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10 Ways to Gain Professional Nursing Experience

NurseJournal Staff
Updated March 24, 2023
    Employers want nurses with experience, but it can be hard to get experience without a job. Here are 10 ways to get experience before the job.
    Credit: andresr / Getty Images

    Employers want nurses with experience, but it’s impossible to get experience without a job. Or is it? There are several benefits to gaining nursing experience before applying for a position. Getting work experience gives you insight into the profession and opens your eyes to the options and specialties available after you graduate.

    Relevant nursing experience can help you get hired for your first job after school and helps you develop skills and knowledge that make you stand out to potential employers. The key to gaining nursing experience is to be alert to opportunities. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

    Explore 10 ways that improve your potential to be hired in the nursing position you want.

    Ways to Gain Professional Nursing Experience

    1. Look for Shadowing Opportunities

    This might be one of the best ways to dip your toe in the water and gain prenursing experience. During a shadowing experience, you get to see exactly what nurses do each day. You’ll witness some tender moments between nurses and their patients, hear war stories from colleagues, and may even see a few things that could be upsetting.

    Shadowing helps you step beyond the pages of a book where you’ve read about a nurse’s duties and onto a hospital floor where you can see firsthand how nurses handle difficult situations.

    Nurses are face-to-face each day with patients who are having some of the worst days in their lives. They can also share in some of the best experiences in a patient’s life, such as welcoming a newborn into the world or getting good news from the oncologist.

    The best way to get a shadowing experience is to sign up with a program. Some larger hospitals have shadowing programs. If you don’t have a program in your area, consider approaching the human resources department in the local hospital or your own physician’s office.

    2. Consider an Internship

    If you are a student in high school, college, or a nursing program, consider exploring internship programs through the school. This is a good way to develop nursing skills and gain industry knowledge that can help you make decisions about your future career.

    Nursing internship programs also help you network within the healthcare organization, which may lead to a future job. You may not enjoy the idea of working for free, but internships are not about making money. Instead, these hours should help you make career decisions and get on the shortlist at the organization after you have graduated.

    3. Find a Mentor

    Mentor programs are a good way to foster your professional career before it even gets off the ground. Mentorship programs are available in certain locations that help match students with experienced professionals. If there isn’t a program in your area, consider finding a healthcare professional in your field who is interested in guiding your career choices.

    Nursing mentors:

    • Can help answer questions about nursing
    • Offer a listening ear
    • Provide encouragement and relatable insight

    After getting to know you, they may also be willing to write a letter of recommendation for a nursing program or a nursing role after graduation.

    There is a chance you already know someone who could help you reach your career goals. Although it might be tempting to reach out to another healthcare professional, a mentor in the nursing profession can give you the best guidance and offer the greatest support.

    4. Get Certified in Basic Life Support and First Aid

    The American Heart Association and the American Red Cross offer basic life support (BLS) classes. This is the type of care given by first responders to people with a heart attack or an obstructed airway. The program teaches students cardiopulmonary resuscitation and how to use an automated external defibrillator.

    The classes also stress critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Both organizations teach similar concepts and require students to pass a functional and written test. There are several BLS classes from which to choose, and some offer continuing education credits for nurses.

    The American Red Cross offers a BLS class with first aid that includes dealing with:

    • Burns
    • Sudden illness
    • Lacerations
    • Neck and back injuries
    • Heat and cold emergencies

    Certification in BLS and first aid demonstrates your commitment to healthcare and your desire to further your education to your potential employer.

    5. Become a HOSA Future Health Professionals Member

    HOSA Future Health Professionals is a worldwide secondary and postsecondary student-led organization that empowers members to become future healthcare leaders and enhance the delivery of quality care. The group is a powerful tool that works best when integrated into the health science curriculum.

    Students develop:

    The program helps students develop readiness skills for the nursing profession and allows them to apply for over $50,000 in scholarship awards.

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    6. Become a Certified Nursing Assistant

    Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are integral members of the healthcare team. They work in several settings, including:

    • Nursing homes
    • Hospitals
    • Rehabilitation centers
    • Adult day care centers

    Some of their responsibilities include bathing, grooming, and feeding patients, assisting with some procedures, taking care of wounds, and cleaning rooms and linens.

    Education to become a CNA varies by state but is typically no more than eight weeks. This is one way of gaining paid nursing experience. According to Payscale in May 2022, the average base salary is $13.83 per hour or $30,390per year.

    This can be a short-term solution to gaining experience to improve your chance of admission to a nursing program or employment in the nursing position of your choice.

    7. Volunteer

    Volunteer positions are another unpaid way of gaining experience in the industry that may give you an added boost. Unlike internship programs, there is not too much competition for volunteer programs. Additionally, nursing programs and many employers like to see volunteer work on your resume. Consider volunteering with the American Red Cross at your local hospital or local public health department.

    When you sign up for a volunteer position, be sure you document your hours and have your supervisor sign off on your volunteer hours. Keep track of the number of hours your volunteer and check in with your supervisors. This can often lead to great letters of recommendation for a nursing program or potential employer.

    8. Think Outside the Box

    If you’ve graduated and have trouble finding a nursing job, begin to cast your net a little wider and think outside the box. There are other jobs in the healthcare field that can give you experience in healthcare that also look good on your resume.

    For example, consider taking a “pro re nata” (PRN) position. “Pro re nata” means “as necessary” and refers to nurses who work on a temporary basis with a hospital or facility, typically to fill in for staffing shortages. This can give you a flexible schedule, good pay, and experience in a variety of specialties.

    You may consider positions outside of bedside nursing but still in the healthcare field. For example:

    These roles give you added industry knowledge and various skills, and they might help you develop connections in the organization.

    9. Work While You’re in School

    Time management is a skill all nurses need to have. It’s also a good skill to have as a nursing student. If you can manage your time, look for a position as a student nurse at the hospital or clinic associated with your nursing program. Some nursing schools offer part-time work for interested students. This allows you to make money, gain experience, and get an education.

    This also often leads to a permanent position as a nurse after graduation. Some nursing programs also have nursing residency during the program’s last year. This helps you gain technical and clinical skills with professional experience.

    10. Network, Network, Network

    Many nurses find it difficult to step outside their comfort zone and network with nurses while they are students. Yet professional networking in nursing is crucial to any career, including nursing. It’s helpful to reframe the concept of networking into making friends with people in the field. When you think about making friends it’s not nearly as intimidating.

    Networking allows you to ask questions, learn new skills, and gain new ideas. One of the other advantages is to learn when positions open up before they are posted and know a friendly face who can put in a good word for you.