Defining Your Nursing Career on Your Own Terms | The Nurse Keith Show, EPS 187

Just the other day, I was contacted by a nurse entrepreneur who described the many issues she was experiencing with her nursing career. One of the main things she was concerned about was that she only wants to work 30 hours per week and she’s afraid that’s not enough to continue to be successful. Although she helps to manage her husband’s business and has a history of success and accomplishment, it felt to her that she could never do enough. 

What I told that nurse was this: she needs to define her success and her career on her own terms. How many of us hold our success and our lives hostage because we think we need to do things the way “they” said we should. Just who are “they” and why should we listen to them anyway? It’s really all about defining your career based on your needs, your goals, the lifestyle and workstyle you desire, and what you want for you and your loved ones. Is it really that simple? 

Nurse, What Are Your Terms?

Nurses come in all stripes and colors. We have varying levels of skill, interest, expertise, and personal and professional focus. Some of us like acute care and some of us like being school or camp nurses. Others become flight nurses, and some choose the ICU, research, education, or ambulatory surgery. If we all took the same path and did exactly the same thing, where would that leave our illustrious and highly respected profession?

When I graduated from nursing school in 1996, my terms were thus: 

  1. I didn’t want to work in a hospital
  2. I would never work an overnight shift

What did my colleagues and friends tell me? They said that not working in acute care or med-surg for a year or two was “professional suicide”. Did I listen? Did I follow their advice? No way. Did I forge my own path? I certainly did. Has my career been highly successful? It sure has. 

So many nurses say that those who don’t work in the hospital setting aren’t “real nurses”. Is this actually true? Are school nurses who care for disabled children in need of trach care and diabetes management not real nurses? Is the research nurse who moves the body of nursing knowledge forward not a real nurse? What’s a real nurse, anyway? Can anyone truly define who that person is? Of course not — it’s up to each individual to define their own relevance and success. 

Choose your own career adventure
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Choose Your Own Career Adventure

When my son was little, those “choose your own adventure” books were pretty popular. In those books, the young reader could choose from various story lines for the action to follow, and based on what the child chose, the story would develop in a different way from having made another choice. The books offered different ways for the story to continue, and this empowered the child by involving him or her in making a choice about what could happen next. 

Your nursing career is the same. I graduated from nursing school and took a job in a community health center in the inner city of Holyoke, Massachusetts. There are certain things I learned and certain things I didn’t. If I’d landed a med-surg job, I would have accumulated specific skills and not others and would have missed out on the opportunities that my community health center work provided. The chain of events that led me down certain roads in my nursing career had a great deal to do with the choices I made along the way. 

The same goes for you, my fellow nurse. This adventure is yours to build and create, and in reality, the ubiquitous “they” have nothing to do with it. Sure, one choice won’t necessarily take you where another choice could have. Is that wrong? Of course not.

Every moment of every day involves choices. Turn one corner and meet a wonderful person and eventually marry them. Turn another corner and you find a new cafe where you end up meeting the person who becomes your next boss and a lifelong mentor. Things happen, and we have a certain amount of control over our choices and their consequences. But then again, every choice could have been another choice — and you know what? The choice is always ours. 


Make Your Nursing Career Your Own

In order to make your career your own and to define your “nurseness” on your own terms, you need to trust yourself. Of course, mentors and advisors can help you along the way — that’s what a career coach like me is for. However, in the end, you need to define who you are, what you do, and why you do it. Will every decision bear fruit? Will each choice manifest the golden life you seek? Not necessarily. I’ve made plenty of questionable choices along the way, but they were my choices to make and I made them with conviction. 

There are plenty of questions you can ask yourself about your nursing career and what you want out of it. Here are a few to consider: 

  • What kind of career do you truly want? 
  • What type of work environment suits you best? 
  • Are you an introvert or an extrovert? 
  • Do you prefer large institutions or small, intimate ones? 
  • Do you have particular clinical or non-clinical interests in relation to nursing and healthcare? 
  • What kind of hours and schedule do you want and need? 
  • What kind of lifestyle and workstyle are most comfortable and navigable for you? 
  • If you have a family, how will your career choices impact them? 
  • Are you making career and life choices based on potentially false or misleading messages from your parents or other figures in your life?
  •  Do you make career choices based on fear? If so, what are you afraid of? 

Your Choices, Your Life, Your Career

We all can make mistakes and miscalculations, and every choice leads us down a path that another choice might not. Yes, my choice to not work in med-surg after graduation precluded me learning certain nursing skills, but I was and continue to be totally OK with that. 

For the client I mentioned earlier, her desire to only work 30 hours a week on her nurse-run business may or may not bear the fruit she wants to harvest. However, she knows what she wants and needs and will do her best to create it on her own terms. 

The nursing process tells us that everything begins with assessment followed by diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Your career and life are no different. If you choose a certain spouse and it doesn’t work out, you may have to get a divorce and find someone new. If you choose a nursing specialty and it doesn’t float your boat, you’re probably going to want to change horses. 

In the end, the onus is on you to choose where you go and how you do it.

Choose your mentors and teachers carefully. Avoid naysayers and those who like to throw wet blankets over hot ideas. Accept that some choices will fail and others will lead you to your goals. Also know that sometimes the goals we choose morph into something entirely different than what we originally set out to do. 

These lives and careers that we create are of our own making. We can be Don Quixote and chase false enemies. We can be Sisyphus and push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again after much effort. Or we can be Demeter, the goddess of harvests and fertility who creates the bounty of the earth and soil. 

Gather those around you who can support your dreams, challenge you, hold you accountable, and help you to make the choices that are truest to your heart’s desire. The adventure is yours to create, and the fruits of your labors yours to reap and enjoy. 

This episode of The Nurse Keith Show is brought to you by Rasmussen College and their online RN to BSN nursing program, which is designed for working registered nurses who want to earn their BSN while balancing family, work, and school.

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Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC

In case you didn’t already know, Nurse Keith is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, keynote and motivational speaker, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses.

From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram—as well as at

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