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Changing Your Nursing Specialty

Apr 28, 2020
Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC

It’s not uncommon for friends or family to ask me what the best thing is about being a nurse. And, although there are many reasons that nursing is THE BEST profession in the world, my reply is always the same: The best thing about nursing is the ability to transform into a new specialty yet stay in the same profession (and often the same facility or company).

My career ladder looks more like a jungle gym, as I tend to seek new and exciting roles where I believe I can make an impact, rather than chasing titles. In my 30 years as a registered nurse, if you took all of my roles and titles and lined them up like karate belts on a display board, not only would you see an amazing rainbow of colors, many of the colors would be duplicates.

I realize that not all nurses have the same ADHD approach to their careers, and we don't all share the same priorities and passions. This is why nursing is so great; those who wish to get a two-year ADN or stay at the bedside can have the same fulfilling career as the RN who completes a PhD and does research.

Best. Profession. Ever.

How do you know it's time to change specialties? Only you know the answer to that question, but since you're still reading this fantastic article, the thought has crossed your mind. One big clue is if you find yourself saying, "what if I…" you’re probably ready for a change. 

two people standing at writing on the ground changing your nursing specialty

What to Consider When Changing Specialties

Don’t be afraid to try

Sometimes you won't know if you like a specialty until you try it, so ask if you can shadow a nurse in the specialty area you're considering. Let's say you're an ICU nurse, but you've always wanted to try L&D. If there are positions open, ask the hiring manager and your supervisor if you can spend a few shifts as an extra in L&D to "try before you buy." Personally, when I managed stressful units, I always appreciated the nurses who would try the role on for a shift or two rather than taking the position then backing out after a few weeks.

Network

Interested in being an infusion or chemo nurse? Ask to be on a committee where your current role and the role you're interested in intersects. You can network with nurses from the new specialty to get a better sense of the job and scope from the people on the ground.

Get out of the hospital-shaped box

Whether you’re thinking of moving specialties because you’re bored, stressed, unappreciated, etc., consider thinking outside the box and look at specialties such as aesthetics, quality, risk management, clinical education, or pharmaceutical sales. Ready for a little adventure? Consider becoming a travel nurse where perhaps a change in scenery will reignite the love for your current specialty, or even try on something new for one assignment to see how it feels. 

Get social

Many specialty areas have social media groups you can join to get a sense of the comments, questions, support, and everyday life of a specialty. For example, medical writers have many Facebook and LinkedIn groups that focus on nurses who provide freelance writing for businesses, patient education, online articles, etc.

Educate yourself

Many of the highest paying nursing specialties, such as a nurse anesthetist or nurse practitioner, require more education. Make sure that you choose a specialty focus and school program that works with your life and personality. Not everyone is disciplined enough for an online program, but attending in person is a significant lifestyle adjustment. Be strategic in more than the nursing focus.

Focus your resume

Finally, make sure that you update and focus your resume on the specialty you're applying for, even if you don't have all of the qualifications. That ICU nurse that wants to become an L&D specialist can focus their resume on their excellent assessment, patient-focused, whole-patient-picture skills, and highlight what a fast learner they are to secure an interview.

Changing specialties can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. 

I don’t know of any other career field where you can completely change your focus from NICU to wound care and stay in the same company to build your pension. Okay, not many places have actual pensions any longer, but you get my meaning. The point is, try it. Leap to the next branch, and if it’s not a good fit, leap again. This is the best thing about nursing.

Interested in trying something really different? The important role of travel nurses has been even more clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can create a quick profile to see what positions are needed in your specialty.