When I talk to people outside the medical profession, I often get asked, “so why are you becoming a nurse practitioner? Isn’t that a lot of school to essentially do the same thing you’re doing now?” I smile. I explain. I do my best to educate. But I still wince at that question because many, many people do not understand the difference between a nurse and a nurse practitioner. The tide is slowly moving in the right direction as nurse practitioners become more prevalent but there is still a huge knowledge gap in the public.
With my friends within the healthcare world, the questions are quite different. “Why did you decide to do FNP?” or “How much time do you really need to commit to school?” or “How in the world are you doing that school along with everything else in your life?” All valid questions based on real concerns. Deciding to become a nurse practitioner is a big career move requiring time, support, money and a huge portion of your sanity. This is part of my story along that journey.
Ever since I graduated from nursing school in 2009 I knew that I wanted to eventually get my master’s and become a nurse practitioner, even before I really knew what that entailed. To be honest, I didn’t have a whole lot of backing behind that desire other than I had always been a “school person” and wanted to say I had a master’s degree. At that time I was nearly as ignorant as most people on the street about the qualifications, the education, the job description. I think I even revealed my professional plans in my “welcome to the unit” profile at my first job (so naive, not the smartest move). I just though it sounded cool and made me look like I had ambitions.
The WHAT: After a few years in the ICU I started to get a handle on where I could go with my career. I could stay in my unit and pursue a management position. I could go to CRNA school and live in the OR. I could stay where I was at as a RN. I could become a nurse practitioner. And a few more options that I never seriously considered.
After ruling out all the other possibilities for one reason or another, I decided on nurse practitioner only to discover that, like nursing, the NP job description varies intensely from position to position and environment to environment. I could become an acute care NP and work nights in the ICU responsible for thirty very sick patients. I could move to a specified clinic like nephrology or neurology and work solely with those patients. I could transition to outpatient and pursue a career in something completely foreign like family practice. And that’s ironically what I chose.
The WHY: Why did I choose family nurse practitioner over the other varieties? The standard reasons are obvious: no holidays, more money, less time on my feet, more responsibility. I wanted a weekday schedule with no weekends and holidays. I have a young family and it’s difficult for me to spend twelve-hour shifts away from my baby plus I’m tired of fearing that I’ll have to work on Christmas. I was also weary working in a job that required so much physical exertion. Turning large male patients, standing on your feet for hours on end, and sometimes not being able to take a lunch break until 3pm are all taxing on your body. I know I just turned thirty, but I could see the future and it was full of back problems and tired feet. I didn’t want all that exertion for the rest of my professional career.
The most professionally motivating reason for my career change was that I wanted more responsibility for patient care. I had finally gotten to the point where I wanted to write the orders instead of take them and felt that I had enough experience to take that step. I had always been afraid of such great responsibility (and rightly so) but I had gained enough self-confidence to know that I could learn and practice and become a proficient, caring provider. And while it’s the least romantic of my motivations, a better salary was definitely on the list. Getting paid more money for less physical labor is always a good thing.
But the question of why I chose FNP over ACNP (acute care nurse practitioner) also puts me in a honest place because I’ll have to give you an honest answer. The most compelling reason, the one that comes from a deep place in my heart, is that I was tired of seeing the worse case scenario day after day. I was heartbroken from seeing family members weep and watching people kiss their loved ones goodbye. As much as I loved the intensity of the ICU setting- the adrenaline of codes and the significance of standing in the gap during those crucial moments- I wanted something different. I wanted to work normal hours and to treat happy kids sometimes and to forget that those terrible, horrible things happen everyday. To those of you who are in that setting as ACNP, I respect you more than you can know. You’re dealing with vast responsibilities and dying patients and desperate families. You’re in a different spot than me and it’s a good thing we’ve both found our individual callings.
The HOW: So I applied for a FNP program at a local university, got accepted, and signed up for my first class. However, it didn’t quite work out like I had planned and I will tell you a slightly embarrassing secret about my journey through NP school. I took one class and quit in 2013. I had thrown myself into my nursing graduate research class for that entire semester only to discover upon completion of the class that I did not have the stamina for the program. There were many reasons behind my decision to not resume school, mostly to do with my tenuous health at the time, but I felt embarrassed. I had touted this new career ambition to almost everyone and then found myself backtracking, having to admit that it was too much for me right now.
When I think about that decision now, I see clearly that it was the right call. I wasn’t ready to take on life as a FNP. Two years later in 2015 I started school again and now here I am only two classes away from graduation. During that interim time period I took a new position in the ICU and gained valuable experience that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So for those of you who find yourself in the same boat, don’t give in to the voices of guilt or shame or insufficiency. Maybe it’s just not the right time for you and there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe it’s not the right career move for you at all and that’s ok too.
I’m not going to discuss choosing the right NP program because that is a whole other blog post in and of itself. There are a plethora of programs and they each have varied requirements, advantages, and disadvantages. Since I have a daughter, I chose a program that had all the didactic course work online followed by three intense semesters of clinical. I will say that online school is not for the faint of heart- you have to be disciplined and self-motivating. You have to make time when you don’t want to study. You have to stay up late and get up early and make your school work a priority in the midst of everything else you do in life. It’s grueling but in my case, it was worth it to not have to travel to school and find someone to watch my daughter. Choosing a program is a unique decision and you should be prepared to do some investigation.
Finding clinical preceptors is also an arduous part of this journey. Wait, let me rephrase that, an exhausting part of this journey. For my school, I was left on my own to find preceptors, which meant pleading for friends and family to help me. I emailed NPs and never got a response back. I cold called offices and never heard a thing. I did end up finding three fantastic preceptors in my area but that was only because of nice friends who put me in contact with their provider friends. This is where the word networking comes into play. You can never underestimate the value of establishing good relationships with other people in the medical world. If you’re trustworthy, kind and smart, they’re likely to endorse you to other provider friends but if you bad-mouth other people, seem uncompassionate towards your patients, or don’t care about your job, you may have a harder time finding someone who will spend a chunk of time investing in you. In short, make friends and don’t burn bridges.
Remember, preceptors for a NP program (MDs, NPs, PAs) aren’t getting paid to teach you (unless you’re involved in a paid preceptor program). They are giving of their time and energy willingly with no guarantee of a return. Ideally, I would like to get a job at one of the sites that I worked at during clinical because I already have an understanding of how the clinics work, the types of patients they see, and the responsibilities that I would be asked to take on. In this instance, it pays off for everyone because the clinic doesn’t have to spend as much time training you, but this isn’t the norm.
Making the jump into graduate school isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to have a clear vision for your future and be motivated enough to stick with it. You need the support of your family and friends and your job. You will have to give up some things now for a better return later. And if you stumble along the way? Forgive yourself. Nothing in life ever goes the way that we think it will.
I hope this gives you a glimpse of what it takes to go from a RN to a FNP. I hope you can understand my reasoning and my desires. And I hope, if you’re sitting at home contemplating these same things, that this helps you along your journey.
Go get that MSN.