Let’s say you’re an experienced RN, and you’re having a moment. You’re nearing your ninth anniversary on a 48-bed, orthopedic unit at a well-respected hospital. You’ve got your foot in the door as a new nurse on this unit; and although you’ve been happy with your adopted specialty, you can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s time for something new.

Perhaps circumstances in your personal life have changed, and you’d rather trade weekend shifts for the chance to sit on the sidelines at your children’s sporting events. Maybe you’ve grown out of your current home and need larger quarters, your spouse’s job has taken an unwelcome turn, or you’re experiencing any number of other financial challenges that makes a higher salary appealing. Maybe the need for a change in nursing specialties is prompted by circumstances beyond your control: New healthcare delivery models have dropped the census on your unit, for example, and you’d prefer not to float to another unit or be called off work so often.

Or perhaps you’re simply ready to grow as a person and a professional.

Ample opportunity to change nursing specialties

It’s not unusual for RNs fresh out of nursing school to try out specialties as they learn what’s available and what might best suit their skill level at the start of their careers. But it’s equally common for mid- and even late-career nurses to take a new direction in their professional lives — sometimes several times over. And why not? Few careers offer as much variety in specialization as nursing. The Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing’s Future lists more than 100 nursing specialties, and that’s just for starters. As the healthcare industry increasingly looks to nurses to help transform patient care delivery models, new or expanded roles will likely emerge for RNs at the bedside and beyond.

Then, too, few careers other than nursing allow, and even welcome, a shift in professional focus without a return to school. If you want to become a particle physicist, you’ll need to get back into the classroom. But making the switch from, say, perioperative nursing to home health care? Your clinical and theoretical nursing education should readily transfer to other nursing specialties.

That’s not to say you can leapfrog additional education for every nursing specialty, however. If you’re interested in furthering your career as a nurse practitioner or other advance practice nurse, for instance, or you’ve determined teaching is your next best career move, you’ll need to complete a master’s program and perhaps a doctorate.

Some homework required

Even with your education and experience in nursing practice, it’s not as though you’ll be free of some homework as you pursue a switch in nursing specialties. Experts like Carmen Kosicek, MSN, RN, author of “Nurses, Jobs and Money: A Guide to Advancing Your Nursing Career and Salary,” suggest first taking a hard look at your needs, desires, and readiness. Conduct a thorough self-assessment. Ask yourself, for example, “What am I really passionate about?” “What kind of work schedule do I prefer?” “Do I need a salary increase or would I be prepared to take less in pay to gain more satisfaction in my career?” or “Am I technologically savvy?”

Carefully consider the motivation behind your desire for a change. Feeling as though you’ve reached a plateau in your current job is good reason to stretch for something more challenging; using a switch in specialty to avoid a colleague or situation with which you’re unhappy is not. Experts warn against using change purely as a means of escape. Be brutally honest with yourself here: If you have difficulty resolving conflict in your current role, for example, you’ll likely carry that challenge into a new specialty. Ask a mentor or your human resources group for guidance.

Follow your assessment with research into the specialty in which you’re interested, and explore the job market in your area. Review job descriptions, articles, and other online sources to determine whether you need to upgrade some of your skills or your new specialty requires professional certification (start with the detailed information on specialty certifications from the American Nurses Credentialing Center). Be sure to consider setting, too. Investigate whether your chosen specialty offers multiple practice setting options, such as pediatrics, cardiac care, and other specialties that offer both hospital-based and outpatient clinic opportunities.

Look for the right match

Most importantly, if you’re ready to change the focus of your career, be strategic about your choice. Think about not only how your personality traits and interests match a new role (or not), but also about the future prospects of the specialty you’re considering. Does the outlook for the specialty look promising, especially in light of rapid changes in healthcare delivery and models of care, or will those changes reduce opportunities for growth and advancement?

Specialties such as emergency nursing and critical care nursing are in high demand, but it takes a certain kind of nurse to find success in these areas. Emergency nurses must have the interest in and ability to care for patients across age spans with a wide range of physical, psychological, and social problems in time-critical situations. They tend to be extroverts who are open to new experiences, thrive on unpredictability, and cope well with the high stress, high noise levels, and high patient turnover of the emergency department. Heavily detail-oriented critical care nurses must, likewise, remain cool under pressure and be able to tap into deep internal resources to ward off the exhaustion often associated with working with high-acuity patients.

Nursing informatics, a fast-growing specialty that integrates nursing science with computer and information science, appeals most to nurses who, regardless of their clinical background, are drawn to process and analysis. Nursing informaticists are organized, critical thinkers — they enjoy exploring the why and how of things — and they no longer consider direct patient care a must-have for job satisfaction. Highly sought nurse practitioners, on the other hand, thrive with patient contact and enjoy enhanced levels of autonomy.

It might be challenging to fully appreciate a new specialty if you haven’t directly experienced it; so before you make a move, do some additional homework. Network with or shadow nurses who practice in that specialty, and consider volunteering in the specialty to gain additional insight and valuable experience.

Remember, too, that while change can be good, it can also be hard work, particularly at the outset. Moving from one specialty to another isn’t a simple detour on your career path; it’s a major professional shift. Be patient with yourself as you learn new things, but know that you’ll soon move from novice to expert in your new, rewarding field of expertise.

Ready to make a specialty switch? Eisenhower Medical Center has openings for RNs in emergency care, critical care, and a variety of other nursing specialties. Visit our career page to search and apply for your next job.

Originally posted on 17/11/2016

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