4 Easy Steps for Setting Achievable Nursing Career Goals

Nursing career goalsBy Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor

Ready to set some nursing career goals that can have a positive impact on your life—both professionally and personally?

“Sure … as long as it’s not too hard,” you say, “Where do I start?”

All it takes is a plan, some old-fashioned commitment and a little expert guidance.And that’s where Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC, a.k.a. “Nurse Keith,” comes in. He offers practical tips and nursing career goal examples that can turn your plans into reality.

This board-certified nurse coach has a successful life-coaching business and podcast; he is also a massage practitioner and yoga instructor. His holistic approach includes setting attainable goals that meld a nurse’s career aspirations with a healthy/balanced lifestyle.

In fact, Carlson points out that maintaining your personal health should be your No. 1 goal.


“No matter what is happening in your career you should make sure you are exercising, eating well, sleeping, and enjoying a positive and happy social life. If you can take care of that part of your life, it will be easier for you to take care of your career.” And healthy nurses are better able to care for patients.

Four Steps to Setting and Reaching Nursing Career Goals 

1. Identify your goals

The first step in setting your nursing career goals is to realize that it’s a fluid process that may always change, according to Carlson.

“Your nursing career is an organic and constantly developing entity. It’s not just static,” he explained. For instance, the goals of a 22-year-old nursing school graduate will be different than the goals of a 52-year-old nurse who has been practicing for 30 years.

“It’s important to stay on top of what your current goals are and realize what you need in your life right now in terms of your work and your lifestyle,” he explained. “Setting goals that you feel like you can attain is critical.”

2. Define, refine and develop a strategy

Once your general nursing career goals have been identified, it’s time to pinpoint short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, and create a strategy to meet your targets. 

One of the more popular goal-setting methods today is setting SMART goals, that is, goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Carlson has developed a unique hybrid approach to goal-setting using both the SMART process and the nursing process.

“A lot of nurses may roll their eyes because they don’t want to hear about the nursing process anymore, but I find it really important. If you take SMART goals and then you super-impose the nursing process over that, you have an amazing, symbiotic, goal-setting system.”

By assessing goals, diagnosing the issue at hand and then implementing a plan, nurses can use the foundation of their practice to achieve common nursing goals. 

3. Break large goals into smaller parts

Carlson outlined a common nursing career goal example: 

A nurse has an associate’s degree but wants to work at a facility that only employs nurses with bachelor’s degrees. By identifying the issue (needing to move from an ASN to BSN), strategizing the action steps that need to be taken (applying to schools and enrolling), and then making that plan come to life (by studying and working hard), a nurse can take a daunting goal and break it down into a less intimidating prospect.

Informational interviewing can also be a great first step for nurses who have the goal of moving to a new specialty, according to Carlson.

For example, if you think you’d like to become a pediatric nurse practitioner in the acute-care setting, sit down for a cup of coffee with an NP in that field to get an in-depth look at what the job entails. This will help you gain clarity and ensure you're setting the right nursing career goals for this stage in your life. 

4. Evaluate your progress

Whether your goal is going back to school to get that BSN or simply updating your résumé so you can get a better paying job or take a travel nursing job, it is essential to monitor your progress. 

“If holding yourself accountable is a challenge, a great thing to do is to find an ‘accountability buddy.’ It’s nice if it is a colleague who has somewhat similar goals, but it could be someone in an entire different industry who is also trying to make a change or grow as a professional person. You can also employ a career coach or life coach to help you set and attain goals and retool them as you need to.”

Evaluation may seem like the final step, but it’s actually part of a process that you will repeat again and again as you re-evaluate your goals to fit different life stages. Carlson recommends that nurses self-reflect and reconsider their career goals every six months. 

“We need to honor the changes that happen in our lives,” he said, explaining that nurses should allow themselves to evolve and develop. 

“Complacency and boredom are two of the keys that open the door to burnout and compassion fatigue, and that can cause us to be really unhappy,” he said.

Nurses can hold steady in their careers at times without feeling guilty, said Carlson, but “overall we need to not be complacent; [we need to] act like sponges and soak up new information and get excited about our calling to nursing.”

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