A nurse is smiling as she checks a little girl's heartbeat.

I remember the day I decided to transition to a new specialty. I was working on a pediatric unit when we received a diabetic patient in ketoacidosis with a blood pH of 6.9. Any lower and the patient could die.

Although not trained in critical care medicine, I knew this child belonged in a pediatric intensive care unit. This impetus drove me from being a pediatric nurse to becoming a critical care nurse. I wanted the knowledge and training needed to care for acutely ill patients.

What about you? Are you working in a job that no longer satisfies you? Maybe you want to switch positions? Do you even know what types of nursing jobs exist?

Some nurses are content to work on the same unit for years until retirement. However, many others decide to step outside their comfort zone and pursue a new specialty or position in their nursing careers.

Here's how you can go about it.

Reasons to Transition to a New Specialty or Position

Many nurses graduate from college or university with one goal; to be a nurse. Initially, they only think about their first job and paycheck. Little do they know that nursing has more than 80 specialties and nursing options they could follow.

Did you know? You can choose from more than 80 nursing specialties, from an ambulatory care nurse to a urology nurse.

Are you one of these nurses? Perhaps you need a change? I was pushed out of my comfortable pediatric position by my desire for more knowledge to provide a higher level of care. Here are some other reasons to pursue a new specialty or position: 

  • New Goal: Nurses often transition to a new specialty or position as a stepping stone to reach a new objective.

  • Work-Life Balance: Some nurses thrive in a shift work environment, while others find it onerous and detrimental to their health. So, they transition to a flexible job with hours that better suit their lifestyle.

  • Financial Success: Nursing positions with more responsibilities are often better paid and may be an underlying factor in transitioning to a new specialty.

  • Influence Change: Nurses observe company culture and can easily identify areas of improvement. You might be that nurse who reaches for a position of influence to effect positive-organizational change.

  • Defeat Burnout: Nurses who feel burnt out at work may find relief by transitioning to a different nursing position. A change of scenery allows them to step back from issues contributing to their burnout.

The Transition Process

Your transition depends upon the specialty or position that you choose. My transition from pediatrics to a critical care position required four months of intensive online and hands-on training, followed by a few weeks of orientation. Here are the three most common transitions to a new specialty or position:

1. Lateral Change: A lateral change is a sideways move into a position with similar responsibilities and pay grades. You can transfer many of your nursing skills but might have to learn new processes unique to the job. Depending on the similarity to your previous job, you can expect an orientation and possibly be assigned a mentor.

2. Specialty Pursuit: Most nursing specialties have an established career path. The best way to determine the requirements is to look at their professional association websites. All nursing specialties expect you to pass your NCLEX-RN and be licensed in the state where you plan to work.

For some specialties, you may need to work a mandatory number of hours in the specialty and acquire certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). For example, to become a psychiatric mental health (PMH) nurse, you must first be a registered nurse, gain experience in mental health nursing, and then obtain certification.

However, other specialties, such as nurse practitioner (NP) or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), require a master's or doctorate, along with practicums or a residency. Becoming an NP may take up to four years, and a CRNA can take as long as eight.

3. Organizational Advancement: Typically, nurses who advance in their healthcare company can expect on-the-job training. You may be transitioning into a managerial role or administration. Take a deep breath and dive in. You have many colleagues behind you. It can be challenging to be the new kid on the block again. However, you need not fear. You can overcome these feelings of inadequacy.

Did you know? Some specialties require you to work a mandatory number of hours in the specialty and acquire certification via the ANCC.

Expect to Experience Imposter Syndrome

I've watched many colleagues choose a lateral position change, then make a U-turn within a few days or weeks. Resist the urge to flee back to your comfort zone, knowing that it can take a few months to a few years to adjust to your new job.

Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? It's the professional version of the idiom "fake it until you make it."

Most of us feel uncomfortable when we begin a new position or specialty. Believe in yourself. You did the hard work of getting there and have the requisite skills to be successful. Be confident in your abilities. You'll soon become more assured and poised in your skillset and new position.

5 Tips to Make Your Transition Smooth

1. Make a Plan: The specialty you choose may take several years to achieve. Familiarize yourself with your career options and set your goals early. Consider hiring a career coach to help you make a career map.

2. Request a Job Shadow: If possible, ask your employer for the opportunity to spend a paid day in the specialty area you're considering. You get to experience the job first-hand, and you can speak with nurses already doing the job.

3. Check Out the ANA Website: The American Nurses Association and other professional websites provide a wealth of information about different specialties and certifications. Take the time to read the information and determine if the specialty you're considering is a good fit for you.

4. Ask for an Orientation: A rigorous, comprehensive orientation provides the time you need to familiarize yourself with your new specialty area or position.

5. Seek Out Support: Transitioning to a new position is challenging, even when it is a personal choice. Studies show that social support is a key component of a successful transition. Ask your new manager for a mentor and for regular performance appraisals. Get to know your new colleagues and stay connected with your former ones.

Transitioning to a new specialty or position is an exciting time. Embrace the change and relish the exponential growth in your professional and personal life. Good luck!

Related Nursing Content