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Plan your career

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It’s never too early to start preparing for your first job - spotting opportunities and planning your route to the specialty and the career you desire. Rob Finch talks to those who’ve been there

With the jobs market getting more and more competitive, it’s a good idea to try to get a head start. To do that it makes sense to have some sort of plan of how you want your career to develop and how you can make the most of the opportunities that come your way during your course.

Neil Davison, a lecturer in nursing at Bangor University, says: “Often students don’t think about the future and being a registered nurse 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.”

He advises that one of the best things you can do to get a head start is to make the most of any placements: “Right from the word go, on a placement, nurses are essentially advertising themselves - other staff and the employer will be looking at them,” he says. Take care though, he warns, and make sure you know what purpose placements can serve: “Placements are not about getting obsessed with ‘where I’m going to be’ but 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, suggests that often it’s better to get some basic ward or community work instead of trying to specialise from the start.

“That one year of general experience will build so much confidence that it will lead on to specialist nursing,” he says.”Specialist nurses are growing in all fields of nursing and there are many opportunities. But basic experience is essential.”

Mr Davison warns that a nurse’s first job is not necessarily 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 Mott, RCN student member of council, urges nurses not to be overambitious. As a mature student with experience of social care, he left university for a band 7 post as registered nurse manager of a new 45-bed dementia service run by Lancashire County Council. He says one of the biggest challenges he has 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, identifies early periods of work as extremely stressful because of 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 presuming that 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 time for themselves and their families. It’s not different from new jobs anywhere - but it feels like it because the decisions can be life and death.”

Ms Robertson points out that support is 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.”

Key points for career planning

  • Plan your career early on in your education, and update plans as your aspirations and interests change
  • Maximise opportunities and experiences to help you get you the job you want and deserve
  • Remember that there are specialties and areas of practice that you will not have experienced as a student
  • Completing your education won’t arm you with everything you need to know for your first day’s work. However, your new colleagues should make allowances for this - they too 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 job. However, all experience is useful for developing skills that will help you achieve your ideal post
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