It is a nerve-racking time. The transition from studying to working is fraught with uncertainty and new pressures. It is also a time of great opportunity but the choices you make can seemingly affect your whole career.
In recent years, however, the initial problem has changed from ‘what do I want to do in my first job?’ to ‘am I going to get a job at all?’.
Ben Mott, chairperson of the RCN’s Association of Nursing Students and a student member of RCN Council, who qualified as a nurse last year, says: ‘I ended up working in the job I wanted but many of my colleagues were taking jobs just to get a job.’
While job prospects might have improved, there’s no room for complacency. In order to get a head start in the jobs market it is a good idea to have some idea of how you would like your career to develop, and to take advantage of the opportunities you come across during your course.
Neil Davison, a lecturer in nursing at the University of Wales in Bangor, says: ‘Often students don’t think about the future until near the end of their course. They’ve got to plan carefully early on – you can’t fall into a job by chance. If you want a career you have to sit down early and do some planning.’
Neil advises that one of the best ways to get a head start is to make the most of your placements. ‘Right from the word go, on a placement, nurses are essentially advertising themselves – other staff and the employer will be looking at them.’
But he warns: ‘Placements are about not getting obsessed about “where I’m going to be” but they are about recognising that you can work out where you see yourself fitting in.’
Chris Pearce, a former director of nursing and now a life coach with www.lifegoalspecialists.co.uk, suggests that getting some general ward or community experience is preferable to specialising from the start. ‘One year of general experience will build so much confidence that it will lead on to specialist nursing. Specialist nurses are growing in all fields of nursing and there are many opportunities. But basic experience is essential,’ he says.
Even when nurses do find an initial job, Neil warns that it’s not always the right one. ‘New nurses often say: “I’ve found a job but it’s not what I would have chosen in an ideal world. How do I get to that ideal job in the next few years?”.’
Ben urges nurses not to be overambitious. As a mature student with experience of social care, he left university for a band 7 post as a registered nurse manager of a new 45-bed dementia service. He says that one of the biggest challenges he has since faced is ‘hacking his way’ through regulations from the Commission for Social Care Inspection.
‘It’s been a very steep learning curve – and some days I despair – but we’re getting through it,’ he says.
Gill Robertson, a student adviser at the RCN, says that early period of work is stressful due to the move from studying to full-time – and often shift – work.
‘It’s quite a responsible job, so that responsibility falls heavily on your shoulders. Finding your feet can be difficult because people are so busy on the wards. The biggest stress is people in the clinical team assuming newly qualified nurses know everything.
‘On the first day you have to concentrate on a different level and you go home shattered. We advise newly qualified nurses to make some time for themselves and their families. It’s no different from new jobs anywhere but it feels like that because the decisions can be life and death.’
Gill points out that support will be there for those who need it in the form of mentors, or even family and friends. ‘As a newly qualified nurse you need somebody to go to and say “I don’t know how to do this”, without being seen as someone in need of help.’
Despite the potential for trauma, there is plenty to be optimistic about, she says. ‘The positives are you’ve qualified and thrown your graduating cap in the air.
‘You’ll find that nursing is a great career – there are so many opportunities. It doesn’t matter what your first job is as you’ll learn so much, which will stand you in good stead for your career.’
Making strides – but still learning
Staff nurse Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden (pictured right with staff nurse Kate Sibley) works in theatre recovery in the south-west of England but memories of her transition from student to nurse are still vivid.
‘I remember my first day at work as a registered nurse – my hands were shaking I was so nervous,’ she says. ‘Nothing can prepare you for being completely responsible, and it takes time to trust yourself enough and have the self-confidence. There is definitely a bridge to cross in terms of taking responsibility. I’ve made big strides but I’m still learning.
‘Luckily I had worked there as a student so they knew me. I’ve been immensely lucky in that where I work there’s a really good support package.
‘I’m a long way from being in my ideal nursing job but I’m working towards it. I have a career plan in my head and on paper.’
Arabella points out that from her first year as a student she had a clear idea of where she wanted to be but, over time, it changed. ‘However, I’m glad I had those original goals about where I wanted to work, the skills I wanted to get and the peopleI wanted to work with,’ she says.
Key points for your career planning
• Plan your career early on in your education but update these plans as your aspirations and interests change
• Make the most of all opportunities and experiences while you are studying in order to get you the job you want and deserve
• Remember, there are interesting specialties and areas of practice that you will not get to experience as a student
• Completing your nursing education won’t arm you with everything you need to know for your first day’s work. But your new colleagues should make allowances for this – after all, they were once starting out like you
• If the going gets tough, seek advice and support from mentors, colleagues or even friends and family
• Your first job might not be your dream nursing role but all experience is useful for developing skills that will help you achieve what you really want