Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, who joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1997, is the RWJF senior adviser for nursing. In this role, she shapes and leads the foundation’s nursing strategies in an effort to create a higher quality of care in the U.S. for people, families and communities.
Inspired by what she sees nurses doing all over the country, Hassmiller reflects on her own education and the benefits and challenges of advancing one’s education in this Q&A.
As you travel around the country for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, why are you inspired by the nurses you see who are seeking advanced degrees and higher education?
I am always inspired by nurses and all the roles they are taking on to keep America healthy and to care for those who need care at special times in their lives. I am especially inspired by those who are pursuing advanced degrees and higher education because they are driven by a desire to provide the best care possible to patients, families and communities. They know that they need to be as prepared as possible for the future, with our health system becoming more complex and technologically advanced, and our patients older and sicker.
Nurses who are pursuing advanced degrees are also getting the credentials they need to sit at policy-making and leadership tables. Nurses bring enormous value to leadership tables, including clinical expertise, understanding of operations, a broader healthcare perspective, decisiveness during crises, strategic thinking, and are naturally part of the team and collaborate well with others.
Nurses with advanced degrees will be able to play a larger role in policy formation and decision-making and help to build a culture of health, enabling everyone in our diverse nation to live the healthiest life possible.
I also know firsthand how difficult it is to balance a career with a family. I started nursing school at a community college, and I was able to pursue advanced education because I had a supportive husband and mother, who moved in to help take care of my children. It wasn’t easy, though.
Why did you decide to advance your education over the years, and how did you accomplish it? What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
My first job out of nursing school was on a coronary care unit. I saw the same patients returning again and again to the hospital, and I instinctively knew there must be a better way to care for them, but I didn’t know how. I figured it had something to do with prevention. I returned to school to find out. Once I earned a BSN, it opened up a whole new world for me in the community and the role of prevention — and eventually policy change — became an important theme in my work. I took care of new mothers and their babies in the community and children at a camp for children with diabetes. I returned to school for a master’s degree because I wanted to gain knowledge to provide better care and become more involved in prevention and policy, and I wanted to teach nursing.
I started teaching at the University of Nebraska and also at George Mason University in Virginia, and I really enjoyed it. When my dean told me I would need a doctorate degree to continue to teach, I pursued my PhD. But it wasn’t easy. I had two school-age children, and I worked full time. Sometimes I look back and don’t know how I did it. My mother and husband made it possible.
What words of wisdom can you share with nurses who are working full-time and considering going back to school to further their education?
Surround yourself with support. If you have a supportive family that’s in a position to help you, ask them. Talk to your work supervisor and ask about tuition reimbursement, compatible work and class hours, paid sabbaticals, forgivable loans for service and Web-based and worksite classes. Your work will benefit when you earn your advanced degree, and they should be willing to help make it easier for you to return to school. Seek out funding and scholarships. Find a mentor who can guide you and help to support you.
Do what you can. If you can only manage one class at a time, do that. It will take longer, but you’ll get there eventually.
Based on your own experience, what words of wisdom can you share with others about pursuing an advanced degree?