4 Stages of Being a Nurse – and Tips to Navigate Them

Nursing is a journey, one with many rewarding moments and difficult lessons. As a nurse, you are likely to grow and change as your career develops. In my experience, there are several stages that nurses go through – each as exciting as the next.
nurse being mentored by more experienced nurse

I will never forget being a new nurse. The first time I entered a patient room as the nurse, the first time I had to call a physician, the first time I had a patient pass away. I can remember all these firsts and the flood of emotions that came with them. But what is most impactful for me is the growth I have seen in myself. There are many other experiences, besides the major or exciting ones, that a new nurse goes through that will impact their career forever. For me, those moments are when you learn the most, and those are the moments I love teaching about.

One of my favorite things about my job is being a resource and answering similar questions that I had as a new nurse. Everything from “how do I complete my first nursing resume?” to “is doing this procedure within my scope of practice?” These questions are expected and necessary for safe practice.

Stages of Being a Nurse

The best advice I can give to any nurse, especially a new one, is ASK QUESTIONS!

Nursing is a journey, one with many rewarding moments and difficult lessons. As a nurse, you are likely to grow and change as your career develops. In my experience, there are several stages that nurses go through – each as exciting as the next.

While being a nurse is a wild ride, it gives us the most remarkable experiences and opportunities.

New Nurse

Excited, eager, nervous. Do those words sound familiar? New nurses are proud of the new initials behind their names and are ready to jump into the field. It is enticing to take on everything, from extra shifts to multiple jobs. Before filling up every hour of your schedule, take a moment to breathe! This initial stage is crucial because you build habits that will stick with you for the rest of your nursing career. Spend time learning (not that learning ever stops), improving your skills, and yes, ask questions!

Tip: Get comfortable asking questions. 

Nurses in every practice setting have opportunities to ask questions. Nurses are fortunate to work closely with interprofessional colleagues who can add to our learning. Never feel embarrassed about asking questions because every answer will provide you with more crucial knowledge and add to your nursing toolbox. Always remember that nursing judgment is developed through experience and that this expertise can save patient’s lives.

Gaining Experience, Gaining Confidence

While you do become more comfortable in your nursing role with experience, some things are always challenging. It’s never easy to handle incivility, workplace violence, and poor patient outcomes. During this stage, you are going to have good days and bad days. As you gain confidence, you are figuring out how to manage your schedule to fit into your work/life balance, find a work culture you can thrive in, and maybe settle on a specialty. In this stage, you will find your voice as a nurse and use it to advocate for your patients – and yourself.

Tip: Develop healthy habits. 

Now more than ever, it is crucial that you develop strong, healthy habits such as a regular sleep schedule, a healthy diet, and managing stress. Nursing is highly emotional and stressful, so it is necessary to figure out an effective way to manage these emotions. Try apps like Keener, a self-care app just for nurses. And if you reach a point where you need help, don’t go it alone. Always ask for help and support when you need it.

Growth and Goals

Professional development is a career-long journey that may include reaching a point in your career when you want to change things up. Maybe you want to seek a leadership position or leave your specialty to do something different. Aiming for a management position, getting certified in a specialty, or going for advanced degrees are all common goals for nurses at this stage (but if you do them sooner, that’s okay too!).

Tip: Set professional goals.

During this stage, you have likely narrowed down what path you might like to take in nursing. You have navigated the challenges and established a healthy work-life balance. Take time to develop realistic goals for your career and professional development, such as going back to school or taking leadership training to land a management position.

Mentor

Mentorship in nursing is critical to the advancement of the profession. Learning firsthand from experienced nurses is one of the best ways to learn and grow. Many seasoned nurses have a strong desire to ‘give back’ to the nursing community and choose to become a mentor. It provides the opportunity for them to share their knowledge and wisdom while providing critical support to nurses who need it. Nurses at any stage benefit from having a mentor, and those who go on to become a mentor themselves report great satisfaction in the experience.

Tip: Identify your strengths and discover ways to use them to give back. 

Get involved in your professional association to learn about mentoring and nurse support opportunities. Do you have leadership experience? Represent nursing and volunteer to be on a local board or committee. Are you a specialist in a practice area? Get involved in the specialty organization. Other ideas include writing articles for nursing blogs and journals, teaching, and precepting.

Every nurse’s journey is different, filled with unique experiences and memorable patients. But as Patricia Benner noted, we all go through stages as we transition from novice to expert. What’s important is that we take time to appreciate each stage we are in and recognize the contributions we make through every step of our nursing careers.

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