Lessons Learned

Updated | Published

Advice to nursing students from a retired nurse on how to survive and prosper after the realities of nursing school.

Specializes in Home health, clinical, med surg, quality assurance. Has 27 years experience.

Believe it or not, nursing students, there IS life after nursing school, and what a ride you’re about to have!  Yes, there will be bumps and maybe even a small crash or two along the way, but what an amazing career path you have chosen - or perhaps the nursing career has chosen you!  

Speaking to you as a retired nurse, it’s pretty easy to look back and see what worked and what didn’t; but you sure don’t have that luxury when you’re in the middle of care plans and med passes and dressing changes and cramming for the NCLEX; you live in the moment and do the best you can just to get by one more day.  But let me give you this note of encouragement:  If I did it, so can you!! 

I didn’t even start nursing school until I was well into my 30s; I was 40 when I graduated.  While I was in school I had two small sons, one still in diapers; I was in school three days a week; worked part-time on my off days; worked at the hospital at the end of the day after classes. I had to drive over forty miles to get to school.  (Oh goodness, this sounds like an old parent telling about walking uphill to school barefooted every day in the snow every day of the year!  It wasn’t quite that bad!)

Every single day I wanted to quit. I would get nauseated when I pulled into the hospital parking lot for clinicals.  The ONLY reason I kept on going was that if I quit, I had to immediately start paying back my student loans, which seemed as much as the national debt.  It was no picnic. There were days I hated school; I dreaded showing up for class; I dreaded showing up at the hospital for my shift as a nurse tech. I was falling short as a mom and wife; I was falling short as a student; I was falling short of the goals I had set for myself to be a caring and competent nurse.

But after a quick cup of strong black coffee in the student union with my study group, I was revised and rejuvenated and ready to tackle the world, at least for one more day, one more class, one more care plan. I strongly urge you to join a study group, a support group; it makes all the difference in the world if you are with the right people.  It’s so easy to suffer from self-defeat if you don’t have a good support system from those who understand exactly what your life as a student nurse involves.

Utilize every opportunity that your instructors make possible for you; as much as you might be hesitant about some of the more invasive procedures, I promise you that the more you do now, the better equipped you’ll be when you do get that hard-earned diploma in your hand.  You can then walk into your new job with a pocket full of self-confidence on your first day.

Your best source of knowledge is your patient.  Listen carefully to what they tell you, but listen even more carefully to what they don’t say.  Many times you will play the role of detective.  The CNAs can probably tell you more about the patients than the doctors; the CNAs are an invaluable resource and you will be wise to treat them with all the caring and dignity they so deserve, for theirs is the hardest job, yet they cheerfully show up because they love their patients.  Learn that lesson.  

And that math for meds class that you hate?  Learn it inside out, for not only will you learn to calculate drip rates, but you will also learn a level of critical thinking that might save a patient’s life.  If you can apply everything you learn in anatomy and physiology to med-surg, you will be equipped to confidently formulate a care plan that will ensure quality care for your patient. You won’t get many chances to prove to the doctors that you know your stuff; so know your stuff. Don’t just memorize information for the sake of passing a test; keep in mind that the information you have in front of you while in school will be information that you will build on the rest of your nursing career.  

Nursing school is merely the springboard of the rest of your education as a medical professional, for you will learn every single day on the job.  The first nurse manager I worked under had a rule that we would celebrate our mistakes, even though that celebration more than likely always ended up with an incident report for something as simple as dropping a pill on the floor.  But I can promise you that when you acknowledge - and celebrate - your mistakes, you will likely never make that same mistake again.  You celebrate because it is a passage to becoming a better nurse.  Someday you will look back and see the reason for every care plan you had to write up, every med card you were required to prepare.  Your instructors are not being overly hard on you; they are preparing you for just a glimpse of the reality of life as a licensed nurse. 

Be very proud of that hard-earned license and never ever put it in jeopardy.  Your job, your calling as a nurse, is one of the noblest professions. 

Congratulations on a job well done!

Written by Joy Mathis Chadwick, RN (Retired)

tnbutterfly - Mary, BSN, RN

Specializes in Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg.

Thank you for sharing these wonderful words of wisdom and encouragement!

Happily Retired

Specializes in Home health, clinical, med surg, quality assurance. Has 27 years experience.

Best of luck on your journey!  

spotangel, DNP, RN, NP

Specializes in ED,Tele,Med surg, ADN,outpatient,homecare,LTC,Peds. Has 32 years experience.

Got miles to go before I hang up my hat er scrubs—— but I Am loving it!

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych. Has 20 years experience.

What a great article! I’m a retired RN too and can relate to everything you’ve written here. You just put it more articulately than I can. 😊

Happily Retired

Specializes in Home health, clinical, med surg, quality assurance. Has 27 years experience.

I loved being a nurse, but I surely do love retirement!  I will probably never miss those early morning hospital rounds!  Thanks for your comments!!


Michele B

Specializes in Behavior Health, Healthcare IT, Telemedicine, Cons. Has 42 years experience.


Thank you so much for writing and sharing this article with nursing students. I wish there had been this type of forum when I was a student. I highly encourage all schools to have a mentorship program to help the nursing students prepare for what they will be experiencing, emphasize the importance of getting as much experience when they are in school and to really research the type of specialty that may suit them the best. The first job out of school often sets the tone for how a nurse will choose to practice so it is even more important that "we don't eat our young".  Thanks again, I enjoyed your thoughts and hope others will think about ways to give back.

Happily Retired

Specializes in Home health, clinical, med surg, quality assurance. Has 27 years experience.

Things have changed so much since I was in school; we didn't even have the luxury of internet - that's so hard to even imagine in this day and age!  Thank you for your thoughts - I agree with every word, especially about "setting the tone" and "not eating our young".  

I graduate nursing school in a couple of months. Thank you for sharing this article. These are words I needed to read.

Happily Retired

Specializes in Home health, clinical, med surg, quality assurance. Has 27 years experience.

Best of luck to you in your new career!  

I start my accelerated program next May. I can already feel the panic over the unknown starting to nip at my ankles. I am tempted to print this out and keep it somewhere I can refer to when I, too, start to feel nauseated after pulling into the hospital for clinicals. Many thanks for this awesome perspective!