So you want to be a nurse, and you’ve even got a dream job picked out — all you’ve got to do is finish nursing school, and then you’ll start sending out the resumes. Right?
Smart nursing students begin preparing for the job search and marketing themselves to potential employers long before they have that nursing license in their hands, say area nurses who are involved with hiring at their institutions. But how? There are several ways.
First, look for opportunities to get work experience in the health care arena before you graduate. Student nurses can work as unlicensed nurses and nurse’s assistants, or in other health care-related jobs that don’t require a nursing license.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ office of nurse recruiting offers an eight-week summer externship program for nursing students that lets them observe working nurses and build experience in the hospital setting. Michael Waldron, 26, a senior in UAMS’ bachelor of science in nursing program, completed an externship in the intensive care unit last summer.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “I’d heard about critical care/ICU nursing but I had never experienced it. To be able to go there and do that was huge.”
Waldron said the hands-on experience also increased his comfort level with the personal side of nursing. “Now I feel very comfortable going in and talking to the family and talking to patients, especially in the ICU setting,” he said.
Ted Clowers, 23, also a senior in the BSN program at UAMS, did a nursing externship last summer as well. It was a great help, he said, just in getting him familiar with the hospital, with medical terms, and nursing practice.
“I also definitely think it will help me after I graduate, because I’m more confident in my nursing skills and how to relate to doctors and families,” he said.
Clowers also recently started working in a student position in the cardiac and trauma intensive care unit, and is involved in the UAMS chapter of the National Student Nurses Association. “That will help a lot too, as far as after I graduate — it shows I take initiative in nursing education,” he said. “I think it’s very important. Before I really got involved in the externship and ASNA, I felt I didn’t really have the experience to be well rounded. Just gaining as much experience in the medical field and the world in general is just huge.”
Heather Alverson, a nurse practitioner at UAMS, recommended that nursing students get into some kind of shadowing program or volunteer position so they can see what it’s really like to work in the medical field. There are a lot of programs in nursing school where students can work a few hours while they’re attending classes.
“Those are extremely valuable,” she said. “Getting hands-on experience, working in a clinic, that’s the most important part of nursing school.” Alverson said she “absolutely” looks for that kind of experience on a new nurse’s resume.
Because UAMS is a teaching facility, it gets student nurses from a number of nursing education programs around Central Arkansas, Alverson said. Her advice: treat it like a job.
“If you’re just remotely interested in working in that facility again as a professional, you want to really conduct yourself as a professional,” she said. “If you’re that aloof student in the corner who’s not engaging, everybody remembers that.”
Suzanne Harris, nursing director of inpatient and outpatient oncology at Conway Regional Medical Center, said staff members definitely remember the nursing students who make a good impression during their clinical rotations at the hospital. Student nurses need to conduct themselves as professionals, she said — showing up on time, dressed appropriately, and prepared for the work — and take the initiative to ask questions and be engaged.
“Clinicals are a time nursing students can start building their professional relationships,” she said. “Nurses and leaders are watching, because we know we will be hiring our future from those nursing students.”
She suggests that student nurses look for work as unlicensed nurses or nursing assistants while they’re in school. That way, she said, they become familiar with a hospital’s documentation system, administration and routines, and the learning curve is shorter.
At Baptist Health Schools Little Rock, students study professional development as part of their required coursework, said Sandra Kahler, a member of the faculty who teaches the course. They learn skills like conflict resolution, group communication, dealing with power and politics in the workplace, and informatics. They also learn employment skills, including how to write a cover letter and resume and put together a portfolio that showcases their skills and accomplishments. Students are required to wear uniforms in clinical areas, with appropriate shoes and name badges.
“We acclimate them from the time they come in our school,” she said.
Baptist also gives nursing students plenty of experience and opportunities to improve their job skills while they’re in school. Students in the RN diploma program are required to perform about 200 clinical hours, which provides hands-on experience the hospital environment. In addition, Baptist Health offers part-time job opportunities for junior and senior level nursing students. These patient care tech positions are designed for nursing students who want to work part-time in their field while they attend nursing school.
Kris Moody, a student in Baptist’s nursing school, said he quit a higher-paying job to work as a nursing assistant after struggling with his studies last fall. The extra hands-on experience has been very valuable, he said.
“It’s a lot better way of learning rather than just hearing it in the classroom,” he said.
Kristie Brockette, unit supervisor on floor 4A at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, started even earlier than nursing school, volunteering at Baptist while she was still in high school. After she completed her first year of nursing school, she got a job as a patient care tech in the hospital.
“You can learn from a book and study and take tests, but it’s a lot easier if you have the opportunity to apply that knowledge in a real-life setting,” she said. “I built my rapport with the 4th floor as a nursing assistant so when I got close to graduation, that’s where I chose to interview and fulfill the role of a nurse.”
And while nurses’ uniforms are less stiff and formal than in the past — most wear scrubs now — student nurses still need to be mindful of how they look, Kahler said.
“Your professional appearance is very important to the patient,” she said. “They want to be sure a competent person is taking care of them.”