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Advancing your career: The how, the why and the when

stocksy | Eduard Bonnin

stocksy | Eduard Bonnin

Dear Sean: How do you decide if you should—or when to—take the plunge into advancing your degree and career? Several of my fellow coworkers and I are currently pondering this.

Great question! I love this question because I had to answer it several years ago for myself and my own career.

It seems career advancement is on a lot of nurses’ minds these days. I’m not sure why now more than before, but I think it’s great. There truly are no disadvantages to furthering your education (no, financial burden is not a good reason, since most of us have that already!).

I’ll break it down for you. First, let’s talk semantics. Advancing your degree and advancing your career are not synonymous. You can advance your career without necessarily advancing your degree. You can be promoted within your unit or your organization. Becoming a charge nurse is a promotion. A team leader is a promotion. A lateral move to another department can be considered a career advancement if it improves your exposure for other opportunities.

That said, here are the two main questions to ask yourself about advancing your degree.

1. Should I advance my degree? This is pretty simple in my mind. I’d have to think hard about a scenario where the answer would be no. It’s always yes. You should always pursue advancing your degree. The doors that can and will be opened for you are endless.

Here’s the ultimate reason for advancing your degree: You can’t predict the future. The job and scenario you are currently in most likely won’t be the same in five or 10 years. What will you be doing five or 10 years from now? Do you plan on retiring in the position you currently hold? Do you see yourself doing this job for the remainder of your career? Even if you do, in 10 years you will be a different nurse. The senior staff. And in most cases your salary will have a “cap.”

Our profession is evolving. More and more employers are expecting, if not requiring, higher education as a qualification for salary advancement. Many jobs out there are requiring higher education as a minimum requirement. So advancing your degree will ensure you stay ahead of the career curve.

The better question to ask is: What degree should I pursue? And that’s a blog post for another time. My suggestion is to think about where you want to end up. What makes you happy, not what makes you the most money.

2. When should I advance my degree? Another simple question for me. There is no wrong time to start as long as you’re willing to put in the work, sacrifice the time and have made the proper financial plan.

The urban legend about needing a certain amount of “experience” before pursuing your advanced degree is just that—an urban legend. I know that many years ago, CRNA programs required two years of critical care nursing experience, but nowadays, that’s not the case. You can apply as early as you want.

Remember, you can always apply to a certain program and start taking prerequisite classes on your own, even though you’re on a waiting list. There are a ton of options out there. You have a plethora of online programs, hybrid online/traditional programs as well as cohort programs out there. You are only limited by your effort.

Ask around. Ask coworkers. Do you have an end goal with a specific role or job? Then go talk to someone who is doing that job.

Be prepared to plan ahead. The financial burden will never go away completely. You can always stretch a two-year program into five years by taking one class at a time. You have buyback programs—financial assistance programs with employers where you sign a contract to work so many years and they will pay for a certain percentage of your tuition.

You’ll have to do your homework, but at the risk of repeating myself, you are only limited by your effort.

We are living in a very exciting time in the world of nursing. Higher education is being supported and promoted from all aspects of our profession. You need only express the interest and be willing to put forth the effort. It’s a long and arduous journey, but I’m living proof it’s possible and completely worth it.

Best of luck!

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