5 Tips for New Nurses

As recent graduates of nursing school, this is the summer where you take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and begin your life in the nursing work force. It is also the time where you may be working and get to transition from “graduate nurse” to registered nurse.

Although that transition time for me was nearly 20 years ago, I remember it very vividly. I had just completed four years of ROTC and was waiting to take the NCLEX and begin my first active duty Air Force assignment. I had to move back home with my parents (temporarily—ugh!) and work part time as an administrative assistant (there was no graduate nurse program) until I could show the Air Force I had passed the NCLEX and move to Lackland AFB, Texas.

nurse-tipsThat beginning led me through nine years of active duty and reserve military service, a return trip to the hallowed grounds of U.Va. to obtain my MSN, and an 18-year career in trauma, surgical, and ER nursing as well as transplant surgery and adult critical care as an NP.

Throughout that time I have continued to appreciate and celebrate my decision to become a nurse. The diversity of the career path has not only showed me that I can do anything professionally, but it has also shown me that the knowledge I have gained as made me a more well-rounded person in life.

Although everyone’s journey through nursing is different, I would like to share with you, during this very important “beginning,” my top five tips that have made me the professional nurse I am proud to be.

  1. Surviving shift work (primarily night shift): Oh, the days when I could go to work with a venti Starbucks and a snickers bar and never blink an eye. Let me tell you, 40 rolls up on you pretty quickly. And it doesn’t make shift work any easier! Pack healthy meals, get good rest, and try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule if you can. When I was single, this meant finding a “buddy” also on nights who wanted to work out at 11:00 p.m. or do grocery shopping at midnight. I would then try to sleep pretty consistently during the early morning to mid-day even on my off-days. As a wife and mom, that now means taking a good pre-night shift nap, getting good rest after work, and eating and hydrating well. Being tired also makes you more prone to injury, so maintain a good exercise routine, and stay fit. I set the goal of being more fit in my thirties and forties than I was in my twenties, and I have maintained that. I have also stayed free from injury. It’s hard to maintain consistency, but if you fall off the wagon, just know that you can get back on at any time. You can do it!
  1. Dress up, act up: The military really automatically helped me understand how important professional dress and appearance is around the workplace. Even though 9 out of 10 nurses look like they pulled their scrubs out from under their bed and combed their hair with a brick, try not to be that person. I have found that looking too “casual” at work makes you act to “casual” at work, and if you have personal standards, they tend to lapse pretty quickly. Be the standout professional. Keep your hair tied back. Minimize the jewelry. You are there to be a functional, service-oriented professional; it isn’t an audition for Gray’s Anatomy. By all means, if you have fun clogs you love, or you have a “trademark” something you wear to jazz up your scrubs, go for it. Just think about toning it down for the sake of professionalism.  And please don’t call patients “honey” or “sweetie” unless their name is Honey or Sweetie and they have asked you to call them that. Address patients as ma’am and sir (or Mr./Miss/Mrs.) until they offer you to do otherwise. Especially for the elderly (and, turning 40 this year, I include myself in that group) – it is insulting to them and creates an environment where they feel childlike and at your mercy. Create a professional (but kind) barrier with them so that they know you take them and their needs seriously.
  1. Learn how to be the best when others are at their worst: This varies based on where you work, but 90% of the time you will be encountering a patient or family member who may be in the crisis of their life. Or they may just be having a really bad day. Either way, you are there as a nurse in service to them. Do not tolerate abuse, but at the same time, temper your reaction. Treat anxiety with kindness. Treat snippiness or snide comments with compassion. Almost always, you will diffuse the situation and have a grateful (and usually contrite) family member or patient who appreciates you even more for you patience and understanding.
  1. Florence Nightingale had it right: I remember at my first job my mom asked me if I gave my patients a back rub at night to help get them relaxed for bed. I was a new 2nd Lieutenant taking care of 12 patients every night on an ortho/trauma/surgical floor. I literally thought that was the dumbest question anyone had ever asked me. EVER. I was anxious to get to the ICU and learn about balloon pumps, pulmonary artery catheters, and shock. Who had time for backrubs? Didn’t she get that isn’t what nurses do? What an insult! I didn’t go to four years of nursing school to change beds and give people backrubs!Let me tell you—I tell that story more than any other nursing story I have. I don’t talk about battlefield nursing, I don’t talk about the military, and I don’t talk about writing CVVH orders or cracking chests at the bedside. I talk about Florence Nightingale. The most important thing that you can do for a patient in this crazy, mixed up world that we call healthcare is give them a bath, rub their back with lotion, and keep their sheets clean. The rest of it is pretty much a crapshoot.
  1. Don’t let the cynicism get you down: You will meet more people who want to tell you how hard and thankless nursing is. They will complain incessantly about their patient load when they always seem to have a pretty reasonable workload. I always tried to face challenging co-workers with challenging myself and being the example. I remember working PRN in the UVA ER (yes, UVA) and watching some of my fellow nurses do whatever they could to avoid taking the next patient. So when they had two patients and I had four and the next ambulance was rolling in, I just walked through the infighting and starting working on the patient.   You are going to fight over three patients? I’ll take six. No problem. I am a nurse, and I am here to help, not let these patients watch me avoid taking care of them. At times, it won’t seem fair. But at the end of the day, it is the profession that you are maintaining. The joke is on them. You will be a better nurse and a better person for it. I promise.

I have many more tips, but those are my top five. I hope it gives you some things to think about. But more importantly, I hope you get excited about choosing a great career. I wish each and every one of you all the best!

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Thoughts on “5 Tips for New Nurses

    Excellent, well- written and insightful.


    Way to go Janet!


    Such a good advice thankyou


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    I love how you talked about caring the most when the patients are at their worst. I can imagine that nursing is extremely rewarding when the patients improve even when they are under heavy stress or illness. I’ll have to remember to tell my sister this since she is considering a career in nursing.


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    Excellent article and tips Janet! As an Air Force veteran, I can say that having a nurse that would listen to you and not be dismissive like you were bothering them is definitely a great attribute to have! We’ve recently started a new venture to help others find nursing schools called we hope that future nurses find it helpful!


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    I like what you said about packing healthy meals to survive your shifts as a nurse. My sister has been telling me about how she’d like to start a career in nursing in the coming year. I’ll share this information with her so that she can be successful in this new job.


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