Should I be a nurse?
August 1, 2005 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Should I go back to school to be a nurse?

Here's the story - I'm 37 years old and was an art major in college 15 years ago - before I dropped out. Since then I got pretty good at playing banjo and at web design and development, which lately has qualified me for some extremely boring temp admin jobs. After four years of looking for a full time job "in my field", I'm ready to change fields.
The career I keep coming back to is nursing. There are a number of reasons - it's not going to vanish like the web stuff did, it requires a brain and, probably most importantly, it would actually allow me to genuinely help other people. I got the idea when I was the primary caregiver for someone with cancer, and the more I saw good nurses at work the more I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do.
Drawbacks - I have mountains of debt that is not getting repaid because I haven't had a decent job in almost four years, so I assume I don't qualify to loans or financial aid, and I'm scared to check. Also, I live in the SF Bay Area, which is expensive, and I'm terrified of going to school and trying to pay rent at the same time.

Are you a nurse? Or an old person who has lots of debt and gone back to college? I'd love to hear what you have to say on the subject.
posted by smartyboots to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
IANAN, but I know some people who went into it after they got their undergrad degree in a biological science. They really enjoyed themselves, but didn't get along at all well with med students, and after they've graduated and entered the workforce, they're now complaining about the doctors, though. The pay's ok, but until you get seniority, the hours can be hard.

Have you thought about following the school (ie., go to the best on you're accepted to which may also be situated in a more affordable area), as opposed to staying in SF?

There are grant/loan amelioration/forgiveness programs - but you're likely going to have to pledge working at underserved areas for x number of years, after you get the RN degree.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:12 PM on August 1, 2005

Well, I have oodles of debt and i started back to school for Nursing last winter. Financial aid seems to be based on income, it's not like a traditional loan where your debt ratio matters. If you've been temping and are poor, you'll get at least some aid. I can't help you with the rent thing, I'm working part-time and pretty much being broke. However, once you get a Nursing degree you'll make decent money and have a lot of job security. Oh, I'm 32 so don't let age stop you either!
posted by yodelingisfun at 1:13 PM on August 1, 2005

Yes, let me restate that Yes--there are moments when I think every person going to school should be a nurse--Of all professions I do not know another one that offers as much mobility, financial reward and personal reward as nursing--your choice of specialities is limited only by your own interests--there are ample opportunties whether you interest is clinical, hospital based, community, education or management--there is not a state or city in which you could not get a job--you can work full time, part time, or per diem--you can work 3 12 hour shifts--nights, days, PM or a regular work week--you should be able to start in the high 40K or 50K and soon be making in the high 50K-60K depending on your interest and flexibility--you will be able to get signing bonuses from 2K-10K depending on location. And I am confident you will find financial assistance if you look around and if you are willing to make an initial commitment to a future employer--I just had a close friend in a situation identical to yours (an artist non the less)--she is now working post CCU and easily paying off her debts--you may have to leave SF if you are serious and depending on your financial situation--but I can promise you that you can return to SF and find a job with your eyes closed. BTW--I am not a nurse but I love to work with them, spend a great deal of time recruiting them for my organization and hope you find a career
posted by rmhsinc at 1:27 PM on August 1, 2005

There's a severe shortage of nurses everywhere in the USA. If you are a nurse, you will have your pick of good-paying jobs and relatively flexible hours compared to the rest of the workforce.

There are a *lot* of programs designed to help people deal with the financial side of nursing school, some government sponsored, some hospital sponsored with the hope that you would then come work for that hospital after you graduate.

It is hard work and not for everyone because of how hard it is, but if you want to help people you couldn't pick a better line of work. Probably the worst part of it is dealing with know-it-all doctors, and depending on where you are that can be difficult (teaching hospitals) or relaxed (private hospitals.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:28 PM on August 1, 2005

Smartyboots, this is not the absolute most perfect answer to your question, but I just wanted to throw it out there for your consideration. My sister's boyfriend (late 20s) decided to go back a couple years ago to complete his bachelor's and take the requisite coursework to get into a radiology technician program. Like you, he's carrying some debt. He was able to find some financing, though, since rad techs are pretty highly sought after and there seems to be a shortage. He plans on joining a traveling service for a few years after he graduates. Although it would mean moving around a lot, it's pretty lucrative and he's counting on that money to help pay off debts.

I know there is a shortage of nurses right now and hospitals are offering generous incentives to recruit new ones. There are also traveling services for nurses, like I described above, which may provide more pay, if you can tolerate the moving around.

I have worked in health care for several years, although only for a few of them was I involved directly with patients. I think the work is wonderful, rewarding and tough. (Don't discount that last bit--nurses take shit from docs and patients; the hours can be awful; and because of the nurshing shortage, hospitals are usually short-staffed, which can make your job very difficult.) The nurses I got to know when I worked at a hospital were some of the greatest people I ever met--smart, unflappable and worked as hard as horses. So, if this interests you, I say go for it.
posted by Sully6 at 1:33 PM on August 1, 2005

My wife just finished her first year at UCSF; here's her 2 cents:

"I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I finally decided on a career in nursing after floating around for about five years after graduating college. I attend an accelerated RN to Master's program at UCSF. As long as you have a bachelor's degree in something, you can apply to the program (there are also programs like it at San Francisco State and the University of San Diego, and if you'd be willing to go out-of-state, Yale and Vanderbilt). I can only speak for UCSF, but the only pre-requisites to apply were a statistics course and 4 units of anatomy and physiology (taken within the last five years), and of course the GRE.

The nice thing about the program is that you get all the schooling you need to take the RN licensure exam in ONE year. The entire program is three years long (one year to get licensed as an RN and two more years at the graduate level to become a Nurse Practitioner or a Certified Nurse Specialist), but the program advisors have no problem with people taking a year off to go work as a nurse after completing the first year, and then resuming the program thereafter. That's what I'm doing now. I'm working at a Bay Area hospital, and the starting wage as a floor nurse is over $35 an hour. I didn't start out with a lot of debt, but one would feasibly be able to take a year off and "catch up" before going back for the last two years, and you could work part time during the graduate portion. Plus, when you do finish the program, you'd be making more money as a Nurse Practitioner or Certified Nurse Specialist.

I also live in San Francisco and pay $1500 for a huge 2 bedroom apartment. I would imagine a one bedroom or studio apartment might cost $1200-$1300 a month. As far as loans go, I qualified for very little subsidized Stafford money because I'm married, but I was able to take out the rest that I needed in unsubsidized loans - the cap is $18,000 combined. The rest could be taken out in private loans (the first year at UCSF is about $24,000 total).

We had quite a few women in our program who were in their second or third career, some who went through the program with kids, some who had prior mental health issues, a few people over 40 (or close to it), and even one woman who got pregnant and delivered in April. It was an intense year, but EVERYONE graduated.

My specialty at UCSF is oncology nursing, and I can't tell you how highly rewarding it is. Working on an oncology unit, you get to know your patients pretty well, because some of them stay for a month at a time, or they come back over and over again. I highly recommend a career in nursing. It's such a great feeling to be able to help people out in this capacity, and it's a stable, well-paying career. People are always going to get sick, and health care will always need nurses. Good luck in your decision."

She also mentioned that she could put you in touch with some current MEPNs that might have experiences closer to your own (email's in my profile, put "askme" in the subject and I'll find it.)
posted by Loser at 2:23 PM on August 1, 2005

Well, I am an RN, and since no RNs have yet spoken here, I'll weigh in.

Do I think you're too old? Absolutely not. I went to school with women in their 40s and 50s who graduated and passed the boards. There are anecdotal reports of older nurses being shut out by nurse recruiters, but as a general rule it's not a problem. I think personally that critical care is a young nurse's game, because it takes tremendous stamina, but there are plenty of older CCU/ICU nurses.

Do I think nursing is worthwhile? Definitely. There are many different areas of concentration, after you've worked for a while. My background is trauma/critical care/prehospital, so I can't just pick up and go work in, say, labor & delivery (when I graduated, the L&D jobs were the most highly coveted, and that hasn't changed much - it's normally a wonderful place to work, but when things go bad, they go really bad). The traveling agencies won't take new grads, so you have to work for a couple of years before that option is available to you.

Is it hard? Oh my dear, yes. First you have to get into a program, which isn't easy. There's a tremendous shortage of doctorally-prepared nursing professors, which means that the positions available in BSN/MSN programs are constrained by the number of teachers available. That issue more than any other is the reason for the low numbers of new graduate nurses. You have to be really good at math and science. One-third of those who enter nursing school will drop out before graduation. It's a full-time job itself, but (at least in the South) there are hospitals who will pay for your tuition and books in exchange for a two-year contract at their facility upon your graduation. Most of the students in my class had such a contract. Nurses in California are among the best paid in the country, so you could make a serious dent in that debt of yours after you graduate.

Then once you're in, nursing school is unlike any other educational program, and parts of it are unrelated to actual work. School will prepare you to take and pass the boards, but only experience teaches you how to be a nurse. New grads are almost always put on nights, which is the hardest work (I don't care what the day shift says) and with the least support. And I won't even go into the saying 'nursing eats its young,' except to say that it's true.

It's hard, back-breaking work at times, but it's also very rewarding. I can't imagine doing anything else. It's part of who I am, and most RNs will tell you the same thing. It's like a calling.

If you have any questions, you can email me and I'll be happy to answer. I'll follow this thread for a while, too, in case anyone else asks questions. (On preview, I see another RN has posted, but I'll still follow for a while.)
posted by lambchop1 at 2:37 PM on August 1, 2005 [4 favorites]

As a RN, lambchop1 summed it up pretty well, all I can do is agree with her assessment.. Nursing is a calling and it is hard work but can be very rewarding. There are many paths to choose from, and room for growth. Employment is not hard to find even in rural areas.
I am a RN. I enjoy what I do and can't imagine doing much of anything else for gainful employment. As for the age issue, I don't believe it should be an issue at all. The oldest graduate from my class was 58.
posted by bratcat at 3:04 PM on August 1, 2005

I have found myself in a similar situation. I studied art, worked in web design....

Then the bottom fell out of that, and I got sick of the industry, so I went back to school to try and pursue medicine at 29.

I took all of my pre-requisite classes and did really well. When I was first in college, I never would have imagined getting an A in organic chemistry or physics, let alone liking them.

I studied up for my MCAT and got a 34, putting me in the 94-96th percentile range for that administration of the test.

However, my initial tour through higher education was rocky, and my GPA not great. It's been a rough road, but after some rejection and a lot of volunteer work, networking, etc., I'm enrolled this year in a post-bacc medical program at the local college's health science center. If I get a 3.5, then it's off to medical school.

All I can tell you is to go for it. I know exactly what you mean when you say it felt more rewarding than web work. There are lots of web sites out there, too, for non-traditional nursing, pharmacy and medical students and for older students. One of the best things I have noticed so far about being an older student is that all of the older students stick together and help each other along - you don't have nearly as much of the backbiting competition you get with 18-23 year olds.

Good luck to you!
posted by kaseijin at 4:36 PM on August 1, 2005

Nursing is an excellent job but the hours can be odd (sickness obeys no shift); to get a 9-5 position you may have to acquire some seniority, and you may want a Bachelor's.

Really, if it's something you like, there's not too many practical reasons not to. It's probably the most reliable job there is.

Currently, though there's a huge nursing shortage, there's a similar or worse shortage of education (there's a school that opened recently in the West Indies to take some of the load), so you may find it a challenge to get in, though I'm sure it varies by region etc.
posted by abcde at 5:58 PM on August 1, 2005

You would be doing the world a favor. As has been mentioned, hospitals are facing a severe nursing shortage and by now patients are suffering for it. If you do this because you want to help people you will not be disappointed. If you want money, well, there is a reason for the nursing shortage.
posted by caddis at 6:57 PM on August 1, 2005

The good thing about nursing school? It doesn't really matter where you go: with the demand these days, an RN is an RN. I know almost a dozen people from their twenties to their fifties who've earned an ASN/RN at their local community college, which can be ridiculously cheap. Most have gone on to earn their BSN on their employer's dime.

Due again to the demand, admission's competitive, but not impossible. With your experience, you could probably fulfill many of the english/math/social science pre-reqs with your old credits, pick up a few more for a song with CLEP exams, or even take the science pre-reqs parttime while working and saving. Having all the pre-reqs completed before starting clinical will make things much easier. And though it maight be a hassle at first, there's always moving to a cheaper state, it's only a year or two...

So, know that yeah, people in your shoes have done exactly what you're planning to do, and though it may be hard, what's three years as a penniless student for a spiritually and financially rewarding career? Go for it!
posted by ellanea at 7:00 PM on August 1, 2005

I would like to share my own mistakes with you - I wanted to be a nurse since I was very young, but once I went to school for it, for 2 years (would have had my Bachelor's RN in another 2), I discovered it was not for me.

As people have said, it is very hard work, but that is not a reason for my deciding not to be a nurse. The Care Plans - oh god, the Care Plans... they are hell, or they were to me and a friend of mine.

Furthermore, when you start seeing patients regularly, you *will* get sick, lol... no matter how sanitary you are or how much you wash your hands, you'll get at least a cold. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get your flu shot!!

Make sure you know what it is like to be a nurse. Talk to some nurses about their average day. At my high school open house, I asked my cousin, an RN for 20+ years, if she had any advice for me... the only advice she gave was "don't be a nurse." I think she knew my personality, or what I expected from it, wasn't cut out for it. Furthermore, the aforementioned shortage of nurses results in more patients, and more stress, on the ones who are there.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is, you HAVE to have some self-confidence and be able to stand up for yourself. I was not assertive when I started nursing school, but I learned to be in the 2 years I was there. Your professors and the nurses you work with may question your moves (as they need to do, for educational purposes), and you need to be able to quickly and clearly explain. Don't be afraid to jump in when your prof asks for a volunteer for a new procedure you're learning. And don't be shy - you and your fellow nursing students will be rehearsing exams and histories on each other. Perhaps you're confident enough not to need this advice, but I just want to speak to people who were like me when I was 18.

I think the turning point for me in self-confidence was the day I left a baby in the well-baby nursery and left. My professor saw me walking out, and YELLED that the rule was, no babies left alone in the nursery, EVER. She couldn't see from her vantage point the nurse who was in the room. She said, "show me, you show me where this nurse is." When I showed her, she just said, "okay" and walked away. She didn't apologize, but I realized that I could be right, and a prof could be wrong, and it was okay to stand up for myself.

Why did I decide to drop out? I wanted to be a labor/delivery nurse. But I decided that, first of all, between running back and forth between all my patients, I didn't have time to CARE for them like I thought I would. I thought I'd have time to sit and speak with them about their needs and wants... and I just didn't. Perhaps at places less hectic than the hospitals I were at, you can, but I wasn't satisfied. Furthermore, I decided I wanted to be with one woman during her entire delivery - after all, if I spent 8 hours getting comfortable with my labor nurse and she had to go home, I'd be very discomfited!

Anyways, I don't want to sound discouraging. I just think that you should really know what you're getting into, before you jump in, because I didn't. And now I have over $5000 more in student loans than I would have, if I'd not spent 2 years there before changing my mind. That said, everyone else gave wonderful advice... just do some soul searching and if it's for you, go for it!
posted by IndigoRain at 12:50 AM on August 2, 2005

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