Making the decision to go to grad school isn't always an easy one, especially if you're a nurse.

Surviving grad school as a nurse

But, surviving grad school as a nurse is a whole other discussion.

Barack Obama once referred to nurses as “the heartbeat of the American healthcare system.” Nurses, you have a reputation for going the extra mile for your patients and teammates. But you don’t stop there. Many of you are taking the next step in your nursing career to go to graduate school. Whether you struggled through nursing school or breezed through it, check out these grad school survival tips for nurses.

1. Refresh your writing

Being a nurse is both technical and interpersonal. While your day-to-day work might be more hands-on and problem-solving oriented in nature, many of your graduate courses will require you to read a text and then respond to it thoughtfully. Writing can feel daunting, but remember that brushing up on your writing skills is something you can do before you begin your program. Concordia University offers a free course specifically geared for healthcare workers, and most universities have writing centers that can point you in the right (or should I say write?) direction. 

2. Organization

Keeping an organized schedule will never let you down. Since you’ll have less free time, the key is to know when to push yourself and when to tap out. “Because my son wakes up early for school, I needed to cut myself off from all homework at 10:30 p.m. each night, so that I would be able to wake up and help my son get ready for school,” one nurse stated.

Homework and writing papers require extra effort outside of the workday, but since you already work as a nurse, it’s vital to communicate your learning needs with your manager and team. Graduate courses will require clinical hours, and this often means reducing work hours in order to fit in those requirements. 

If you need help staying on task, check out PC Magazine’s list of The Best To-Do List Apps of 2020. (My personal favorite is Asana.)

3. Lean on your people

Nobody is living life in a vacuum. Even if you live by yourself, you still have a team of people around you at work and in your social and community circles. Whether you have a partner, kids, parents, friend group, faith community, etc., let them know that you’re embarking on graduate school. It might seem intimidating or scary, but it might be helpful to share what you’re doing with your people.

At some point, you’re going to need help.

Communicating expectations and schedules with your partner is a must, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Depending on your schedule, you might have to up your meal planning game (or start meal planning.)

If you have kids, are they at an age where they are comfortable being independent when you need to work on homework? Collaborating with classmates via Zoom with a toddler on your lap is tricky. If your children are school-age, let their teachers know that you’re starting graduate courses. This can help strengthen home and school communication while life is hectic for a bit.

When it comes to emotional well-being, having a few key people who know what you’re up against to give you encouragement or prayer can make a huge difference. Even if it’s that one family member or friend who checks in and asks  how classes are going, that can make a world of difference. It’s good to have people to hold you accountable and be available for pep talks. 

4. Know what resources are available to you.

Commit to learning how to access academic resources ASAP. It’s possible that your professors will walk through some of the services available to you as a student as a part of an orientation or during the first few class sessions. Whether they do or not, take the initiative to seek out what your university’s library offers.

If it’s been a minute since you’ve done a Boolean search, connect with a librarian for some tips. Many universities have a resource center and can help you connect with a tutor or get writing support. 

Many healthcare professionals have free access to their hospital system’s library. One nurse stated that while she was earning her master’s, her hospital’s resource database was her primary go-to for finding scholarly journals for papers. Be sure to investigate this so you don’t miss out on any learning opportunities.

5. Know your why, and revisit it often.

Going to grad school because it seemed like a good idea might not be wrong…but it might not be enough to carry you through the late nights and tough exams. Over ten years ago, Simon Sinek famously inspired business leaders to “Start with Why” in a viral Ted Talk, and his advice reigns true across industries today. Starting with the “why” question can help you dig deeper when grit is needed and resilience feels low.

Why did you become a nurse in the first place? 

It probably had something to do with helping people or serving the community through healthcare. Identifying your “why” means naming why you do the thing you do. You might find it especially helpful to write out your “why” and post it on your laptop or somewhere visible in your workspace.  

Undoubtedly, going to grad school while working as a nurse will have its challenges. You’ll have to synthesize journals and data into essays and discussion posts, and you’ll likely have exams and projects to manage. But in the end,  not only will you have survived, you will have grown in competence and character.


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