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Landing and succeeding in your first job

The first job is a journey all its own. Hospitals and clinics are in the business of landing the best candidates they can, so competition is intense. Even if you are one of those who gets multiple job offers at graduation, there’s still a learning curve once you get there. 

“It’s very competitive out there; everyone has a major demand for nurses and they are competing against one another. Not only are the nurses competing against one another but so are the companies,” said Neely Kimbral, director of human resources for The BridgeWay. “All organizations would like to have very little turnover rate and their positions filled, so they want to hire the right individuals as soon as possible before another competitor beats them to the punch.”

A nurse tends to a young patient at Arkansas Childrens Hospital in Little Rock.

We gathered some experienced nurses to address some of the more common mistakes first-timers make and also asked them to share stories of their own missteps and hard-learned lessons. Here’s what they told us.


Have a Game Plan

As in any profession, a person’s chance of being hired rises according to their flexibility. If you’re relocatable and open to any size town or medical system, you’ll have more options than if your job requirements are narrower. 

“There are some areas that are easier to attain nursing employment than others,” said Brinda McKinney, RN, MSN, PhD,  assistant professor of nursing and RN-BSN program coordinator at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, College of Nursing and Health Professions. “Nurses often start at the bedside then migrate to more specialized areas including specialty patient care, case management and infection control.” 

“In our rural area, it isn’t difficult at all for students to find a first job; new graduates are hired in every clinical area at Jefferson Regional Medical Center,” said Kathy Pierce, MNSc, RN, CPHQ, CNE, director of the center’s School of Nursing in Pine Bluff, “Although an experienced nurse is extremely valuable to an organization, many employers are willing to provide extended orientation programs for new graduates in order to allow them additional time to gain the confidence, skills and knowledge needed to provide excellent patient care.”

Other hospitals have trended away from hiring nurses right out of nursing school or hiring nurses below a certain degree level.

“There is a distinct advantage for the BSN nurse when applying to a Magnet hospital or a hospital that is seeking Magnet status,” said Barbara Landrum, PhD, RN, CNE with Henderson State University. “Having a majority of BSN nurses is a requirement of Magnet status. An associate degree is a fine way to start nursing, but it may be harder to obtain a position in a Magnet hospital.” 



The reason an adage like “It’s not what you know, but who you know” has been around so long is because it’s true.

“Networking is very important, but if a student waits until they graduate or until just before they graduate to start networking they will be behind,” said Pamela Ashcraft, PhD, RN, research and scholarship coordination and associate professor, University of Central Arkansas School of Nursing. “Networking should start early and grow as the student progresses through nursing school. 

“Let the people you network with know your interests, that you are seeking employment, whether soon or in a few years, and that you would appreciate them introducing you to their contacts. Once you have talked with them, follow-up by scheduling a time you can meet with them to talk about possible employment opportunities or to simply share ideas.”

Even brand new nursing students can network through campus social and medical organizations such as Nursing Student Association (NSA) or Arkansas State Nursing Student Association (ASNSA).  Schedule a visit with the campus career counselor, pick your professors’ brains and take advantage of opportunities that are right in front of you 

“Clinical rotations and job fairs are great ways to network, said Meggan Spicer, senior HR recruiter with Practice Plus a Baptist Health affiliate. “When on a clinical rotation for school, be sure to be professional and treat it like a lengthy job interview. You want to be prompt, always asking how you can assist, be respectful and polite, keep personal drama away from the experience and stay off your phone.  

“Job fairs are mini-interviews, so come professionally dressed, do not bring anyone with you, bring multiple copies of your resume on professional resume paper and be prepared to answer questions about your background and qualifications.”  

One secret of networking is it happens even when you aren’t actively engaged in it. People expect to see your best self at a job fair; but how you act when you think no one is watching always carries more weight.

“Students must always be aware of how they are being perceived by others,” said Debra Cote, associate professor at University of Arkansas-Little Rock. “Foul language and sloppy physical appearance in a clinical setting or while involved in community activities makes a very poor impression. A potential employer will write you off the list. Employers want to hire nurses who give the impression of being caring and compassionate towards patients and families, which includes behavior that is temperate.”

Nurses who work well with others are in great demand, so make the most of class opportunities, as seen here at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff.

“We explain to our nursing students that they should always be alert to the fact they are being interviewed, even while in clinical,” said Janice Ivers, RN, MSN, CNE, dean of nursing at National Park College. “The unit managers, charge nurses and staff nurses are all observing them and their interactions with other staff, patients and the multidisciplinary team.”


The Job Interview

The fact is, interviewing for the first job is always the toughest which is why it is important not to make things any harder by working against yourself. You cannot control what’s going to be asked or an interviewer’s subjective judgements, so pay particular attention to what you can control. 

Punctuality is, hands down, the most-noticed factor in a candidate. A rule of thumb says to arrive 10 minutes before the interview time which shows the interviewer you respect your commitments and gives you time to compose yourself. As the old saying goes, “Ten minutes early is on-time; on-time is late and late is unforgivable.”

“My three cardinal rules for nailing a job interview include researching the organization prior to the interview, being early and asking questions about the job,” said Lizz Garbett, RN, director of nursing at YouthHome. “Make it obvious that you know a little about the organization and their mission.

Nurses find rewarding careers caring for newborns at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff.

“Three things that will louse up an interview are being late, zero enthusiasm, bad grammar and misspelling on an application or resume. In fact, if I see your resume or application has misspelled words and bad grammar, I probably won’t even call for an interview. There are too many ways to spell-check for that to be on an application. To me, that is a sign of sloppy work.” 


Getting the job is just the beginning

Landing the first job is one thing, actually succeeding in the job that you’ve worked so hard for is another. Now, everything you do on the job is under scrutiny by your employer, your patients and the public.

“Personal behaviors reflect the person as well as the profession,” said Ivers. “Starting Day One, nursing students are taught to be professional – that you represent the profession and anytime you have your uniform on you are in a fishbowl, so to speak. What you say and do reflects the how others see nursing. It’s an honorable career and nurses are honorable people, so act honorably.” 

Employers expect new hires to have a breaking-in period, but when you’re in the health care business, mistakes can carry grave consequences. In situations where you’re unsure, remember to ask for help.

“New nurses sometimes think they have to know everything, but that is just not possible,” said Lisa Lightner, employment manager with Washington Regional Medical System in Fayetteville. “It’s very important that new nurses ask questions and are transparent about their strengths and weaknesses. They must be comfortable acknowledging areas of need and seeking guidance before making a mistake.”

Ashcraft added being aware of common mistakes is one good strategy for reducing the chances of committing the error. Medication mistakes, infection control and documentation snafus are among the top errors made by new graduates. Asking someone with more experience is critical, which is why many health systems will assign you a mentor; for those that don’t, make a point to find one yourself. 

“Being a new nurse is tough,” Garbett said. “You must have a good attitude, be self- motivated and ask lots of questions. Having a mentor is absolutely priceless. It really is a must-have for new nurses.”

“Mentors provide new hires with a partner who is a role model who is genuinely interested in teaching them and allowing them to ask questions in a non-intimidating environment,” Pierce said. “Mentors push new hires to be the best they can be and find opportunities for them to grow. 

As time goes on and skills improve, there remains the challenges of balancing work and professional life. 

“Leaving the job at the job is not entirely possible,” Cote said. “There will always be issues that require consideration. Social relationships can be developed at work and involvement with fellow nurses can be carried over to personal lives. The danger in this is if a falling-out occurs, the parties have to find a way to continue to work well together even though the personal relationship is over.”  

Nursing is a true calling and those who do it well put their heart and soul into their work. To survive long-term nurses need to develop coping mechanisms and interests away from work to balance the stress and loss that sometimes happens on the job.

“Nursing is a caring profession. It is an art and a science that tends to take a lot of time and energy,” McKinney said. “Nurses must purposely develop a healthy balance between work and life. Without a strict dedication to maintaining this balance, nurses tend to get lost in their work until they start to suffer from physical or mental exhaustion. 

“Nurses should determine what their best de-stressor is and commit to it regularly. The de-stressor activity must be healthy such as exercise, reading a book, coloring with children, yoga or meditation. Often, having an accountability partner helps the nurse stay dedicated to healthy destressing efforts on a regular basis. The nurse who maintains a healthy work-life balance is appreciated by patients, the nursing team, family members and the community at large.” 


Nursing Notes

“Choose an organization to work for that will support your career goals. Don’t miss the opportunity in interviews to make the organization sell themselves to you.” 


Joe Jimmerson, MNSc Director Nursing Quality & Magnet Programs, UAMS
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