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Going Back to School to Further Your Nursing Career

Jan 21, 2020
Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC

Ok, so you've been a nurse for a while (which might feel like a thousand years), and you're considering going back to school to further your education. You have so many questions: 

Is this the right time for me? Is there a return on investment (ROI) for learning? Which program should I choose? Which nursing school is the best? How will school affect my family and relationships?

While the questions may appear as endless and overwhelming as your first nursing degree or certification, answering these five questions will help you define your goals for your future career path.

Question 1: Why? (Seven Times)

Stick with me on this one. Re-asking the answer to a question, such as “Why should I go back to school?,” seven times will give you great insight as to the real reason to pursue your next degree. Let's practice: 

Q: Why should I go back to school? 

A: To get a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Q: Why do I want/need a BSN? 

A: I want more career options.

Q: Why do I want more career options? 

A: I might want to leave bedside nursing someday.

Q: Why do I want to leave the bedside?

A: I want to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS).

… and so on until you get to the root of why returning to school is important (and if it’s even necessary). 

Question 2: What Do I Want to Learn?

Once you figure out why you want to return to school, now the question is, what subject or specialty will you study? Choose the area of focus for your education that will not only keep professional doors open, but you will enjoy learning. 

If it's for a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN), there are numerous tracts to pursue, such as Nurse Practitioner (and even more specialties within this degree), education, leadership, innovation, and informatics. 

Perhaps you would prefer a path outside of nursing, such as a Master's in Business Administration (MBA) or a Master’s of Science in Organizational Leadership (MSOL). If you are pursuing a BSN degree, the curriculum is relatively straight forward.

If you’re incentivized to grow your career in a financial way, the answer isn't necessarily additional education. Additionally, it's important to consider the opportunity cost of going back to school in addition to the sheer cost of it. 

Aside from education, city, state, hospital, and negotiating ability often play a larger role financially, especially if you’re leaning into demand in a particular hospital or city. While going from LVN/LPN to BSN/RN can provide a substantial jump in pay, going from BSN/RN to APRN is more about specialty and interest vs. financial status. 

Question 3: Which Learning Format Fits With My Life and Personality?

Now that you know the why and the what of your pathway, the next question is how. When I decided to return to school for an MSOL, I knew that I needed a completely online program (and one that I could work through with five kids at home while also managing a large ICU).

Perhaps you know you're a better in-the-classroom-eye-to-eye student than an online one. Maybe the hybrid option of mostly online with weekly/monthly/quarterly check-ins is a better one for you. 

There are numerous options, so take the time to research and pick the plan that works for you, then you can find the program to match it. You're more likely to enjoy (yes, I said enjoy) school when it fits into your lifestyle and personality. 

Question 4: Which School Should I Choose? 

With all of the above questions asked and answered, now you are ready to discover where to attend. Narrowing down the specialty and the learning format will focus on the institutional choices for you. 

Many courses have differing course requirements, both for entering the program as well as completing. Make sure you either have or are willing to acquire the necessary prerequisites and learning expectations before committing to a program. 

Cost of programs may be a significant factor for you to consider. Keep in mind, though, that tuition and fees will differ significantly by city, state, and school. For example, an accelerated RN-to-BSN program at California State University, Fullerton, will cost around $23,000 for tuition and fees compared to a similar program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, which sets students back around $80,000 for their 15-month program. 

If you value the prestige of a top-10 university, then be prepared to pay more for the education and name. Also, it’s fair to expect a more competitive, as well as lengthy, application process.  

Question 5: When Is the Perfect Time to Go Back to School?

Never. Seriously! Just like there is never a perfect time to get a dog, have kids, or indulge in a long vacation. There is never a perfect time to jump into a massive commitment like pursuing your next degree. 

One thing is sure: If you never start, you will never finish. It seems simple, yet most people need a lot of courage to begin. 

Only you can decide when the timing is ideal for you and your family when it comes to school, but you never want to miss out on your perfect role because you didn't have that piece of paper that proves you decided, stuck with, and completed a program. 

So, to Return to School or Not? 

Once you’ve honestly answered these above questions about your feelings around your next education adventure, you should be one step closer to knowing if another degree is the right answer for you. 

Different than a nursing license, education is something that can never be taken away from you, lapse, or become inactive. As nurses, we are life-long learners whether or not the knowledge comes with a piece of paper; we learn from our colleagues, our patients, and our communities every day. 

Even through today, I have yet to meet a single nurse who regrets pursuing an advanced degree program to obtain an additional degree. In fact, as one nurse with a PhD noted, "Student loans are not meant to be paid off. If you're doing it right, you die with them." All kidding aside, now could be your perfect time to start!

PS - not everything is learned in school, anyway ;)