Jumping into something new is scary when you don’t have all of the facts. That’s exactly why choosing a career is so challenging. It’s not like you can just spend a few years in school, try out a job for a bit and jump to another if you don’t like it—well, at least not without more education and training.
Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is no different. We all think we know what an RN does, based on TV shows or our real-life interactions at hospitals or doctor’s offices. But what goes on behind the scenes?
It’s not easy to get a clear picture of a career without speaking to those who’ve walked the walk. So to help, we rounded up nursing experts to tell you what they wish they’d known BEFORE becoming an RN.
Read their advice and find out a few lessons they learned along the way.
I wish someone told me …
1. How much critical thinking nurses do
“What surprised me the most when I began working as an RN is the level of autonomy that you experience—even as a new graduate nurse,” says Sarah Pruitt, RN and manager of clinical operations at Advocate Christ Medical Center. “A lot of people mistakenly believe that nurses are there to follow whatever orders the doctors give us. While we also do that, nurses must also thoroughly assess a patient or situation, critically think and then implement the plan of care.”
This skill is so important that Department of Labor lists both inductive and deductive reasoning in the top five abilities RNs need for the job. “You will probably feel unprepared, but will soon realize that you actually know more than you think you do,” Pruitt says.
2. You can find day shifts—even as a new nurse
“I was led to believe everyone had to put in their time on night shifts before they could work on days,” says Brittney Wilson, BSN, RN and CEO of The Nerdy Nurse. “But that just wasn’t so.”
Though specific hiring situations will vary depending on location, there is no rule against new nurses finding their ideal shifts.
“Many local hospitals also accept new graduates into specialty and critical care roles, which was something I was led to believe was not common practice,” Wilson says.
3. Hospital jobs are competitive
While some nurses might find work immediately in a hospital setting, others will need to broaden their horizons to other healthcare facilities.
“I didn’t know it would be so hard to find a job as a new grad,” says Ciji West, RN. West says people were talking about the nursing shortage with the general impression that it would be easy to get a job. “There certainly is a nursing shortage, but most hospitals have residency programs that only accept a certain number of new graduates.”
When you are a brand new graduate, keep your mind open to all kinds of jobs to gain the experience that will give you more opportunity.
“If you can’t get in the hospital right away, consider other facilities,” West says. “You may even find that you get paid more.”
4. Witnessing patient suffering is never easy
Even if you’ve never felt squeamish at the sight of blood or injuries, seeing people in pain can be much less clinical than you think. “I wish I knew how difficult it was going to be to see people suffering in physical, mental and emotional pain,” says Jeanne Dockins, RN, BSN and CNOR.
Consider your specialty with care, and give some thought to how you will react when your patients are hurting or dealing with grief. Certain types of nurses will deal with more severe health issues on their shifts than others.
“As a surgical nurse for over 30 years, I saw some horrific traumas which affected me deeply. Some things you can never un-see,” Dockins says.
5. How busy your shifts will get
“Nurses have so many different responsibilities and tasks that they are continually prioritizing,” Dockins says. “Nursing is one of the most demanding professions, but the rewards are indescribable.”
Though you might have shifts where even wolfing down a granola bar feels like a luxury, the intrinsic value in caring for people makes the chaos worth it. “Over the years, I have collected thousands of vignettes of love, kindness and compassion. These memories are forever etched in the memories of my heart. The rewards of being a nurse are priceless.”
6. How attached you’ll get to your patients
Despite all the dashing about, nurses still find time to grow fond of the people they care for.
“Before I became an RN, I didn't know how attached you actually become to your patients and their families,” Pruitt says. “Day in and day out you care for so many different patients, but there will be special ones that leave an impression on your heart.”
Pruitt says saying goodbye to these patients can be difficult.
“But being a nurse means that you know you made a difference in their lives, no matter how big or small.”
7. How to save your legs
“I wish I’d known about compression socks,” West says. Nurses spend so much time on their feet that it’s vital to make smart clothing choices. “Cute shoes are great, but compression socks are what’s going to save your feet and legs. Once I discovered them, my foot, leg and knee pain went away. And no one notices them underneath your pants!”
It may seem like a small thing, but take it to heart and make comfort a priority when choosing footwear—your body will thank you.
8. That nurses really do eat their young
This expression refers to a type of bullying in the nursing world where older, more established nurses treat their new recruits poorly, just for being new recruits. While you certainly hope it doesn’t happen to you, Wilson has experienced this trend and advises new nurses to be ready, just in case.
“There are skills you can learn to prevent being a victim,” Wilson says.
Make sure you understand your rights as a professional, and don’t put up with workplace abuse. New nurses naturally want to make a good impression and get along in their first jobs, but certain behaviors are never okay. Wilson offers a great article on resources and strategies for how to stand up for yourself.
9. How easy it is to forget yourself
This sacrificial attitude is one of the greatest strengths of the nursing profession, but it can also be a detriment.
“People don't understand that nurses sacrifice eating and going to the bathroom to get work done,” West says, adding that nurses can sometimes sacrifice to the point of harming their own health.
West emphasizes the importance of passion in nursing. “Burnout is real. I certainly experienced it and wanted to quit nursing altogether.” West says a perspective on how nursing matters to your passion or purpose will help you stick with it in hard times. That, and equipping yourself with strong self-care habits to make sure you don’t sacrifice your health.
“We take on a lot, and it's important to keep yourself grounded and take care of yourself,” West says.
10. How many ways there are to be a nurse
“Most people think that being a nurse means wearing scrubs, starting IVs and taking care of patients directly at the bedside,” Wilson says. “But nurses work in so many different roles with varying levels of responsibility. From executives to software consultants to professional bloggers, there is no one way to be a nurse.”
As you begin your career, you might envision one path for yourself, but your skills and desires can lead you in different directions as you go. Nurses work in many different industries and settings. “You will never be bored,” Wilson says. “You will have unlimited potential for fulfillment.”
Are you ready to become an RN?
Now that you know more about what becoming an RN is really like, do you think it’s the job for you?
“Remember that you will have some very challenging days both in nursing school and as a nurse,” Pruitt says. “But it is all worth it! Nursing is a calling. You see people at their absolute lowest and have the privilege to help them. It takes a special person to be a nurse.”
Not everyone has what it takes to be a nurse. But if you can handle it, you’ll be rewarded by a career that truly makes a difference. If you’re ready to make the step toward becoming a registered nurse, check out our article, “ADN vs. BSN: Your Guide to Help You Decide on a Nursing Degree” to learn more about educational paths you can take.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in August 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.