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Common Nursing Internship Dos and Don’ts

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated February 25, 2022
    If the pandemic has taught nursing students anything, it's that a well-rounded clinical rotation is not guaranteed. Discover how a nursing internship can add to your clinical experiences and prepare you for the nursing workforce.

    Does it ever feel like you spent more time on your care plan for nursing clinicals than actual patient care? It’s common for nursing students to walk away from clinicals wishing to have seen and done more.

    By engaging in a nursing internship, you can get more hands-on experiences on a schedule that works for you. We cover what you will gain in a nursing internship and how to make the most of the opportunity.

    What to Expect From a Nursing Internship

    Many nursing students pursue an internship to get more clinical experience during school. Throughout a nursing internship, you will shadow a nurse in a patient-care setting (like a hospital) for about 10 weeks.

    Under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN), interns perform basic patient care like hygiene, mobility, and other activities of daily living. Depending on the supervising nurse’s comfort level, you may perform more advanced nursing skills as you progress through the internship.

    Unlike a nurse externship, which is usually shorter in duration (think summer break), an internship may last a few months. The hours are often set up as “per diem,” allowing a nursing student to schedule shifts around school.

    A nurse internship is coordinated independent of a nursing school and does not count toward clinical hours. Whereas a nurse extern is viewed as a nursing school affiliate, an intern is treated like a hospital employee. Get ready to work!

    The best place to find a nursing internship is an online job board, but the career center at your college of nursing may have information too. Because you’ll be performing patient care, you’ll need to have basic life support certification and be enrolled in either an associate or a bachelor’s prelicensure nursing program.

    The Dos: How to Make the Most of Your Internship

    When you get started in a nursing internship, you want to take advantage of all the learning opportunities available.

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      Set & Share Goals and Expectations

      From the beginning, set goals and expectations for what you want to get out of the internship. For example, if you were hoping to improve your intravenous (IV) skills ahead of graduation, share that goal with your supervising nurse. You could say something like, “I’d like to improve my IV skills during this internship since I haven’t inserted any in clinicals. If you’re comfortable, please keep me in mind when a patient needs an IV placed.”

      Remember that you’ll be working under another nurse’s license, so patient-care opportunities will need to be approved first. By openly communicating your goals from the beginning, the nursing staff will be more likely to help you achieve a meaningful experience.

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      Keep Notes to Revisit

      While you’re getting all those exciting experiences, remember to keep notes of the types of patients you care for. You never know when you’ll see those interesting diagnoses and treatments again! When the internship is over, you can connect the experiences with future lessons.

      Most important, you’ll be able to reflect on all the skills you gained throughout the internship.

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      Say Yes to Opportunities of All Kinds

      Every day of a nurse internship can present a new learning opportunity, so remember to be open to new experiences and willing to jump into different situations. It’s OK to stray from your preceptor for a day — ask to observe bedside procedures for other patients or even visit another unit to see their workflow.

      Joining a nursing unit outside of your school environment may be a little intimidating at first, so remember to:

      • Ask for support when you need it.
      • Seek and accept feedback from the nurses, managers, and patient-care assistants.
      • Practice self-care to address your own needs throughout the internship (for example, don’t sign up for an extra shift if you need to study for an exam).
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      Treat Every Day Like a Job Interview

      A nursing internship is also a great way to begin professional networking in nursing as you consider your career options after graduation. Treat every day as if you’re on an RN job interview: Ask lots of questions, get to know the staff, and determine if this type of unit would be a good fit for you.

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      Seek Connections and Potential Mentors

      Even if you don’t decide to work there after graduation, you may connect with a nurse who can be a future career nurse mentor. Always remember to show interest and gratitude toward the nurses who are helping you learn.

    The Don’ts: What to Avoid Doing in Your Nursing Internship

    While a nursing internship is all about your experience, remember to be respectful of all the nurses and staff you are working with. To maintain a professional presence, be sure to avoid:

    • Being late
    • Calling out at the last minute
    • Showing up out of uniform (when in doubt, refer to the dress code guidelines from your nursing school handbook)

    Showing respect for your coworkers also means demonstrating professional behavior.

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      Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions or Share Needs

      As an intern, you are not expected to know everything, so be honest about the skills you aren’t comfortable performing. It can be easy to become flustered with a heavy task list, so always be upfront about your needs.

      By advocating for yourself, you’ll avoid taking on too much of a commitment and losing track of your responsibilities, which could impact patient care.

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      Don’t Hide Mistakes

      There may be times that you make a mistake. Always be honest with your supervising nurse about an error and use it as a learning opportunity.

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      Don’t Be Defensive When Receiving Feedback

      When you receive constructive feedback from nursing staff, take the time to self-reflect instead of becoming defensive.

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      Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself

      As a nursing student, it can feel like you have so much to learn in a short amount of time. Remember that skills and clinical judgment will come with experience, so be patient with yourself until then. In the meantime, consider applying for a nursing internship to gain confidence-building experiences.