Moving Into a Career in Nursing: my Wife’s Career Change Story

In a previous post on education tax credits, I noted that my wife was going back to school for an accelerated nursing degree through a local community college.

That prompted a 20somethingfinance reader, Telly, to write in with the following question:

“I saw your post today about Education Tax Credits, and was a little intrigued by you mentioning your wife going to an accelerated nursing program.  My wife has from time to time mentioned she wishes she had become a nurse.  So I was a little curious to hear a little bit more about the type of program your wife was in and what type of plan you guys had come up with.”

I liked the idea and thought it would be beneficial to follow up with a post on the blog, not only for those considering going into nursing, but to highlight an example of a well-paying career that does not require an expensive education, and an example of the thought process that went in to her re-inventing her career.

Long-time readers will note that I’ve been critical of graduate degrees (and you could really lump in non in-state bachelor’s too), and the costs associated with them because of their likelihood to put students on a perpetual student loan debt treadmill.

This, however, does not mean that I am against a college education. I don’t know where I’d be without one. There are still ways to successfully leverage an education towards financial success and personal betterment – it just becomes a whole lot harder when that education results in $150k in new student loan debt, income opportunity costs, less real-world experience, and marginally better job prospects, if at all. There are always exceptions, of course, but I digress.

So, here’s my wife’s story on how she is transitioning from a landscape architect (which required a five-year bachelor degree) to a nurse via an accelerated associate degree in nursing, and the thought process and planning that went into it.

Going Back to School For Nursing

nursing career changeIn September of 2008, the economy had been slowly declining and and so was my faith in keeping my job as a Landscape Architect. Many in my office were nervously trying to find work and keep themselves busy, but there was no work to be had.

Eventually about a third of the office was laid off, and I was one of them because I had no seniority. I found a new job three months later but I still had that nervous feeling that there may not be work tomorrow or next week. My career prospects as a landscape architect seemed very limited. I started considering other job options.

I do not share an entrepreneurial spirit like my husband so I was not interested in starting my own business.

I was hearing from numerous sources that there was a nursing shortage, and nursing has one of the lowest unemployment rates by job, at 2.1%, despite the recession. Given the aging boomer population and the need for nurses everywhere in the country, it seemed to be a profession that would have a high level of job security for many years to come. And benefits were great, even for part-time nurses.

I began to question why I had not considered health care as a career option in the first place. I enjoy working with people, helping others, planning, and problem solving. It seemed like a great fit. Plus, I was getting sick of sitting at a desk all day – the job of a landscape architect is not nearly as glamorous as one might think.

I began looking into what it would take to become a nurse and if we could financially make it work. It took a lot of research. Below are the cliff notes on what I found.

If you’re considering a similar move, I’d recommend attending seminars and meeting with advisers at as many community colleges and universities as you can in order to:

  • confirm the school is accredited
  • find out when application deadlines are
  • determine prerequisites needed to get in
  • highlight the bottom line cost of the degree at that institution
  • find out what the job placement rate is for that degree program
  • find out what the application selection criteria is, previous year’s cutoff points, and how you can get a leg up

Community College vs. University & Becoming a “Registered Nurse”

The interesting thing about becoming a nursing professional is that you can get an education at a community college or a university and still achieve the professional tile of a “Registered Nurse (RN)”.

For that reason, it’s very possible to get paid at equivalent levels with an associates degree as it is a bachelor degree, at approximately half the cost of tuition or less.

I discovered from a few nurse friends that many employer’s actually prefer associate’s degree grads because they typically have more clinical, hands-on experience.

At first glance the decision to attend a community college seemed easy to make when considering the cost compared to a university. An associate’s degree in nursing from a local community college in Michigan averages $11,000 to $12,000 where an in-state bachelor’s degree averages $22,000-$23,000 for those who already have all prerequisites completed.

Despite that obvious cost disparity, the decision became more complicated after taking a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

A bachelor’s degree in nursing allows for career advancement beyond the position of a floor nurse, which could lead to higher pay opportunities in the future.

A BSN is required for specialty degrees in nursing such as advancement to a Nurse Practitioner or Nurse Anesthesiologist.

Some states are mandating hospitals to meet a quota of nurses holding a bachelor’s degree. If you hold a BSN you may have an advantage over applicants with an associate’s degree in areas where nursing positions are competitive.

Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An associate’s degree allows you to achieve the title of an RN (same title as someone with a BSN) for half the price.

The starting salary of a floor nurse is the same for both degrees.

Most employers will partially or fully compensate you for going back to school to earn your BSN. Hospitals may have mandates to hire nurses with a BSN but in areas where there is a nursing shortage, the hospitals need to hire a nurse regardless of the degree. And once you’re in, you’re in.

Accelerated Nursing Degree Vs. 2-year, or 4-year Program

Many community colleges and universities will offer “accelerated” nursing degrees for those with a previous degree, versus standard 2-year (community college) or 4-year (university) degree programs.

The accelerated nursing degree programs can be as short as 1 year.

For those going back to school who want a quick path to graduation, accelerated programs offer it.

The upside is lower opportunity cost – less salary is lost if you are focusing 100% on the degree. The downside is that the programs usually have a very rigorous schedule that shifts every few months, and it’s hard to carve out time to work while in school.

Prerequisites for Nursing

My landscape architect degree was a bachelor’s of science, so I had a number of prerequisites out of the way.

I discovered I would have to take about eight prerequisite courses – mostly in biology, chemistry, and nursing, before I would be able to apply to a nursing program.

I started taking these courses at local community colleges while I was still working (unknown by my employer who may have cut me loose if they had known I was considering another career).

These financial decisions lead to the big debate of attending a Community College or University for the degree.

The Big Decision

After careful consideration of the above options I decided to go with the accelerated associates degree in nursing. The cost was a major deciding factor especially considering I had already invested plenty in my previous degree. And the opportunity cost of not working for a longer period of time was very high as well. I can get a job as a nurse where I am paid the same as someone who spent twice as much on their education.

Nursing is an entirely new profession to me so I do not have any immediate plans on furthering my education to become a specialized nurse. If I get in and decide nursing is not a good fit for me, my investment loss is minimized.

If I decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree, many employer’s will partially or fully cover the cost of the degree and you can take online courses while you are working.

I live in an area where the demand for nurses fluctuates. At times the BSN holders may have an advantage over me but I am confident my resume will be competitive due to a bachelor’s degree in another profession along with several years of professional experience.

The Nursing Application Process & Acceptance

Most nursing degree programs are difficult to get in to because there is such a high demand for nurses and so many students looking to get in, that there is often not enough instructors to teach the courses.

As a result, many post-graduate nursing degrees cap the number of students they allow in to the program and rank applicants by a points based system that factors in your GPA, volunteer experience, previous work experience, and coursework. So I started volunteering, taking voluntary courses, and tried to get 4.0’s in all of my prerequisites.

I applied, and narrowly survived the very competitive cut of 32 students for that year.

Now, one year after starting, I’m just 1 month away from graduating and very excited to move into my new career!

Career Change Discussion:

  • If you’ve changed careers, highlight your personal story!
  • If you’re a nurse, what considerations or advice do you have for future nurses?

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