By E’Louise Ondash, RN, contributor
Carol Patterson, RN, BSN, MSN, had no grand career plan when she earned a degree in nursing in 1975. But after 35 years of experience, the teacher, bedside nurse, consultant, community volunteer, wife and mother has learned a thing or three.
“I relax best on the beach, where I frequently go to ‘balance’ myself, even during the winter,” she said from her Somerset, N.J. home. “I work, learn and read best outdoors, and my biological clock is in high gear from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., especially when my coffee cup is filled.”
Patterson is often asked to dispense advice to nursing students who are wondering how to choose their first job, whether to adopt a mentor and how to balance their academic, professional and personal lives.
It is possible to do, Patterson tells her students at Raritan Valley Community College where she is an assistant professor.
“Several of my second-year students went wild when I told them they can have that balance,” she said. “It takes some doing, and you have to think about how you allocate your time. I’ve seen many relationships hit the rocks because of the stress of going through a professional school. The key is to make your family part of your goal. For instance, let them help you study. Your graduation has to be a family victory.”
Patterson also is proud of the work she does in the Brain Trauma Unit at JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey.
“I’m very excited by my dual role of teaching and working at the bedside,” she said. “My teaching is enhanced by reality. By working in the trenches as a staff nurse, I keep in practice and know what real is.”
Here are Patterson’s thoughts on planning and maintaining a successful long-term career:
Q: Why is nursing a good career these days?
A: It is both flexible and diverse. The avenues of nursing are only limited by imagination. You can live anywhere in the world and develop the life you want. Love to travel? Work on a cruise ship. Love excitement? Work on a medical evacuation helicopter or plane. Love films or television? You can be a professional advisor. Love to share your ideas? You can publish books and journal articles, be a public speaker, and of course, you can teach.
Q: Why do graduates need a career plan?
A: To have a career you enjoy and value. Once you’ve identified what it is that gets you out of bed each day, plan a career to match. No one should feel they have to go to work. If you’re feeling burned out, it’s time to change your plan.
Q: How do you begin making a career plan?
A: As a student, explore as many different clinical specialties and facilities as you can as if you are shopping. Then define your values, beliefs and philosophy of life and design a career compatible with your needs.
Q: What is the current job market for nurses?
A: There are opportunities all over the country for many types of specialties, and predictions are that we’ll be facing an increasing shortage of nurses as America ages.
Q: What do you look for in a first job?
A: Again, think about your values and beliefs. Ask these questions: Does the facility you are considering have a philosophy that is in accord with your philosophy? Is this a place where you can grow and try new things? Is there a support system? Is there an "eat-your-young” mentality? If so, stay clear. Assess the environment and talk to nurses already on the job.
Q: Should nurses have mentors?
A: Mentors are invaluable; select them carefully. Look for people who can see their situation with realism but not with negativity. Ask yourself: Is this the nurse I want to become? You can’t achieve your best without surrounding yourself with people who support and challenge you.
Q: Why is it important to create a balance between work and private life?
A: My hospice clients have taught me that life is all around us and that in order to truly live, you must keep a balance in your career and private life. You must recognize the interconnectedness of the mind, body and spirit.
Q: How do you do that?
A: To burn-out proof your career, infuse humor and play into your life. Make time for planting a garden, jogging through a park, sitting on a swing or just blowing bubbles with a small child—whatever restores you as a whole person.
Q: What are some of the most common questions asked by new grads and students?
A: The two questions are: Where do I start my career and should I further my education? The first answer is that if you have a clear goal, do what is necessary to go in that direction. If no clear goal, get general medical and surgical experiences, then try specialty areas. Move around, spread your wings and find out what appeals to you. The second answer is a resounding yes, you should further your education. Nursing changes quickly and it’s essential to keep pace—both formally and informally. Read peer-reviewed journals and professional web sites. Attend conferences, conventions and workshops. These will enhance your knowledge and opportunities to network and will refresh the spirit of your career.
Q: What are the most valuable things you’ve learned during your career?
A: Listen to your clients and maintain sensitivity. Interpersonal skills are essential. Create bonds of trust by allowing people to know that you really hear them. These same skills will help you with co-workers as well.
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