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Thinking of Nursing as a Second Career? Here’s What You Should Know

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated July 6, 2023
    Nursing as a second career is flexible, secure, and pays competitively. Choose from several educational options and various specialties.
    Older adult nurse learning in a classroom settingCredit: Getty Images
    • Nursing can be an excellent second career option offering flexibility, competitive pay, and job security.
    • Candidates for nursing as a second career have several educational options and over 100 nursing fields to choose from.
    • Many hospitals offer nurse residency programs to help new graduates smoothly transition to practice after academic life.

    If you are thinking about nursing as a second career, you are not alone. In June 2023, former New York Jets star D’Brickashaw Ferguson announced he was attending nursing school in the fall. In 2018, Ferguson signed a $60 million six-year contract with the Jets. Some might speculate that earning extra income wasn’t the motivating factor behind the career shift.

    “But even without football, I can still do my job with excellence, right? That’s something we learned as athletes,” he said. He went on to describe his nervousness since the last time he had taken a science class was in 2006.

    If you’re switching careers, and considering nursing as a second career option, let’s explore tips to help you transition into the field.

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    The Current Demand for Nurses

    Several factors influence the consistent and rising demand for nurses. The current nursing shortage has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove higher burnout rates and numbers of nurses who left the profession.

    An aging population and workforce have influenced the shortage in addition to the stress placed on the profession by the pandemic. Older adults typically have more than one illness, and more nurses are reaching retirement age. Interest in nursing school has increased, but qualified applicants are being turned away.

    According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 91,938 applicants to bachelor’s and graduate programs were turned away in 2021 because there were not enough faculty, clinical sites, and classroom space.

    Some nursing specialties are in particularly high demand. These include critical care, dialysis, case management, and the operating room. The shortage has not gone unnoticed by hospitals, nursing programs, and legislators. National nursing associations and state governments are developing programs to extend patient care ability while nursing schools create programs to raise admission rates.

    Nursing can be a rewarding career for those who are passion-driven and looking for a means to an end. The profession can offer job stability, career advancement, a competitive salary, and the ability to work anywhere in the country or the world.

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    Types of Nurses and Nursing Specialties

    As you consider nursing as a second career, it’s helpful to understand the different roles nurses play in healthcare and the wide variety of specialties available. Let’s start with the different types of nurses.

    • RN: Registered nurses (RNs) are licensed by the state. The state’s board of nursing grants nurses permission to perform nursing duties after they achieve competency as measured by the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). RNs can be licensed after completing an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.
    • LPN/LVN: Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) or licensed vocational nurses (LVN) are similar positions that provide basic nursing care under the supervision of an RN. LPNs and LVNs must also pass licensing requirements that vary depending on the state, including passing the NCLEX-PN to demonstrate clinical competency. LPNs and LVNs generally work in nursing homes, extended care facilities, doctor’s offices, home care, and hospitals.
    • APRN: Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have completed a graduate nursing program at either the master’s or doctoral level. This additional education opens opportunities in administration, leadership, research, and clinical practice.

    The scope of clinical practice allowed in each state is determined by the state legislature — it is critical that APRNs are familiar with the practice allowed in their state. Many states allow a full scope of practice, which includes the legal capability of assessing a patient’s condition, ordering and interpreting tests, making clinical diagnoses, and prescribing medications and treatments.

    Nursing is a unique profession that allows you to practice within several specialties during your career. As in other professions, some specialties make more than others. Some of the top APRN specialties based on salary include nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, family nurse practitioner, and clinical nurse specialist.

    High-paying RN specialties include travel nurses, dialysis nurses, neonatal nurses, and geriatric nurses. Check out this guide that explores the options available in more than 100 nursing fields.

    What Are My Degree Options?

    You can choose from several degree options when considering nursing as a second career. Some pathways are not necessarily available to candidates applying directly out of high school. For example, second-degree nursing programs and direct-entry MSNs meet the needs of those who have a bachelor’s degree in another field.

    Option 1: ADN

    Associate degrees in nursing are available in most areas through colleges and universities, community colleges, and technical schools. Students learn the basics of patient care and develop the necessary clinical skills to practice.

    Timeline: Candidates can attend full-time or part-time. Most programs do not offer an accelerated option, so it can take roughly 2 years to complete.

    Program Admission Requirements: Admission requirements include a minimum GPA, recommendation letters, personal essays, and prerequisite science and math courses, including chemistry, physiology, and biology. Some schools may also require a physical health assessment and federal and state criminal background checks before admission is complete.

    Option 2: BSN

    Most healthcare institutions want to hire BSN-prepared nurses as research shows that patients experience better outcomes. Graduates of BSN programs can expect more career opportunities and higher salaries than ADN-prepared nurses.

    Timeline: For nursing candidates directly out of high school, a BSN degree takes roughly four years to complete. However, second-degree nursing students may complete a BSN in two years if they can transfer credits from their first bachelor’s degree.

    Program Admission Requirements: Students who want to transfer credits must have graduated from an accredited institution. They must also provide official transcripts and recommendation letters, and have a minimum GPA in prerequisite coursework. Some programs also require state and federal criminal background checks and a health assessment.

    Option 3: Accelerated BSN

    This creative option is significantly shorter and carries a reduced financial cost than a typical BSM. The candidate must complete a rigorous course schedule that includes nursing core and bridge classes. Nurses with an accelerated BSN are offered the same opportunities as those with a BSN, including career advancement, salary potential, and greater autonomy.

    Timeline: Accelerated programs can be in-person, online, or hybrid. Students can complete this program within 16 months, although some may take as long as two years. Most programs are rigorous and require a full-time commitment to maintain grades.

    Program Admission Requirements: Admission requirements vary between programs but typically include a graduate degree from an accredited institution, a minimum GPA, a personal interview, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation. Some schools require a personal interview, CPR certification, or an active certified nursing assistant (CNA) certification.

    Option 4: Direct-Entry MSN

    Students passionate about healthcare and nursing may choose an accelerated direct-entry MSN degree program. These programs are rigorous and require a significant time commitment.

    After completing the program and one year of RN experience, the student must complete a post-master’s certificate or a post-master’s doctor of nursing practice program to become a licensed nurse practitioner.

    Timeline: Most programs take 18-36 months to complete and recommend students do not work to encourage better academic performance.

    Program Admission Requirements: The admission requirements can vary between programs. Generally, schools require a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field with a minimum GPA and completion of all prerequisite classes. Students must provide professional references, a statement of purpose, and a resume. An admissions interview may also be required.

    Transitioning Into Nursing Practice

    Transitioning to practice from academia as a new graduate can be challenging. Many hospitals are integrating nurse residency programs to support this transition and improve employment longevity.

    Some challenges that new graduates face include increasing stress, achieving clinical competence outside nursing school, transitioning into a new role, and developing skill proficiency in an increasingly complex healthcare system.

    New nurses are caring for sicker patients, which increases the risk of poor safety practices and patient care errors. Increased stress can lead to practice errors, nursing burnout, and turnover.

    One 2023 study on those entering nursing as a second career found that while participants may have left their first nursing job citing unmet needs, many remained in the nursing profession.

    The researchers concluded that nurses in their second career were a unique subset that may require specific attention during their transition. Transition to practice programs, such as nurse residency programs, can help new second-career graduates successfully address these challenges.

    A residency program combines classroom education with clinical experience in a specific nursing specialty. These programs help improve job satisfaction, patient outcomes, and staff communication. Hospitals find they improve staff retention, lower error rates, and lower levels of stress among new staff.

    If you’re considering nursing as a second career, you will likely face challenges and many rewards. Personal fulfillment, job security, flexibility, and excellent pay can offset the challenges that come with changing your career.