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Why is nursing such a good second career option for those with degrees?


In the popular mindset, career choice is a straightforward and chronological process. You begin by choosing your undergraduate degree in a specialist field and then perhaps choosing a postgraduate degree to get specific workplace skills. From there, your career choice seems set: you know where you’re going and what you’re doing and know what the ladder you’ll climb looks like.

But as anyone who has switched careers later in life will know, this simplified way to carve out a career and make a living is becoming increasingly fragmented – and less and less relevant. The modern working world is structured in such a way that the so-called “job for life” is close to impossible to get, and it’s now the case that the average American has 12 jobs throughout their life.

If you are a degree holder considering switching careers, it is helpful to cast the net as broadly as possible when looking for your next industry. More and more people are considering nursing as a way to use their skills in a wholly different context, and it’s possible to retrain as a nurse no matter what stage of your career you may be at – or, indeed, what industry you are currently in. While it may seem like an unusual sidestep to go from professional services to nursing, it is definitely doable. This article will delve into the issues and look at why nursing is a valuable option if you’re a person with a degree looking to change roles.

Transferable skills

As a profession, nursing requires a huge range of diverse skills. These include attention to detail: as a nurse, there are likely to be several situations that call for this on a daily basis. You may be called to administer or check a patient’s medication, for example, and you’ll be required to ensure that you dispense the correct quantity. Or you may be asked to write some medical notes to help other healthcare professionals have the information they need further down the line. Getting this wrong could have significant consequences.

If you’ve already got a degree, the chances are that you have some of these skills already. A degree in History, for example, may seem, on the face of it, to be entirely unrelated to nursing. But it brings several skills, including – for example – the ability to comprehend and marshal large amounts of historical information in a short time, perhaps when writing an essay. It’s easy to see how this can be applied to one of the nursing scenarios outlined above.

In fact, even just the experience of getting your initial degree is valuable here, regardless of its subject content. Earning a degree requires dedication, attention to detail, and the ability to range across different topics and tasks with ease. These are all experiences that would be needed on the ward or in the clinic if you were to proceed and become a nurse.

The range of transferable skills you may have picked up during your initial degree and could easily apply to the world of nursing is endless. Take project management as another example. As a student undertaking your initial degree, it’s highly likely that you would have been required to demonstrate project management skills. This might have been as part of writing a thesis or dissertation, for example. Or it may have been for revision in the run-up to that all-important exam. But wherever you honed your project management skills, it’s likely you learned how to organize different priorities in a way that meant you met the most important deadlines first.

This is something that you would be expected to do every day as a nurse. You would need to ensure that you responded to the most pressing clinical needs first, of course, but then you’d also need to be sure that when dealing with individual patients, you were able to organize what they told you about their condition and needs into priority order and address the most urgent or risk-inducing ones first. In this sense, nursing is not a world away from what you learned in your initial undergraduate degree.

Ease of switching

Perhaps one reason why so many people considering retraining as nurses are put off is the perception that it is difficult to secure a place on a course if you already have a degree. It’s undoubtedly true that the stereotypical route into nursing jobs is to start at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, and enroll in a college degree in nursing at a young age, perhaps when you’re in your late teens or early twenties – so just after high school.

But the reality is that nursing is a profession that can be entered later in life. Many colleges accept people in nursing courses who have already experienced another career. It’s a good idea to be sure that the college you go to has some experience working with those who have joined as part of a second career. This could entail looking in college prospectuses to see if there is a section on mature students, for example, or by attending a college open day.

In fact, it is helpful to do this sort of research in all aspects of your nursing course decision-making. You should know for sure whether your course is a fast-tracked one or not. The Elmhurst accelerated nursing program is particularly suitable for those who want to go faster to get where they want to be. There are many other variables between all the different nursing courses out there, too, not just questions of mature student acceptance rates and course speed – so you should do your research before you plunge in.

Leadership roles

Suppose your initial degree was in something unrelated to healthcare, or you have used it to gain a leadership position in a completely unrelated field. In that case, you may be concerned that switching to nursing could lead to you losing the prestige associated with your role or ceasing to have the opportunity to use your leadership skills. You may even be concerned that it could impact your income, especially if you’ve used your first job to become a high earner.

However, there is a surprising number of opportunities to become a leader and earn a high salary in this field. For example, becoming a senior nurse on a ward or in a clinic brings with it many responsibilities, such as overseeing the work of larger teams, ensuring that medication is dispensed safely, and more. In larger healthcare settings, senior nurses can go much higher than ward level. Hospital nursing structures have nurses in leadership roles all the way to the top, which could see you managing hundreds of junior nurses across the setting. In some locations, there are fast-track schemes that allow nurses to get to this point faster based on their pre-existing skills. In terms of salaries, it is possible for nurses in senior leadership roles to earn around $75,000 – and there’s room for progression, too.

Interest and stimulation 

Another reason why nursing is often a good second career choice for those who already have a degree and are looking to make a vocational switch is that it provides a lot of intellectual stimulation. Presumably, if you have a degree, then you either did or still do have an interest in learning about the world around you, whatever subject area you may have been in at the time you studied. If your initial degree is in engineering, for example, you may have an academic interest in how systems work or how the different parts of a machine fit together.

Switching to nursing can provide a way for those with an initial degree to rediscover the joy of learning. This is because nursing provides a lot of intellectual stimulation. For example, it offers the chance to uncover information about how the human body reacts to particular forms of treatment. It is perhaps not the case that a nurse would get as much intellectual stimulation as a physician, who would need to study for four to six years or longer and cover topics in more depth. It is true to say that nurses have to study a wide range of scientific and medical topics, including principles and processes of childcare, evidence-based approaches to chronic health issues, and more.

Giving back to the community 

As this article has shown so far, there are many reasons for going into nursing – whether you have a first degree or not. But perhaps one of the main motivations that many who go into nursing during any stage in their career have is the fact that it offers the chance to care for people and do something good for the community. Nursing provides an opportunity to look after people in their hour of need, which is an excellent way to feel connected to those around you and to come home satisfied that you have done well.

It’s important, however, to avoid glamorizing the profession. Some nurses object to the idea that they are “community heroes”: while the role certainly involves improving and changing people’s lives for the better, it’s also a job with lots of hard work attached to it. It is also important to note that the good feeling that you get from helping people in the community does not necessarily last all day. Nurses often work long hours, and it can be tough on the emotions to work with those who are ill, distressed, or coming to the end of their lives. As a result, it is a good idea to take a flexible attitude to your nursing career and to remember that while it is undoubtedly fulfilling, it’s not always going to be plain sailing.

Collaboration and teamwork 

Another reason those who already have a degree may consider a sideways switch into nursing is because of the potential it offers for teamwork. Nursing is a highly collaborative profession in many ways. For example, it involves joined-up work, such as ensuring that different people execute every patient’s care plan at the right time and in the right way. This requires trust, and it also involves a lot of sharing of information – and managing that with your co-workers.

Those who already have a degree might currently be working in a role that requires teamwork but is, in some other way, unfulfilling. Or they might be working in a position with no teamwork element to it. This is often the case for degree-educated individuals in corporate management roles, where one of the most frequent complaints is a sense of isolation. Either way, crossing over into the world of nursing through a training program is one way to find the opportunity for teamwork that you’ve been looking for.

Demand for your skills

So far, this article has mainly explored questions about the intellectual and personal stimulation and satisfaction that nursing can offer. But it is also the case that nursing does, in many locations and contexts, provide a certain level of job security. While it’s perhaps not the case that individual job security in the same role and hospital is going to be on the cards for every nurse, it’s likely to be the case that a nurse who finds themselves out of work is eventually able to secure work elsewhere. With nursing employment levels continuing to rise, it is a positive outlook for those thinking of retraining.

At the most basic level, it’s worth pointing out that nurses are likely to always be in demand – at least for as long as there’s a healthcare system in place that values patient care. Unlike other roles, such as those in certain parts of the energy sector or some Main Street shopping outlets, the fluctuations of the economy are unlikely ever to obliterate nursing. People will, sadly, always get sick or come to the end of their lives, and nurses will always be needed to help deliver patient care to these people as part of a team of professionals.

But it is also worth remembering that other factors fuel demand for nursing staff. Studies show that there is currently a nursing shortage across the US. One study from recent years found that while demand for registered nurses sat at around 3.15 million, the actual number of employed registered nurses was around 100,000 lower. For that reason, many clinics and hospitals are now taking steps to ensure that they recruit as many nurses as they can to plug the gaps they are starting to experience. Some are offering college credit courses, for example, while others are creating “nursing instructor” positions to enable career progression. For those who value having skills that are in demand, nursing is a great option – and one well worth considering.

It’s not just medical institutions that are responding to the lower demand. In recent years, the government has also taken steps to help encourage the nursing workforce to grow. The Department of Labor in the US, for example, has confirmed that it has put $80 million into what it calls its “Nursing Expansion Grant Program”. The goal here is to contribute towards solving the issues that keep the nursing labor market suppressed.


Ultimately, there are many reasons why people go into nursing despite already having a degree. It could be that they want to use their skills in a way that encourages teamwork, for example, or perhaps they want to give back to their community rather than simply work in a corporate role for the whole of their working lives. And nursing is clearly a source of intellectual stimulation for many people, too, providing a chance to flex those learning muscles once again on everything from medication types to human anatomy.

It is important to remember that this pathway is only for some. It requires a genuine interest in patient outcomes, for example, and a specific set of skills, including attention to detail, teamwork, and more. But if you feel you have what it takes to use your existing degree as a launchpad into a nursing career, don’t let your maturity put you off. Instead, this is an opportunity to use it to your advantage and go head-first into an exciting and stimulating new professional world.

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