Courtney Pladsen is studying for a doctorate in nursing practice at Georgetown University. (Jason Hornick for Express)

As a nurse practitioner who nearly went into politics, Courtney Pladsen wishes more nurses had a seat at the policymaking table.

Pladsen, 31, is studying at Georgetown University for a doctorate in nursing practice, a degree that will allow her to take on leadership roles in health systems or elsewhere, helping shape new policies and practices.

“We need nurse leaders in all aspects across health care,” Pladsen says. “We really need nurses represented to help advance the field.”

Nursing is an expansive profession, with more ways to enter and advance than a game of Chutes and Ladders. Traditionally, nurses kick off their career with an undergraduate degree in nursing; others come to the profession later in their school career. From there, they have a range of options to advance and specialize.

Navigating all these pathways can be baffling, Pladsen says, but if you have a passion for health and helping others, there’s really no wrong turn. (As long as hard work and bodily fluids don’t make you squeamish.)

The career changer

To become a registered nurse, you typically need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing to take the licensing exam. Many grad schools have found a way around this by offering accelerated second bachelor’s programs or special master’s degree programs for students who already have a degree in something besides nursing.

“They’ve had a different career path, different job, and want to switch,” says Pamela Jeffries, dean of the George Washington University School of Nursing, which offers an accelerated second bachelor’s in nursing. “They really know what they want.”

With GW’s program — based at the school’s Ashburn, Va., campus — students can get the accelerated bachelor’s in 15 months.

In Georgetown’s clinical nurse leader master’s program, students can come in without a bachelor’s degree in nursing and often go on to managerial or educator roles in the field, says Patricia Cloonan, dean of Georgetown’s School of Nursing and Health Studies.

“We really build on the fact that these students have a four-year degree in something else and provide them not only the educational opportunities to develop excellent skills as a bachelor-prepared nurse, but the skills they’d need to transform a work environment,” Cloonan says. “They’re fairly new nurses, but … they’re fairly seasoned as individuals.”


Courtney Pladsen, left, is studying to take on leadership roles in nursing. (Jason Hornick for Express)

The advanced practitioner

Some nurses want to advance their skills and provide direct care to patients without needing to work with a doctor. They’ll need a master’s degree to become an advanced practice registered nurse, such as a nurse practitioner (who can diagnose and treat minor illnesses and injuries), a nurse midwife (who can provide gynecological care and some pregnancy care) or a nurse anesthetist (who can administer anesthesia).

After working as a nurse in the operating room for almost a decade, Maimunatu Mansaray, 46, is back in school at Howard University to become a nurse practitioner. She hopes the job will give her more autonomy and allow her to track her patients over time.

“I don’t have that in an OR,” she says. “[Patients] leave and I don’t know what happens to them.”

Some schools also offer certificates for gaining additional specialization, says Tammi Damas, associate dean of the nursing division at Howard, which has a family nurse practitioner certificate for students with a master’s in another nursing specialty.

“It would allow you to increase your specialty area without having to get a full master’s degree,” Damas says.

GW offers seven certificates, including one in health policy and media engagement.

The online learner

Ezequiel Martinez, 35, is training to become a family nurse practitioner in GW’s master’s program — from the comfort of home in Orlando, Fla.
While Martinez was living in D.C. and getting his accelerated bachelor’s in nursing from GW, he had started taking credits toward a master’s degree, too. After returning to Orlando to take a job in an emergency department where he’d worked before, he almost immediately started grad school online.

“It gave me that flexibility to be able to work in my profession and advance in my profession at the same time,” he says.

It’s not easy to juggle work, life and online classes as the father of a 2-year-old, he concedes.

“That’s where the hard part comes,” he says. “It’s on you.”

Nurse leaders and researchers

Pladsen sought out her doctor of nursing practice program to prepare her for the advanced career options that were coming her way.

“I felt like I needed more tools in my toolbox to be able to do those jobs well,” Pladsen says.

In addition to doctorates in nursing practice and nurse anesthesia practice, some schools also offer Ph.D.s in nursing, which are more geared for research and teaching. Jeffries says GW is exploring offering a nursing Ph.D.

Finding your path among all these options may seem daunting. Students and faculty recommend talking to nursing school alumni, faculty advisers and working nurses, and perhaps volunteering in different specialties, to learn what’s right for you.

“Many originally come into nursing to take care of patients, then begin to see the many ways nurses can really transform systems, improve policy, improve care delivery,” Cloonan says.

As Mansaray puts it: “You’ll never be out of a job, that’s for sure.”

More ways to get ahead:

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