6 Signs It's Time to Expand Your Nursing Practice (Without Starting a New Degree)

A nurse in blue scrubs sits in a hospital lounge looking at a case file

By the time you’ve worked through the experience and education it takes to earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or to become a nurse practitioner—you’ve logged some serious hours and built advanced knowledge in your area.

If your career path has also involved an area of passion, gerontology or family practice for example, you might feel like it’s too late to change your focus. You don’t want to start all over. If you’ve been working as a nurse educator or in administration, you face a similar dilemma. How can you make changes to your career this far down the road?

The need for more career mobility in nursing

As you’ve probably seen, nurses tend to innovate. When needs pop up in healthcare or leadership or education, nurses step up to meet those needs. And institutions of higher learning or credentialing scramble to keep up.

If you made a list of where nurses are needed in healthcare, you’d have a hard time ever coming to the end of it. Mental health nursing has been a huge need for a long time, but since the pandemic, that demand has skyrocketed.

“Nurse practitioners (NPs) are telling us patients will walk into the primary care clinic because they have diabetes or they need medication refilled, but they’re leading with ‘I also have depression’ or ‘I'm having a difficult time focusing.’” says Josh Hamilton, Assistant Vice President of Post-Licensure Nursing at Rasmussen University School of Nursing.

Hamilton further explains that, when nurses hear these kinds of things from patients, they start wondering how to expand their scope of practice—to be able to say, “I can help you with that today, too, because I also happen to be a psych mental health NP.”

The mental health needs are high. And mental health nursing isn’t the only focus area needing more hands on deck.

We need nurses all over the place, and we need more options to give nurses. This is where new education options like post-graduate nursing certificates can help. These short programs allow you to add nurse practitioner specializations onto your existing graduate nursing credentials, or to start working as a clinical nurse again when you’ve been working in leadership or education.

Sound interesting? Read on to see if a post-graduate certificate program in nursing is the education option you’ve been waiting for.

6 Signs a post-graduate certificate program might be the solution you need

1. You started with one niche area of focus, and you want a change

If you’ve been working in a very specialized area of nursing, you might well wonder if you can pivot at this point. “Maybe you initially thought, I don’t plan on taking care of kids,” Hamilton says, so you became an adult nurse practitioner. “But now you’ve got kids creeping into your practice, and you see an opportunity to do sports physicals.”

Or maybe you get patients asking for certain things a lot and you’d like to be able to help them on top of the work you are already doing. A psychiatric mental health nurse might see a need to evaluate patients physically and be able to get them their blood pressure medications, for example.

“Those are the folks coming in to say, I could expand my practice or take care of a different age group really easily by adding credentials,” Hamilton says.

2. You graduated your nursing program years ago, and it’s limiting your scope of practice

If you gained your title years ago, you might now see newer graduate certifications that offer a wider scope of practice in the hands of nurses who do exactly the same things you’ve been doing for ages.

Take mental health nursing for example. “We’re seeing nurses who have leadership backgrounds or those who maybe have an older credential like the clinical nurse specialist, who’ve been working as great therapists,” Hamilton says. He adds that these mental health nurses have so much experience in psychiatric mental health, but often don’t have the authority to prescribe medication.

Nurses like this can pursue a Post-Graduate Certificate in a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner specialization without starting over in an advanced degree. Hamilton says nurses come into the post-graduate programs and take specialized courses for the specific work they want to do.

“They’re getting a lot of great experience, and then they’re also learning how to wield the prescription pad and make sure they take care of things at the neurobiological level as well.”

3. You work in a rural area with limited options for patients

Finding the right health professionals can be tricky enough wherever patients live. But in rural areas, finding psychiatric-mental health care and even primary medical care can become a massive barrier.

“I first practiced in a town of 45,000 people,” Hamilton says. Patients who come to a psych hospital or mental health facility also often have physiological and primary care needs. They’d say “Oh, can you refill my hypertension medication? Can you refill my cholesterol medication?” But it’s not part of your scope.

“The patient may need to wait a long period of time or travel a long distance to go see their primary care providers,” Hamilton says. “And you are thinking, with one change, I could meet all their needs under one roof.”

In an ideal situation, one location could house psychiatric-mental health, medical and all other health professionals for a better patient experience. But when the situation isn't ideal, nurses and other health professionals can still add to their scope of practice.

4. You’re in education or leadership and you want to become an advanced practice clinician

If you earned a Master of Science in Nursing and went into nursing administration or education, you might be wondering how much more training you’d need to work as an advanced practice nurse. There’s something about working at those high levels of leadership that gives you a macro view of the needs in the healthcare system.

“We see professors who take nursing students into the psych hospital to train them, but then they see how short-staffed the psychiatric service is,” Hamilton says.

“So sometimes those nurse educators with an MSN come back and want to become psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners for the first time as advanced practice nurses.”

5. Your current role is driving you toward burnout

The deeper you go into nursing, the more you see. “Until you’re in it, you don’t know how many gaps there are and how frustrating it can be,” Hamilton says. He explains that people hit a point where they think…you know what? I keep seeing this happen, and I complain about it, and one way I could fix it is go back to school and try to directly intervene.

“So a lot of nurses are doing that, and we’re trying to help them by creating these options,” Hamilton says.

One important part of career mobility is to avoid nursing burnout. Hamilton says nurses who are burning out might feel trapped.

“If you’re thinking…I cannot stand this. I’m in this lane. I am suffocating, and I’m even starting to resent these patients a little bit, these certificates allow you to step over just three feet and change lanes to find your passion for nursing again.”

Nursing is full of possibilities, and having a good option to access those possibilities can make all the difference. “The educational piece isn’t like you’re retaking an entire master’s degree where you’ve literally already taken these courses. This is just the elements you haven’t learned yet.

6. You want to fill gaps for a safer patient experience

The segmentation of different parts of healthcare make sense from a career and training angle. It would take someone many lifetimes to learn everything patients need. But when you are a patient, having different providers and facilities as silos of knowledge can become a logistical nightmare.

“I used to work in-patient psychiatry,” Hamilton says. The mental health nurses always knew patients needed someone to sit with them to perform a psychiatric evaluation and make a mental health treatment plan.

“What many people don’t realize is those patients also need a complete medical history and physical exam.” Hamilton says patients might be struggling with substance abuse, for example, and could crash that first night, detoxing from something. They might have untreated medical needs they couldn’t deal with because psychiatric destabilization got in the way.

This means they need a professional who can assess and intervene with both physiological and psychiatric needs. “Often, these psych hospitals are specialty facilities that don’t have medical providers on staff,” Hamilton explains. This means patients have to relocate to an emergency room, camp out there for hours to navigate the admissions process and get medical clearance, then come back to start their psych treatment.

This is an additional hurdle for patients who are already dealing with mental illness. If one provider could help patients with both their medical and mental health issues, that would make a huge difference for patients. It would also give the mental health provider a chance to build more rapport.

“It’s a perfect integration of physiological care and mental health care at the same place by the same person,” Hamilton says.

Change nursing lanes with a post-graduate nursing certificate

Whether you want to get into a new nursing focus or increase your impact in your current role, these post-graduate certificate nursing programs were designed to give you the skills you need for career mobility.

If you’ve seen the rise in mental illness and want to get into psychiatric-mental health nursing, or if you’ve been working in nursing education and want to get into advanced practice nursing—or if any of the above situations describe you, maybe these programs are just what you need.

Post-graduate certificate programs in nursing offer many different specialty areas to choose from. Take a look at your options at Rasmussen University's Nursing Post-Graduate Certificate Program page.


Currently, these programs are not eligible for Title IV federal student aid programs. These programs are not available in all states.

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a senior content manager who writes student-focused articles for Rasmussen University. She holds an MFA in poetry and worked as an English Professor before diving into the world of online content. 

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