Jumping into something new is scary when you don’t have all of the facts. That’s exactly why choosing a career is so challenging. It’s not like you can just spend a few years in school, try out a job for a bit and jump to another if you don’t like it—well, at least not without more education and training.
Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is no different. We all think we know what an RN does, based on TV shows or our real-life interactions at hospitals or doctor’s offices. But what goes on behind the scenes? Is nursing school worth it once you’re on the other side?
What is it like to be a nurse? It’s not easy to get a clear picture of this career without speaking to those who’ve walked the walk. So to help, we rounded up nursing experts to tell you what they wish they’d known BEFORE becoming an RN.
Read their advice and find out a few lessons they learned along the way.
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1. How much critical thinking nurses do
“What surprised me the most when I began working as an RN is the level of autonomy that you experience—even as a new graduate nurse,” says Sarah Pruitt, RN and manager of clinical operations at Advocate Christ Medical Center. “A lot of people mistakenly believe that nurses are there to follow whatever orders the doctors give us. While we also do that, nurses must also thoroughly assess a patient or situation, critically think and then implement the plan of care.”
This skill is so important that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) highlights critical thinking as the most important skill RNs need for the job.1 “You will probably feel unprepared, but will soon realize that you actually know more than you think you do,” Pruitt says.
2. You can find day shifts—even as a new nurse
“I was led to believe everyone had to put in their time on night shifts before they could work on days,” says Brittney Wilson, BSN, RN and CEO of The Nerdy Nurse. “But that just wasn’t so.”
Though specific hiring situations will vary depending on location, there is no rule against new nurses finding their ideal shifts as soon as they begin.
“Many local hospitals also accept new graduates into specialty and critical care roles, which was something I was led to believe was not common practice,” Wilson says.
3. Hospital jobs are competitive
While some nurses might find work immediately in a hospital setting, others will need to broaden their horizons to other healthcare facilities.
“I didn’t know it would be so hard to find a job as a new grad,” says Ciji West, RN. West says people were talking about the nursing shortage with the general impression that it would be easy to get a job. “There certainly is a nursing shortage, but most hospitals have residency programs that only accept a certain number of new graduates.”
When you are a brand new graduate, keep your mind open to all kinds of jobs to gain the experience that will give you more opportunity.
“If you can’t get in the hospital right away, consider other facilities,” West says. “You may even find that you get paid more.”
4. Certain experiences matter more than others for the ER
If you love emergency care and want to work in a hospital, there are ways to be more competitive for those positions. “I wish I had known that I needed experience in medical surgical nursing before specializing in something like the emergency department,” says Mary Sweeney, RN, BSN, CEN, ONN-CG and medical consultant at Mom Loves Best. “I had been a tech in the ER all throughout nursing school and was desperate to be an emergency nurse.”
Med/surg nursing offers the ideal foundation to build on for emergency situations, Sweeney explains. “You need to develop that ‘sixth’ sense that tells you when a patient is going to go downhill, even when their vital signs say that they’re fine.”
“I always recommend that new graduate nurses gain at least a year of general medical nursing experience before going into emergency and critical care.”
5. Witnessing patient suffering is never easy
Even if you’ve never felt squeamish at the sight of blood or injuries, seeing people in pain can be much less clinical than you think. “I wish I knew how difficult it was going to be to see people suffering in physical, mental and emotional pain,” says Jeanne Dockins, RN, BSN and CNOR.
Consider your specialty with care, and give some thought to how you will react when your patients are hurting or dealing with grief. Certain types of nurses will deal with more severe health issues on their shifts than others.
“As a surgical nurse for over 30 years, I saw some horrific traumas which affected me deeply. Some things you can never un-see,” Dockins says.
6. How busy your shifts will get
“Nurses have so many different responsibilities and tasks that they are continually prioritizing,” Dockins says. “Nursing is one of the most demanding professions, but the rewards are indescribable.”
Though you might have shifts where even wolfing down a granola bar feels like a luxury, the intrinsic value in caring for people makes the chaos worth it. “Over the years, I have collected thousands of vignettes of love, kindness and compassion. These memories are forever etched in the memories of my heart. The rewards of being a nurse are priceless.”
7. How attached you’ll get to your patients
Despite all the dashing about, nurses still find time to grow fond of the people they care for.
“Before I became an RN, I didn't know how attached you actually become to your patients and their families,” Pruitt says. “Day in and day out you care for so many different patients, but there will be special ones that leave an impression on your heart.”
Pruitt says saying goodbye to these patients can be difficult.
“But being a nurse means that you know you made a difference in their lives, no matter how big or small.”
8. How to save your legs
“I wish I’d known about compression socks,” West says. Nurses spend so much time on their feet that it’s vital to make smart clothing choices. “Cute shoes are great, but compression socks are what’s going to save your feet and legs. Once I discovered them, my foot, leg and knee pain went away. And no one notices them underneath your pants!”
9. That nurses really do eat their young
This expression refers to a type of bullying in the nursing world where older, more established nurses treat their new recruits poorly, just for being new recruits. While you certainly hope it doesn’t happen to you, Wilson has experienced this trend and advises new nurses to be ready, just in case.
“There are skills you can learn to prevent being a victim,” Wilson says.
Make sure you understand your rights as a professional, and don’t put up with workplace abuse. New nurses naturally want to make a good impression and get along in their first jobs, but certain behaviors are never okay. Wilson offers a great article on resources and strategies for how to stand up for yourself.
Sweeney encourages nurses to be ready, but also not to expect bullying behavior from their colleagues. “There’s often a feeling of more experienced nurses eating their young, so to speak. While that does happen, more often than not, experienced nurses are willing and able to help guide new nurses when they are struggling.”
New nurses may often need support from more experienced nurses, and Sweeney emphasizes that they should feel free to ask for help. Everyone has been the brand new nurse at some point.
10. How easy it is to forget yourself
A sacrificial attitude is one of the greatest strengths of the nursing profession, but it can also be a detriment.
“People don't understand that nurses sacrifice eating and going to the bathroom to get work done,” West says, adding that nurses can sometimes sacrifice to the point of harming their own health.
West emphasizes the importance of passion in nursing. “Burnout is real. I certainly experienced it and wanted to quit nursing altogether.” West says a perspective on how nursing matters to your passion or purpose will help you stick with it in hard times. That, and equipping yourself with strong nursing self-care habits to make sure you don’t sacrifice your health.
“We take on a lot, and it's important to keep yourself grounded and take care of yourself,” West says.
11. How capable you can be under pressure
“The one thing that genuinely surprised me about life as a nurse was how well I worked under pressure,” Sweeney says. “Nursing is not an easy profession—it requires both physical and mental stamina to make it through those 14-hour shifts.”
If you love the work you are doing and believe in the impact it makes on every patient’s life, you might find yourself thriving even in a whirlwind of activity. “I surprised myself with how much I could accomplish in the organized chaos that the ER exuded, all while remaining calm.”
12. How many ways there are to be a nurse
“Most people think that being a nurse means wearing scrubs, starting IVs and taking care of patients directly at the bedside,” Wilson says. “But nurses work in so many different roles with varying levels of responsibility. From executives to software consultants to professional bloggers, there is no one way to be a nurse.”
As you begin your career, you might envision one path for yourself, but your skills and desires can lead you in different directions as you go. Nurses work in many different industries and settings. “You will never be bored,” Wilson says. “You will have unlimited potential for fulfillment.”
Are you ready to become an RN?
If you’ve been asking should I become a nurse? you know just how many factors go into the career decision. These insights from nurses can illustrate what becoming an RN really means. Do you think it’s the job for you?
“Remember that you will have some very challenging days both in nursing school and as a nurse,” Pruitt says. “But it is all worth it! Nursing is a calling. You see people at their absolute lowest and have the privilege to help them. It takes a special person to be a nurse.”
Is it hard to become a nurse? If you’ve been looking into nursing credentials or considering the path to become an RN, you might find all the different levels of nursing (and their requisite educations) confusing. Don’t worry, all those options make nursing one of the more customizable educations out there! Check out “A Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Levels of Nursing Credentials” to learn more about educational paths you can take. Or, if you’re ready to get started on the path to becoming a registered nurse, visit the Professional Nursing program page.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed April, 2020] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.).
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in August 2014. It has since been updated.