4 steps for taking charge of your career

First I wanted to be a minister, then a religion professor. Bypassing these ideas and my childhood aspirations to become a police officer, fire chief or cowboy (well, I’m sort of a cowboy, if you ask my colleagues), I became a nurse. But then I had to figure out what kind of nurse I wanted to be.

Nurses’ lives reflect a kaleidoscope of goals. As professionals, they have career goals; as employees, they have job goals. Some professional and job-related goals are congruent, while others conflict. They arise, collide or harmonize. Some goals are important, while others are ill-conceived. And if you don’t come up with your own goals, others will find them for you.

But the most satisfied nurses follow a deliberately planned progression of objectives organized around a realistic, long-term, career goal of which they are in charge. Here are four easy steps to becoming one of those nurses.

Step 1: Find your dream

All of us had an idea of what it is to be a nurse before becoming one. That was your original dream, and it’s a good place to start. Are you in that place? Or do you find that whatever job or role you’re in seems like a way station to something else — some job you have yet to conceptualize or that will indicate that you have arrived as a professional? You need to find out what that is because it’s your long-term career goal.

Ultimate career jobs used to be easy to find because they were limited to clinical, educational and administrative roles, mostly within a hospital, home care or school. But according to a 2013 National Workforce Survey of Registered Nurses, only 56% of American nurses worked in hospitals. The number of choices in settings and specialties has exploded. Nurses now commonly work within the post-acute industry, entrepreneurial realms and just about every business sector imaginable. And they are doing quite nicely and living their dreams. I know several nurses whose private companies gross more than $1 million annually, which means they are not only doing great things for patients and colleagues, but also are financially successful. With another nursing shortage looming, opportunities nurse leaders hadn’t envisioned are starting to arise. So scan the environment and dream up a way to settle on a realistic goal that excites you.

Step 2: Determine what you have to do to realize your target career job

What education, credentials, jobs and skills do you need? While achieving prerequisites may seem difficult, it’s actually never been easier. Opportunities for acquiring online degrees and certifications are more flexible than in the past, and you can participate at your own pace. Additionally, the nursing shortage will open up jobs to candidates who might not have qualified when there was a recruiter’s market. As in past shortages, organizations will be forced to train some applicants that may not have made the cut when there was an oversupply.

Step 3: Plan your career progression

Skills, expertise and experiences only come by working the right jobs in the right order. Many ultimate jobs can only be realized after getting experience at previous jobs. Figure out what those jobs are in the correct order, and you’ll be set on the career trajectory that will launch you into your ultimate job. And you may have to demonstrate the appropriate progression to the people who can ultimately hire you into your dream job. I’ll tell you how in a future blog on resumes and curricula vitae.

Step 4: Evaluate your progression and reevaluate your goal

As you continue through your career, assess your progress toward your ultimate career job. Is it still what you want? Is it still appropriate? If you answer yes to both questions, evaluate if you’re collecting the necessary qualifications. If your answer is no, you have some thinking to do. Hopefully you’ve acquired role models, coaches and a mentor who can help you reevaluate your goals and help you to find new ones.

A career without a long-term goal is like a ship without a destination. You can always change your destination, but you must have one or others will find one for you. Only your mobility should restrict your career choices, not other people. Take a long, hard look at what you’re doing and what you want to be doing. Don’t be afraid to change course any time during your career. Make sure you’re in a position that satisfies you, and you’ll contribute greatly to our wonderful profession and your own life as well.

To check out employment opportunities in your area visit Nurse.com/Jobs.

Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN
Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN, is founder and CEO of the Forum for Shared Governance and a former editor for Nurse.com. As a presenter at professional conferences, Hess often addresses participants on how to find the right job and steps for building a successful career.


  1. Avatar
    derek dicamillo January 21, 2017 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    Great article! Nursing is such a great field where you can do so many different types of Jobs! Your right, if you don’t take charge someone else will!

    I recently wrote on 7 characteristics of nurse leaders and management.

    Thanks for the information in definitely signing up for you newsletter.

    • Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN
      Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN January 22, 2017 at 5:49 pm - Reply

      Derek — Thanks for the positive feedback. I hope you’ll follow my future blogs as we together wade through both traditional and more controversial topics to help colleagues with their career progressions.


  2. Avatar
    Will Henss January 24, 2017 at 7:27 am - Reply

    Hi Robert! Thank you for sharing this good read article. This is really helpful not just for nurses but also for other people in different career. They can use these simple tips for them to become more guided in the path they chose. Good luck to all the nurses and our future nurses! I am looking forward for your next articles!

    • Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN
      Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN February 1, 2017 at 1:23 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your feedback, Will. You’re right, I was thinking of all healthcare professionals as I wrote this blog I have a lot of plans for the future. Working on evidence-based careers right now.


      Dr. Bob

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    Thora January 30, 2017 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for such valuable insights into the world of nursing. I am a career nurse. Got injured at work 5 years ago. Now I am approaching 62 and have not worked since. I am very concerned about my future. My desire is to embark upon the spiritual aspects of nursing. This has truly become my passion. My background is in Neuroscience Nursing at the bedside. I was also the leadership on my Unit for the NICHE program. Can you help me find my way since I am no longer able to work at the bedside.

    Gratefully, Thora

    • Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN
      Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN February 1, 2017 at 1:41 pm - Reply

      Thora, I would start by attending NICHE’s annual conference https://nicheprogram.org/conference/registration in Austin, Texas this April where you can network with like-minded nurses. There may be some career opportunities that you haven’t thought of. Meanwhile, I would search on the Internet for jobs and qualifications for parish nursing. The paying opportunities are spotty, but they are there. Finally, there are jobs available in long-term care and discharge planning that involve case management of the elderly. This sort of employment doesn’t involve the strenuous physical labor of direct patient care, but does involvement patient interaction that is so central to nursing.

      Good luck with these ideas. Please let me know how you make out.

      Dr. Bob

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    Barbara January 31, 2017 at 7:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this great article. It does remind me, that one needs a strong resume that includes past job experience, volunteer work and all education and certifications.

    • Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN
      Robert G. Hess Jr., PhD, RN, FAAN February 1, 2017 at 1:27 pm - Reply

      Barbara — I do agree that resumes are the foundation for getting a job. I plan to devote an entire blog to this subject in the near future and point people to our CE module on resumes at https://www.nurse.com/ce/resumes-the-recruiters-perspective.


      Dr. Bob

  5. Avatar
    zuzeka March 19, 2017 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    thanks for4 steps good people

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