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Nurses in a surgery

Career changes for nurses: how to make the move

There’s no denying nursing can be a high-pressure job. Whether it’s the shift work, the emotional toll or a thirst for a new challenge, many nurses find themselves ready for a change.

While nursing requires specific skills, many of these skills are widely sought after in different professions. This means career changes for nurses aren’t limited to nursing related jobs. Here, two former nurses share the steps they took when seeking new horizons.

A new career within healthcare

Francis Dignam had been nursing for over a decade when he decided Deakin’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) might help his career progress. ‘I was feeling that I could contribute in a different way and I was looking for an avenue to do that,’ he says.

While moving into management is one of the most common career changes for nurses, Francis says it’s fairly uncommon to undertake business studies. ‘There’s no management training in any sort of nursing job,’ he explains. ‘You do your academic degree and then start at the bedside and then you work your way up through a range of leadership positions.’

Already employed in a management capacity, Francis observed that the accountability for managers was increasing and he felt he could benefit from a deeper level of business knowledge. ‘I saw the opportunity and thought the best way that I could have some influence was to do some business studies.’

For Francis, having a business mindset means feeling more equipped to answer to the high level of accountability. ‘I feel that the MBA will enable me to continue to move through health leadership and executive roles,’ he says.

A completely new career

Merlyn Mathew was a nurse for two years before she decided to take a leap and study medicine at Deakin. ‘I always had an interest in medicine and health care, hence becoming a nurse,’ she says. ‘When I started nursing I really just wanted to work with people: I was loath to spend years studying to become a doctor so I chose nursing.’

Through nursing, Merlyn realised she loved the intellectual stimulation of studying but she was hungry for more science. ‘I wanted to problem-solve using science and biology – that’s what really drew me towards medicine,’ she explains. ‘In medicine, I have the opportunity to help and work with people closely, but I also have the academic challenge of problem-solving using science.’

She now works as a doctor at Ballarat Health Services and some of her nursing skills continue to prove useful. ‘As a nurse, you are often being pulled in so many different directions, which is really hard,’ she says. ‘I’m used to that as a nurse, so I can supply that as a doctor.’

'In medicine, I have the opportunity to help and work with people closely, but I also have the academic challenge of problem-solving using science.'

Merlyn Mathew,
Graduate, Deakin University

When nursing takes its toll

Francis and Merlyn both moved on from bedside nursing because they saw other opportunities but they’ve seen colleagues leave for a myriad of reasons.

‘I think people leave nursing because shift work is extremely onerous,’ Francis says. ‘It’s onerous on your family, it’s onerous on your social life, it’s onerous on yourself. They say shift work shortens your life expectancy by five or 10 years and it’s tiring.’

Francis works in intensive care in the Hyperbaric Unit at the Alfred Hospital and he says certain types of nursing can be particularly challenging. ‘Nurses may see things they haven’t experienced anywhere else,’ Francis says. ‘The gravity of the work they’re doing can be emotionally overwhelming and that does place a degree of fatigue on you.’

Merlyn says it’s not uncommon to see compassion fatigue in nursing related jobs. ‘I think compassion fatigue can manifest itself in so many different ways in different people,’ she says. ‘Some people become really withdrawn and are not engaging with their work and then others are just really angry.’

She has friends who moved away from nursing because they felt under-supported and overworked. ‘You go into the field of nursing to help support your fellow human and if you can’t really do that or if you’re not doing it in a way that really aligns with your values you’re going to want to move away,’ she says.

How to make the leap

One of the first things Merlyn did when she decided to make a career change was quiz friends who were studying medicine. ‘I talked to them and found out what was involved,’ she says. ‘I also talked to doctors and really observed the lifestyle of a doctor to try and understand if I wanted that lifestyle.’

If you’re considering a move away from nursing, Merlyn recommends volunteering in the field that you want to explore. ‘I think that really helps with getting some experience and it allows you to see what it’s like,’ she says.

It’s important to consider how the skills you’ve developed through nursing could be utilised in other industries. ‘I have a friend who was a nurse with me and after doing his nursing training he went off to study law,’ Francis says. ‘He’s seen immense value add from his nursing career in how he approaches his law career.’

Francis says nurses have the tendency to underestimate themselves. ‘Nurses can be very humble people and we’re not always used to talking about ourselves. Things like communication, emotional intelligence and time management, there are many skills that you develop in nursing that are really transferable to any other role,’ he says. ‘Nurses have immense capacity.’

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