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Is your nursing job right for you?

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This article is brought to you in partnership with the Air National Guard.

One of the most frequent questions I get from new nurses (or those about to be nurses) is “How do I choose a specialty?” Ten years ago, the advice to every graduating nurse was to not specialize too early in your career; instead, work on a general medical-surgical unit for a couple of years, then decide what you want to do.

I’ve never really bought into that advice, and I buy into it even less now. For one thing, med-surg is its own specialty. For another, the majority of hospitals, research centers and clinics want to be able to train (or fine-tune, in the case of experienced nurses) their nurses in their own ways. Nowadays (says Grandma Jo, sucking on her dentures), new nurses are expected to start out in a specialty, switching later if they want.

How do you figure out where you belong? And, more importantly, how do you figure out if your chosen specialty isn’t the best fit?

Let’s take that second question first. If it doesn’t excite you to think about all the cool stuff you’re going to learn every day when you get to work, if you don’t perk up your ears when some doctor starts lecturing his interns on a tricky case, if you dread having to re-up a certification, you’re in the wrong place. Just because you earn money doing something doesn’t mean you can’t get joy out of it. Heck, if you’re spending 36 hours a week doing that thing, it had better make you happier, or at least not make you more unhappy.

In that vein, then, think about what excited you most in school clinicals. That probably won’t be the area in which you felt most comfortable; instead, it’ll be the one that had you tipping your head to the side and engaging new parts of your brain. Think of the most interesting problems you had to solve—that’s a good clue to where you might belong.

Remember which nurses and doctors your personality meshed best with. ICU nurses tend to be OCD, while rehab nurses are some of the most patient people ever. Like-minded people gravitate to certain areas of medicine and nursing for a reason.

Finally, list your own strengths and weaknesses. If anxious adults put you on edge, stay away from the neonatal ICU. If you like seeing the same patients every day for weeks and getting to know them, don’t work in a day surgery center—look for a job in rehab.

If you love getting an adrenaline rush and doing something different every day, consider becoming an Air National Guard nurse, where you could care for patients being airlifted out of disaster-stricken areas or save lives in a field hospital in the aftermath of a hurricane. The Air National Guard also affords the ability for nurses to choose from many different nursing specialties which could be just the path to take for a nurse who’s yet “undecided.”

Being open to the possibilities can prove handy in the long run. Just ask the neuroscience-certified nurse I work with who used to run a podiatry clinic!

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at askauntieaggie@gmail.com.
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