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In Nursing, Associate's Degree May Not Be Enough

The nursing field has gotten ever tighter, meaning higher-level degrees are helpful in getting jobs.
The nursing field has gotten ever tighter, meaning higher-level degrees are helpful in getting jobs.

"No one will hire me," says Leigh Ann, a Navy wife in San Diego who, three months ago, proudly accepted her associate's degree in nursing. "Everyone said it was a great career path, but where are the jobs?"

Leigh Ann's problem isn't unique. For many spouses using MyCAA funding to try to break into the medical industry, the degree is only the first hurdle. Next comes actually trying to get a job with that degree.

In a world where a college degree is yesteryear's high school diploma, an associate's isn't always enough to land the job, no matter how great the applicant.

So what does a newly minted associate's degree holder do with that nursing education?

Step One: Look For the Right Kind of Work

"I really want to work in a hospital, but the only jobs I see them hiring for require a higher degree," Leigh Ann complains.

Unfortunately, we hear that a lot. And for good reason: The nursing industry, like so many others, is relying more heavily upon highly trained workers than ever before. It's the math on a bad economy, right? With more people looking for work, employers can choose to be pickier.

The good news, though, is that there are plenty of ways for you and Leigh Ann to break into hospital work and, on a larger scale, the medical field.

If you have completed an ADN, LPN or LVN program, you can start looking for basic medical work at doctor's offices, hospitals, community care centers, nursing homes,or as an assistant working in-house care.

In these capacities, you can expect to work on patient records, perform diagnostic tests like taking blood pressure and temperature, assess patients' medical status and report that to registered nurses or doctors, and provide comfort to patients as the first person with whom they come into contact in an office.

But these jobs aren't as plentiful as they used to be. In 2007, there were 6 LPN jobs in every hospital for each 10 RN positions. Now, the ratio is 1 LPN for every 10 RNs. When the numbers aren't in your favor, how can you make sure you actually land these jobs? 

-- Attend any and all industry-related networking events and job fairs in your area. 

-- Network like it's your job. (People still get more jobs through networking than any other way, so don't miss the boat. Brush up on your networking skills with our how-to guide for military spouses.)

-- Make sure every professor you have along the way knows your PCS schedule as well as you do. Are you moving soon and know it? Do you think your first job is going to be in a different town? Are you hoping to be there for a while?

Your professors are plugged into their community, even if they teach online so ask them who they know, who they can refer you to for questions, and if they have anyone you can sit down and talk to about your career path.

Not only is that first job key to making ends meet, but it is going to provide you the experience you need to actually grow in your field. You will find that it helps you narrow your focus and prepare for your certification exam, if you haven't completed it already. 

Step Two: Narrow and Certify

Pediatric nursing? Maybe you feel called to the NICU. Maybe you are taking the aging baby boomer population into account and know that field will grow along with its population, and you are interested in pursuing elderly care. Whatever your passion, take the time to explore it.

Everyone will want someone who knows what his or her professional focus is and is willing to focus a career on it. So take the risky step of identifying what you want to do and follow the jobs into that subfield.

Whatever field you choose, acquire your certification as quickly as possible. Remember, if you have yet to use all your MyCAA funding, you can steer funds toward your certification exam.

These exams are not cheap -- at least $200 -- so be sure you factor that into your budget. The quicker you become certified, the quicker you will find work, so do yourself a favor and study, study, study.

Step Three: Think About Your Career Track

"I went to school always thinking I'd actually go for my RN, but life and kids got in the way," says Jocelynne, a Marine Corps wife in North Carolina. "We had kids and I got stuck in my job."

Ten years later, she can admit she has hit a career rut. "I am being shut out of promotions by younger employees with better degrees," she says. "They don't have the experience, but they look better on paper."

Now, she fears for her job. "My supervisor says we have to finish the bachelor's if we want to move up. That wasn't the case 15 years ago."

Jocelynne's plan: Finally get the higher degree she has always wanted, one that will help her grow in her current job, develop into new positions, and give her a measure of job security she lacks today. 

Follow Jocelynn's lead and if you have not already, and start thinking about the long term: Will your associate's degree be enough for the long haul? Do you intend to pursue a higher degree? Have you thought about going back for your bachelor's or master's in nursing?

Remember the numbers: The higher your degree in the field, the more likely you are to find and retain employment.

As you start your nursing career with your associate's degree, be mindful of the long run. It's all too easy to get caught in an undereducated/under-certified limbo. 

"No one at school helped us plan our path," says Leigh Ann, who thinks that lack of advice has contributed to her lack of a job right now. "They just said there are plenty of jobs."

There are plenty of jobs, that is true, but to be one of the lucky ones who lands them, you need to be forward-thinking about your career trajectory.

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