When Should Nurses Continue Their Education

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The new year is approaching, and you may be considering advancing your degree as one of your goals for the new year.  As a nurse for the last twelve years and one who is halfway through a graduate program, I highly recommend it.  For you it may never be easier than now to advance your nursing education, but are you truly ready for this?  Will it be next year? Is this may be one of the new goals you have set for yourself?

I do have some thoughts on this subject that I want to share with you today. I am going to dispel some myths and interject my opinions on how some in the nursing profession tries to push nurses into higher education. I support nursing continuing education, but you should do it when you are ready. How do you determine if you are ready? I am going to discuss that in this article.

In my opinion and my own situation, I delayed going back to school based on anxieties such as I do not know if I can fit furthering my degree into my life, am I smart enough, can I afford it, and does advancing my nursing education even matter? Basically, am I capable and will it be worth it for me to do this? Can you relate to some of these same questions I have had?

Let's talk about these questions and dispels some myths about advanced nursing education while I am at it.

Have clarity – know what you want to specialize in. Honestly, this has changed a few times throughout my nursing career. This is why I am a big advocate for nurses having a few years of experience and preferably more before going back for an advanced degree. Many universities push their nursing students to go to graduate school immediately upon graduation from an undergraduate program, and I do not think this is in the best interest of the nurse. It may be in the best interest of the university for the nurse to continue paying tuition and possibly getting an advanced degree that may not be the best fit once they get out in the profession and get their hands (in gloves) dirty if you know what I mean.

For a couple of years, I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, but I have since decided to pursue a nursing leadership degree. There is a couple of reasons for this. One is, the hospital I am working for will pay for a leadership degree, but not to become a nurse practitioner. Also, I came to realize how difficult it was going to be to improve a patient’s health as a nurse practitioner by only seeing one patient at a time. Also, most patients are so used to the conventional way of doing things it is going to be very difficult to change them or help them “see the light” on how they can take control of their health. 

The last major reason is I would have to keep up on all the pharmaceuticals, procedures and all the stuff that comes along with being a competent practitioner and then try to create change on top of that.  No thanks! This is why many practitioners are unable to get outside of the box they and their profession has built around them. They do not have the time, or energy to get out of the box once they have met their other duties. Also, it can be very risky to go “against the norm,” even if it is the best decision for the patient.

Nothing against being a practitioner, I just found it was not right for my situation. Your situation may be and probably is different from mine. Your dreams and passions are yours, and I respect that.

I decided leadership was the best for me since healthcare needs leadership and education on prevention and empowering patients to take control of their health. You may think we do a good job on that already, but I would have to disagree with that.  I do not think we do a good job of educating patients on prevention and educating them in ways where they will take action. Why do you think they keep coming in for the same problems? As healthcare professionals, we like to throw the blame back on the patient (non-compliance, their genetics) when it is our health care system that is at fault and needs to change. This is where leadership and having the ability to see healthcare from a 10000 ft view comes into play.

In other words, know the change you want to make in the world and let your continued education equip you to go and do that change. Don’t let money be your top priority. Otherwise, you are going to get sucked into the system and look up one day and ask how did I get here and now I am in so deep I cannot get out.

Have experience – I alluded to this a little already. As a nurse, I highly recommend you get a few years of experience in the field before continuing your education, especially at the graduate level. Like I said earlier, I would have made the wrong decision for my graduate education if I had made it too early in my career.

Make sure you shadow someone in the area you want to specialize in, and you are not getting a degree because you think it will make you happy. If you are unhappy in your current nursing job, an advanced degree is likely not the answer to making everything better. You do not need another degree, or a position that you anticipate the degree will give you, you need to look in the mirror for the solution.

You may be stuck with a degree or a job you don’t want or like. Honestly, many doctors are in this predicament.  They became a doctor because it was what their parents wanted, or they liked science and said: “Hmm, I think I will be a medical doctor.” Or worse, being a doctor will make me a lot of money. Sadly, many of these brilliant people get into the profession of medicine, and they are stuck because it ended up not being what they thought it would be before they made the huge investment of money and time to become a doctor. They say, what would my colleagues and family think if I were to do something else. Or how will I pay for that luxury car and home if I do not have my salary? Also, the system has me boxed in where I have to practice medicine a certain way, and if I step out of that box, I am going to be criticized and threaten my license. Much of this is the result of doctors not understanding what it is to be a medical doctor before making the huge investment.

Have someone pay for it – originally, I wanted to do a nurse practitioner, but the hospital I am working for said they will not pay for it. This caused me to reevaluate why I was going to become a nurse practitioner. I thought about the tough job market, the lowish salaries for the responsibility required, I thought about how hard the program would be on my family, I thought about the tight box I would be required to practice in, then I thought about how the impact on people’s health would be limited because I could only reach one patient at a time.

My hospital said they would pay for my nursing leadership degree. Halfway through the program, I can honestly say I made the right decision. Every class is something I enjoy learning about. In my opinion, if you want to make a big change in healthcare, you need to lead people, initiate change, make new systems, and learn how healthcare works from a ten-thousand-foot view.

Money does matter, and if I can complete my education on someone else's dime, then that is an advantage in my book. I do not want to burden my finances with a lot of student loan debt.

It has gotten easier as I go – This one may surprise a lot of you, but as I have gotten higher in my nursing education it seems to be easier. Also, the instructors seem to respect you more and do their best to help you succeed. Also, I am learning the information and thinking about what I read instead of trying to memorize everything. Studies show whatever you remember the majority of it is gone within a short period of time if you are not applying it. So, do not worry about trying to know it all, nobody can know it all.  That includes your smartest doctors. You would not believe the ignorance I have heard from some of your “smartest doctors” on how prevention and food is medicine is downplayed in the clinical setting at times.  

I have the highest GPA I have ever had in an academic program, and I am not talking about barely getting an A. I am talking about the high nineties for final grades. It is so nice to take classes to learn and not worrying about how you are going to pass the test next week anymore.

Part of the reason it has gotten easier for me is I am genuinely interested in learning the material and knowing more instead of seeing the course as a hurdle I need to jump over in order to graduate with my degree. This is the reason you need passion behind your program of study.

So, what I am saying today is “You Can Do It.” My graduate degree has been much easier than I ever anticipated.  I am doing a thirty-credit hour nursing leadership program over two years at the University of South Carolina. I am taking classes thirty-five weeks out of the year. The rest I am off. It takes me on average about ten to fifteen hours a week to complete my coursework. Not bad, and I can work full time and satisfy my health and family needs.  It is about keeping balance in your life. Take that into consideration before deciding what you want to go to school for and do for the rest of your life. Think about the impact you want to make and what you want your life to look like in the future.

When considering your education make sure you have clarity on what you want the degree for and what problems do you want to solve. Make sure you get experience or shadow someone in that field, so you know what you are getting yourself into. If you can, have someone else pay for it, so you are not burdened with debt once you graduate.

Lastly, if you think you are not smart enough or you are going to have no life in order to get your graduate degree, I think you are wrong and that you should go for it. My anxiety while being in school has gotten better and better ever since I completed my ADN back in 2006. It only gets better, but you have to know what you want the degree for and don’t let it be about money or a certain position. Let it be about purpose and mission. Then you will never get burned out, and the money will come eventually if you are doing what you love and fulfilling your God-given purpose in life.

How about you, are you planning to advance your nursing academic education next year? Do you feel ready to do so, and are there any questions or concerns you have about proceeding? What are you planning to specialize in and what brought you to being passionate about this area of nursing?  Please share with me in the comments so I can learn from you and others can as well. 

Have a healthy week,

Nurse Brian