Dr. Katie Parris is the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate and Pre-Licensure Education at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB). She's an experienced administrator and nurse educator who has extensive experience in critical care nursing and home care. At UAB, she teaches and mentors BSN and AMNP students. In our conversation with Dr. Parris, we asked her about her nursing journey, career advice as well as her advice for nursing students.
I actively teach lots of different content in nursing courses. I also meet with students and help give them guidance in terms of their career. I work with people that are trying to get into nursing school, help them and help mentor them. There’s no typical day. It's always new—it's extremely rewarding.
I really did not go to into nursing the traditional route. A lot of students that I meet have known for a long time that they wanted to be a nurse. They decided as a child, they wanted to be a nurse or they took care of someone in their family. During my first year of college, I volunteered at a hospital and while I was there, a nurse took me aside and said, “You're amazing with the children. You have a wonderful and caring way with them, we think you should become a nurse.” Although I enjoyed my volunteer experience, I had never considered nursing. I ended up switching my major and graduating in 1991. I am hitting 30 years in nursing and it really feels like it’s gone by so fast.
When I first graduated with my BSN, although I had been exposed to lots of different types of nursing. I didn't exactly know what I wanted to specialize in. I applied for a few positions; one was an oncology unit, where they kind of dealt with different cancer types of treatment. And then the other one was the CCU and the heart transplant unit. They were both at Ochsner in New Orleans, Louisiana. The CCU/heart transplant director was so engaging and really welcoming. The energy in the unit when we walked around was just amazing. I had been a nursing assistant/tech while I was in school and was in a critical care unit. I think it made for a good transition or a good fit. I ended up taking the CCU in the transplant position to start out from school. Although I do think It's always good to be exposed to less acute patients first.
We are constantly in a nursing shortage, which has even been more exacerbated by COVID. When students or new nurses are thinking about a career move, I always tell them that nursing is a profession that in my 30 years has never not had positions.
With traveling or moving—if they want to move to New York or California, I tell them to try it. Just go and experience it, they will learn a lot by experiencing different hospitals and areas. And if it doesn't work out in a year, they can move back, but they should give it a year. Because the first few months of not knowing what you're doing and where you are and learning that system is fatiguing. You can't judge a move or a decision based on the first six month. But give it a year, and if you don't like it, come back.
That's what I tell them about changing jobs or continuing their education. Practice for a year or two, and then if you want to get your masters, then move on to your masters. If you know right now you automatically want to be a nurse practitioner, then start that process when it's available to you.
But in nursing, if you don't like a certain specialty, you can try something different. If you don't like bedside nursing, you can do community health nursing, you can do research, or you can do informatics. The choices are endless. I like to think of nursing as like the symphony conductor of the entire health care system because there's just so many ways that we're involved in every aspect of care.
I encourage them to get a year or two years of bedside nursing in order for them to have that foundation to bring to the next level of education with them. It is a lot easier to transition to being a nurse practitioner and caring for patients in an advanced practice if you know what the nursing role is at the bedside before they become the nurse practitioner.
Of course, they can take some of their theory classes and basic classes before they get to the actual hands-on practitioner piece. It is helpful if they figure out if they want more of a specialty track like pediatrics, psychiatric NP or if they want more of adult health track because there are many kinds specialties. Identifying what direction they want their education to move into so that they don't spend time in a direction that doesn’t appeal to them. It's not uncommon that somebody would change their mind. But if we can prevent that, it saves them time and energy.
A lot of new nursing students or people that haven't even started nursing school want to know what nursing school and being a nurse is like. Maybe they're not 100% sure of what that role really encompasses, nor the role of a student in nursing school.
The curriculum is intense and there's just a body of knowledge that is huge. It takes an enormous amount of dedication and truly prioritizing school over lots of more fun things to do, right? You're in college life. There's sororities, there's social life, all of these different things. And you have to find a balancing act of being able to devote enough time to studying and learning that profession.
Nursing school tests and evaluates very differently than some of the other sciences. Other sciences are very objective and the test questions are if you can memorize this, if you can kind of figure this out, and you do very well on those exams.
Whereas in nursing, not only do you need to know the content, but you have to be able to apply the content in a patient context, and then also potentially evaluate whether that application is appropriate or works and then what you would do. It's like a very holistic 360 degree view of the patient. We might give a scenario where they have to think and apply the information that they have memorized, and sometimes that's difficult if people aren't used to studying in that way.
I also tell students who haven't been in the hospital that if they can shadow a nurse being in the hospital. If they're thinking about nursing school, getting a job as a nursing assistant can help them make that decision, so they know what's expected of them. They should know what patient care looks like and understand that it's not a glamorous kind of job. It's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It's a lot of stress and a lot of on your feet, missing meals. And so it's one of those careers that is extremely beneficial to lots of different people, and internally is so fulfilling. But if that's not your calling, and you don't really like patient care, then it's very difficult to go into. You're not going to be happy. I tell them to get exposed to it so that they know exactly what that environment is like
If they're looking to transition to another hospital or to another state, those kinds of things, networking is the key. Joining professional organizations where you're involved with nurses that are doing what you're potentially looking at doing can help. They can give you a wealth of knowledge about how to get those types of positions, as well as what it's like, what it takes to do, and if there's different certifications that are required for it. Networking is the key.
If it's internal in a hospital, and they're just like, “Oh, I feel kind of stale in this position, I might want to transition to the ER, to the OR, or a different department.” Then, by all means, reach out to the director of the unit and ask to spend some time observing the unit. Start making those connections so that they have a face with a name. And then, when an open position occurs, it would be a natural transition for that person to transfer. They kind of know what they're getting into, they've been down the unit, they've made the connection with the director. It is so wonderful to experience different types of nursing it just truly your eyes open for different places and specialties that you would like to experience. Having varied experience and knowledge also impacts how you care for your patients.