After five years at the bedside working in a Trauma ICU, I look back fondly on my time in nursing school. I recall walking into the Trauma Unit as a practicum student, listening to report on a young gunshot wound patient, and feeling terrified. Modeling myself after the strong nurses I came to know during those early days has shaped my entire career. Despite my positive experience, I could go back and give my student self a few pieces of advice. Here are four things I would want to know if I were a student today:
TIP #1: Don’t Get Bent Out of Shape About That “B”
Nurses working in an ICU often have a reputation for perfectionism. Many memes on social media cast the ICU nurse as “OCD”. This stereotype holds true for my experience as an ICU nurse but it was true of me in school as well. I remember agonizing over my grades. My classmates and I were competitive with each other over who made higher scores. Now I recognize there was no reason to lose a minute of sleep. Nursing school is not supposed to be easy and making a “B” shows you have a grasp on the concepts with a little room to grow. This is a great place to be as a student. No one should enter the nursing workforce feeling like school was easy and the job will be easy too. Furthermore, a “B” average will not stop you from advancing in your career. Graduate nursing programs will still welcome you. This is especially true if you have relevant experience on your resume. So rest easy students, you’re doing great.
TIP #2: Prioritize Assessment Skills
Assessing your patient is the most important aspect of your job. Your formal, head-to-toe assessment takes place at the beginning of your shift but you will assess for changes every time you walk into the patient’s room. Vital signs, neurological status, patient-reported feelings and demeanor, medication effects, IV patency, equipment function, and any other relevant information are all a part of assessing each patient. Experienced nurses make it look easy but it takes practice to recognize subtle changes. When you are a student, really focus on assessing your patient during your clinical time. Through practice and observing others, you will find a rhythm. There is no part of an assessment that is insignificant. When a patient experiences a decline, the medical team will look to the nurse for all the information regarding the change in condition. It is critical for you to be able to confidently speak to your patient’s clinical picture.
TIP #3: It’s OK If You Don’t Know What You Want To Be When You Grow Up
To say the field of nursing is broad would be an understatement. Nursing school teaches the basics of mostly hospital-based nursing care with small introductions into other areas. Your initial degree is only the beginning. As a nurse, you can work in multiple environments including adult med/surg, various ICU settings, pediatrics, hospice, dialysis, corrections, home health, special procedures, and many many more. The doors are open to becoming a Nurse Practitioner or Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. Maybe you’re interested in nursing administration, education, or informatics. You will learn so much wherever you go but take comfort knowing you can change the direction of your career at any point. As you approach graduation, you will submit applications and begin interviewing. Take a job that feels like a good fit and know that your career may take many turns through the years.
TIP #4: Hold on to Nursing School Friendships
Nursing school is a bubble. Everyone is wrapped up in the next assignment, NCLEX prep, and inside jokes with the people you now spend the most time with. It feels like this closeness will never break. Late night confessionals, motivation when feeling down, and lots of laughing characterize those nursing school bonds. Maybe your class has a social media group and maybe you and your closest allies have a text chain. This daily chatter will always be a part of your life that you look back on with a smile. As soon as you graduate, some of those bonds will break. There are classmates you will never see again. It’s a weird feeling. Work hard to bridge those gaps and hold onto your closest nursing school friends. Keep those calls and texts going because there will still be times when you need that late night motivation and those belly laughs over good memories. You will look back and recognize it truly was a treasure.
Nursing is a wonderful career filled with many opportunities. As a nursing student, feeling anxious and excited about the career in front of you is part of growing into your role. It is a part of your life you will never forget. Make the most of your time in school and be confident that you have chosen a challenging yet valuable path.