experience, and highlights your dedication to the role of professional nurse.

Be active in professional associations

Being an active member of a professional association can open opportunities to advance your career. You may already belong to a national or state organization, but many specialties also have professional associations that can help you stay current with evidence-based practice. They have conferences where you can get more education, present posters, or become a keynote speaker. As an association member, you can serve on committees or advisory boards, giving you the opportunity to provide input on issues important to you and your patients.

Climb the ladder

All this information may seem overwhelming, but if you take time to create a career plan for the next 5 years, you can concentrate on organizing and executing your goals. If your hospital has a clinical ladder program, take advantage of it to help you prioritize. Clinical ladders are multitiered systems, where each level builds on the previous one. Some programs require that you have some leadership experience (on the unit, in the organization, or at a national nursing level) to move higher up the ladder.

If your hospital doesn’t have a clinical ladder program, take this opportunity to lead the effort to create one. Clinical ladders recognize and incentivize nurses to develop professionally. They’ve also been associated with increased nurse retention and decreased turnover. In return for hospitals’ investment in a clinical ladder, they benefit from having a well-educated and engaged staff.

Endless opportunities

Nursing is an amazing profession with endless opportunities for personal and professional growth. Wherever you are in your career, you should be striving to reach your highest potential. When we’re well educated, certified in one or more specialties, develop each other through teaching, and serve as active members of professional organizations, our voices will be heard and we can help propel nursing for generations to come.

Luis Figueroa is an RN at Bon Secours Mercy Health, St. Francis Medical Center in Midlothian, Virginia.


Audet L-A, Bourgault P, Rochefort CM. Associations between nurse education and experience and the risk of mortality and adverse events in acute care hospitals: A systematic review of observational studies. Int J Nurs Stud. 2018;80:128-46.

Desai R, Coleman YA. The effects of a clinical ladder program on professional development and job satisfaction of acute care nurses. Int J Nurs HealthC Res. August 18, 2019. gavinpublishers.com/articles/research-article/International-Journal-of-Nursing-and-Health-Care-Research-ISSN-2688-9501/the-effects-of-a-clinical-ladder-program-on-professional-development-and-job-satisfaction-of-acute-care-nurses

Garrison E, Schulz C, Nelson C, Lindquist C. Specialty certification: Nurses’ perceived value and barriers. Nurs Manage. 2018;49(5):42-7.

Neira PM, Maliszewski B, Toledo R, Borries K, Baptiste D-L. Increasing the number of certified registered nurses in an emergency department: A cohort program implementation. J Nurses Prof Dev. 2016;32(5):262-4.

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