Nursing as a 'Second Act'

Second-career nurses can help curb nurse and nurse faculty shortages and are valuable additions to the nursing workforce, experts say.

    • May 29, 2012

For Chris Fogarty, BA, a former manager at a small fabrication company in Ohio, the recession had a silver lining: It gave him an opportunity to find his calling. After losing his job in 2010, he took a night-job caring for an elderly man and found unexpected joy in simple acts of giving care. “As I helped this older gentleman struggle into bed, held his hand as he cried for his deceased wife, and assisted him with basic needs like getting into and out of the tub, I knew that my calling was in health care,” Fogarty wrote in a recent essay.

Fogarty heeded that call and decided to become a nurse. He and his wife moved their family—four children, including a newborn—into the second floor of the house his parents-in-law call home, and he enrolled in an accelerated program to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Kent State University. While there, Fogarty got a major boost from a scholarship from New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), a program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that supports students from underrepresented backgrounds in accelerated degree nursing programs. He is on track to graduate next year.

Fogarty is one of a growing number of people who are re-starting their careers by becoming nurses and, in so doing, helping to curb a looming nursing shortage and making valuable additions to the nursing workforce.

Second-career nurses like Fogarty are drawn to the field not only because of the kind of work it offers but also because of its financial stability, employment opportunities, and upward mobility. This is according to a 2009 RWJF-funded study by Carol Brewer, PhD, RN, FAAN, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Nursing, and Christine Kovner, PhD, RN, FAAN, a professor at New York University’s College of Nursing, who run the RN Work Project, a national study of new nurses. These attributes are especially attractive in the wake of the recent recession and at a time when many other fields are in decline.

These factors certainly appealed to Nalo Hamilton, PhD, RN, WHNP/ANP-BC, an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar (2011) who decided to switch gears and become a nurse after she completed her doctoral degree in biochemistry. Now an assistant professor of nursing at the University of California at Los Angeles, Hamilton is teaching, working at a local clinic, and researching breast cancer development in minority women. “I absolutely love it,” she says.

Accelerated Programs Are Efficient Route to Nursing Profession

Hamilton and Fogarty were able to become nurses in short order thanks to their participation in accelerated nurse education programs, which enable students to earn baccalaureate degrees in 12 to 18 months and master’s degrees in two to three years. Students in traditional programs usually take four years to earn a bachelor’s degree and five to seven to complete a master’s.

Accelerated degree programs have spread quickly in the last two decades. Today, there are 246 accelerated baccalaureate and 68 accelerated master’s-degree programs around the country, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

That is good news for second-career nurses and for the patients they serve, says AACN CEO and Executive Director Geraldine Polly Bednash, PhD, RN, FAAN, national program director of NCIN, which provides $10,000 scholarships, mentoring opportunities, leadership development and other supports to its scholars.

Accelerated degree programs, she says, “are the fastest way to get the best-educated nurses out in the workforce.” And that, Bednash adds, will help ensure that there are enough highly educated nurses to meet growing demands for highly skilled patient care. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for more than 1.2 million new and replacement registered nurses by 2020, and accelerated degree programs are helping to build the supply of nurses quickly, she says.

But accelerated programs are not the only option for career-switchers. RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar (2011) Elena O. Siegel, PhD, RN, left her career as a certified public accountant and controller more than a decade ago and enrolled in a traditional undergraduate program in nursing. She then went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees in nursing. Now an assistant professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis, Siegel is researching organizational systems and workforce capacity in nursing homes. “It’s the perfect integration of my past and present careers,” she says.

Whatever route they take, second-degree nurses make valuable employees, experts say.

NCIN scholars are mature and highly motivated and bring diverse perspectives and years of work experience to their new jobs, says NCIN Deputy Director Vernell DeWitty, PhD, MBA, RN. In their 2009 study, Brewer and Kovner found that nurses who earn a second baccalaureate degree in nursing after earning a first one in another field are more positive than nurses who earned their first baccalaureate degrees in nursing. They also found that second-degree nurses may have better coping skills when they first enter the nursing workforce, which could improve retention rates among newly hired nurses.

In addition, second-degree nurses are more likely to be male and non-white, Brewer and Kovner found in their research. That helps to diversify the profession and improve the quality of care offered to an increasingly diverse population.

Accelerated students, meanwhile, hold either baccalaureate or master’s degrees in nursing, which boosts the percentage of nurses holding advanced degrees, says Gloria McNeal, PhD, MSN, FAAN, an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow (2007-2010) and dean of the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing at Charles Drew University. Graduates of accelerated programs of study will help meet demands for increasing and increasingly complex patient populations, according to The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, released in 2010 by the Institute of Medicine. It includes an abstract co-authored by McNeal. Of greater significance is the fact that these graduates will also help curb the shortage of nurse faculty, a key way to address the looming nurse shortage, she says.

Second-career nurses, however, do face unique challenges. They are often managing other financial responsibilities, including parenthood. At the same time, many are not eligible for certain federal loans because they have already earned baccalaureate degrees.

The NCIN program aims to help second-career nurses overcome these barriers via scholarships and other supports. In the five years since it was founded, NCIN has awarded some $27 million in funding to more than 2,300 students in accelerated degree programs. And DeWitty expects the program—and the pace—to continue.

People are searching for stable, secure and meaningful careers, she says, and many are finding the answer in nursing. For second-career nurses, that discovery is a rich reward after long academic and professional journeys to the field. Hamilton, for one, is thrilled with her choice: “Nursing allows me to give to the community, to have the quality of life that I want, and to pursue my passion as a health care provider.” It was, she says, well worth the effort.