The national nursing shortage is looming again, and it is expected to affect all levels of professional nursing. The U.S. Department of Labor expects the demand for nurses to grow by 22 percent by 2018. But the demand surge for nurses also means that current nurses will have more professional opportunities. If you are considering professional advancement, how do you know if a nursing graduate program is right for you?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), the traditional advancement path for registered nurses (RNs) who already hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, may open many doors for professional growth. Nurses with an MSN can practice as a family or adult health nurse practitioner, a nurse anesthetist, an advanced practice nurse or a clinical nurse specialist. Nurses can also go on to earn a Ph.D. or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree to become a nurse educator and researcher.

The qualities that graduate programs look for may surprise RNs considering graduate school. Although undergraduate performance and scores on standardized tests may be on the application for a MSN program, the successful MSN student must have more than just grades and test scores.

Nurses who are thinking about returning to graduate school and advancing their careers should ask themselves five questions, says Mary K. Walker, Ph.D., an RN for 40 years, a nurse educator for 31 years and current dean of South University's College of Nursing:

What will a graduate degree do for me?

The successful MSN student has a clear idea of how a graduate degree will help him or her grow. A good candidate for an MSN is a nurse who looks five years down the road, sees where he or she wants to be, and knows that the lack of a graduate degree will prevent the realization of that goal.

What are my strengths?

Walker maintains that the best MSN students have a yearning for career growth combined with a continued need for patient interaction.

"Nurses value being able to do good in the face of great harm, and many would miss that too much to consider a career that took it away, even if it met their other goals," she says.

Where do I need to grow professionally?

If you are feeling constrained by your current position and want to do more as a nurse, a graduate degree might be for you. But Walker would caution a nurse, especially one who has years of experience, not to think of a graduate degree as a piece of paper that will provide proof to others of what she or he already knows.

"Even nurses who have been in the field for decades have to be comfortable with being novices again when they come back to school," she says. "You must be willing to let go of what you know in order to learn new areas. Humility is a prerequisite."

What kind of career advancement am I looking for?

"Successful students are not just looking for better pay and better hours," says Walker. "They are looking for a new career path in a profession they are passionate about."

What are the competing priorities in my life?

Students of all ages, years of work experience, and educational background succeed in graduate nursing programs. Some students are 22-year-olds with few responsibilities, others have 25 years of experience and are caring for children, parents or both. And while some graduate programs offer part-time attendance, online classes and other flexibility, students still must be prepared for the workload and time commitment.

If you are passionate, motivated and willing to learn, you may be a good candidate for a graduate degree in nursing. Sorting out where you fit will mean a lifetime of fulfillment in a career that means so much to so many.

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