It is easy to get away with not planning a career in nursing - employers are eager to recruit, job security is high and an established hierarchy provides a structure for promotion.
But by failing to think about where you are heading you could end up in the wrong place, says Cathy Taylor, a nursing careers adviser with the RCN career and welfare service.
'I get a lot of calls from nurses who have found themselves down a pathway without having planned to go there and find it difficult to change,' she says. 'Or those who take a job without thinking what direction it will take them in.'
Many nurses do not know where they want to end up and others want the option of changing their minds as they go along. So is planning a career pathway really a good idea?
'You can't map out the future in tablets of stone,' Ms Taylor admits, 'but it's good to have an idea of where you'll be in five years' time to prevent you from getting stuck down a pathway from which it is hard to retreat - or from burning out.'
The expansion of the nursing role, with new job descriptions being created all the time, increases the necessity for a plan. Having a plan can also help in other ways. 'Feeling more in control of your career can improve the quality of your whole life,' says Ms Taylor.
The first stage in the planning process is to improve your self-awareness. 'Ask yourself questions. Where are you now? Where did you start? What matters to you? Why did you become a nurse? These reasons might be different from why you are still in the profession,' says Ms Taylor.
Then use the answers to work out what you want from your career. 'Finding out what motivates you is important,' she adds. 'Knowing what you like and dislike about your job - role, employer, environment, terms and conditions - will help you to identify what your priorities are.'
Being objective can be tricky so Ms Taylor says that feedback is vital. 'That's when a careers counsellor can be good. This could be a mentor, manager, tutor or careers adviser.'
The next step is to link these findings to a suitable career. 'It is about matching who you are with the opportunities available,' she says.
Having political awareness - knowing about government developments such as The NHS Plan and Agenda for Change, for example - can add another dimension to planning your career. 'Looking at factors such as the ageing population and disease patterns can help you to pinpoint areas that offer job security and growth,' says Ms Taylor.
Technical advances also mean that you may have to learn new clinical or IT skills to progress.
Then do your research. The traditional career pathways in nursing are management, research, clinical specialty or education, but these are expanding all the time. Jobs that you never knew existed may now be available.
There is also variety in the choice of potential employers. Besides the NHS, there is the independent sector, the voluntary sector, independent companies, less conventional types of nursing, such as in the armed forces, and even the possibility of becoming self-employed.
The internet can be a valuable resource. 'There are some very good websites for finding out about opportunities, such as the NHS website, which lists all the GP practices and trusts in England,' says Ms Taylor.
There are also shortcuts on some websites to help you find out what is available. For example, Job Alert on Nursing Times' website will e-mail vacancies to you every week.
'You can use libraries to look up local charities and find courses through websites such as Health Professions Wales or NHS Careers.'
'But creating opportunities is also vital,' she says. 'Could you get a secondment or could you do some shadowing, get a job swap or job share?'
Networking is a great way to create opportunities. Job fairs, such as NT Careers 2003, and RCN forums and conferences, can provide opportunities. 'Job fairs are good, not only to find out what employers have to offer but also to tell them what you have to offer,' says Ms Taylor.
'Go prepared - think of four or five things you want from a job and devise a list of questions.'
This research process may uncover areas of nursing you had not previously considered. 'The independent sector may not have been something you've thought about,' she says. 'However, 25 per cent of nurses in the UK are employed there.'
There may also be opportunities within the trust where you work.
'A lot of trusts employ a nurse specifically responsible for recruitment,' says Ms Taylor.
Once you have completed your research you will be ready to develop your action plan. Set SMART objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound), and think about your short and long-term goals.
'If you decide you want to change specialty, what education do you need to undertake? Who can help you gain the experience you need?'
And make sure not to neglect the practicalities. Think about what resources you require - time off, money for study, support from your employer - and set a review date and deadline for securing these.
You should also use your action plan as part of your professional portfolio and keep all the information together in a folder.
'Planning a career pathway can help nurses feel confident and in control of their career and life, and show them they do have choices open to them and what those are,' says Ms Taylor.
Five steps to planning a career pathway
Improve your self-awareness - write a list of your personal strengths, skills, experience and priorities. Why are you nursing? What do you want from your career? Get feedback.
Be aware of the opportunities - keep up-to-date with developments in nursing and keep abreast of areas of change or expansion.
Do your research - use the internet, libraries, magazines and newspapers. You may discover new roles or areas of employment you were not aware of. Find out what training you need.
Create opportunities - learn to network effectively. Attend conferences, meetings and careers fairs, and go prepared with questions. Contact places that you might like to work at and tell them what you have to offer.
Develop an action plan - use SMART objectives and set short and long-term goals. Set a review date and deadline. Ask a manager, mentor or adviser for support.