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Career change options for nurses: Building your skills to match your ambition

If you are thinking about career development it is important to do some self-analysis, so what do you need to take into account?

By Simon Sellars Published 06/07/2022

If you’re a registered nurse, at some stage, you’ve probably thought about changing your career, or at least up-skilling – learning new skills so that you can add expertise and variety to the role. Let’s face it, nursing is an intensive profession.


If you’re feeling like you are ready for something new, then a career change may be for you. It might be the case that you’ve been nursing for a while and you’re ready for new horizons: expanded knowledge, different challenges, an increased salary.

As a nurse, you’re already at an advantage when changing careers. There are so many different pathways you can pursue. You could move into healthcare leadership, informatics, governance, education, clinical practice, a different area of allied health or public health.

But first, you’ll need a postgraduate degree. Further education can help you achieve your goals in many ways. Not only does it broaden your knowledge and deepen your understanding of how best to utilise your passion and skills, it gives you an advantage in the increasingly competitive field of health care.

Assess your goals

Before you start, do some self-analysis of your career to date. Ask yourself a few key questions to help determine the best path.

Crucially, are you still passionate about the work you do? List the things you like and dislike about your current job.

In the ‘dislike’ column, how would you improve each element? For example, if you dread admin, you might be drawn to health management, easing the burden on staff so that they have more space available to improve patient outcomes. 

Nurses naturally wish to help people, but try to drill down into additional elements that bring you satisfaction. Is it helping others to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of illness? If so, you might look towards a career as a counsellor, social worker or occupational therapist.

If you find yourself mentoring younger nurses, and you possess strong communication skills and clinical experience, you could become a nurse educator. Tired of bureaucracy? Perhaps you could transfer your skills to public health, working on improvements in policy for the betterment of staff and patients alike.

Knowledge that opens doors

Belynda Abbott started her career as a registered nurse, and now works as a clinical nurse consultant at Metro South Health in Brisbane. In this role, she mentors, coaches and teaches staff, empowering them to pursue evidence-based practice and self-guided learning and research. She also puts into place quality initiatives that improve patient care in the neuroscience ward at Metro South Health.

Belynda has some wise words for anyone thinking of upscaling in the nursing profession. 

‘Have a think about what you’re passionate about. What is it that you love doing in an ideal job? Is it working with patients? Providing education? Doing research? Is it being a leader within a particular environment? Then, once you’ve identified that, find a coach or a mentor, someone you can chat to about your passion and who can advise you along the way.’

She also credits her Master of Healthcare Leadership for forging her career trajectory. 

For Belynda, changing careers meant choosing between continuing professional development (CPD), in the form of short courses or on-the-job training, or studying towards the master’s. She chose the degree because, she says, ‘it gave me the theories and knowledge behind the science of what I do as a nurse. It opened my mind.’

It also opened doors.

‘A master’s gives you confidence,’ she explains. ‘By increasing your knowledge, you have the confidence to speak to other professionals, not only within your industry but outside it. This means you become innovative in your thinking and approach.’

When Belynda finished her studies, she found that it had a direct benefit on her career. 

‘I’m the type of person who actively seeks opportunities, and it’s through the learning and knowledge from my degrees that I was able to do that. With knowledge comes confidence, and that’s powerful, because it empowers you to seek opportunities. And by seeking those opportunities, your leaders see your capability. They see your capacity for change and that opens other doors.’

Nursing gives you an advantage

Common pathways for nurses include nursing education, mental health, health management and public health. That’s because nursing is an incredibly flexible profession that has all the building blocks for growth and success, as Belynda highlights.

‘It’s quite incredible what our profession can do when required. We step up to the mark with solutions and answers to any challenges that come our way. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve had nurses working in quarantine hotels, screening clinics, vaccination clinics, hospital environments, and in public health. The resilience within nursing is incredible.’

That’s a useful snapshot of the broad skills already in place that will serve any nurse when changing careers. It’s also a passport to an improved pay packet. The annual salary for a registered nurse in Australia is around $75,000, while for a nursing practitioner, it’s around $120,000. For nursing unit managers, it’s around $115,000, and for directors of nursing, annual salaries can reach over $170,000.

Fitting study into your life

There’s a final important consideration when looking at a career change: how to fit study around work and family time. For Belynda, with a fulltime job and young children, online study was beneficial.

‘With kids,’ she says, ‘it was good to be able to juggle study by doing it in the afternoon, when I got home from work, or on weekends. The flexibility made it a little bit easier, but you still must be motivated and self-directed in your learning. Even then, the universities I studied at provided online platforms where you could connect with likeminded people and find support on your journey.’