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Career progression tips

With services under pressure, tighter budgets and a struggle for resources, nurses often report feeling neglected or stunted when it comes to their professional development.

The success to career progression often depends largely on adopting a pro-active approach and, "putting yourself out there." This may seem daunting at first, but the RCN Careers Service has some advice to help get you started.

Take ownership of your career

If you find yourself stuck in a rut, craving change or feeling under challenged, it's important to take responsibility and ownership of your career. Avoid the temptation to hope things might just change by themselves and equally, don’t wait for opportunities to fall into your lap; instead, create your own.

Start adopting a more proactive approach, focusing on all the benefits it will bring. Be prepared to:

  • Come out of your comfort zone
  • Approach people you don’t know
  • Ask for what you want
  • Always be on the lookout for opportunities
  • Do your research
  • Get turned down or told no - but never let this put you off!
Careers nurse uniform closeup 250x100

Nurses: Your Career

Use our resources to improve your employability or explore options and ideas if you're at a career crossroad.

Make time to think about your career

Schedule time in your diary frequently to sit down and think about your job, career, options and aspirations. Even if you're happy where you are at the moment, it doesn't hurt to see what's out there, explore what courses you could take, or perhaps just think about what you'd like to be doing in two years' time.
Each time you do this, keep a diary where you can jot down ideas and set yourself at least one goal with adeadline. For example:

  • Spend half hour researching Advanced Nursing MSc
  • Contact local university to ask about CPD opportunities
  • Contact local GP practices to enquire about shadowing a practice nurse
  • Research volunteering opportunities and make enquiries.
  • Organise meeting with line manager to discuss opportunities for taking on more responsibility at work / being involved with training new staff / doing mentorship qualification
  • Attend open recruitment day at local hospital trust to see what's available and network.


Networking is a crucial part of career progression, so have a think about how you can do this. You could for example:

  • Attend events, job fairs, conferences, RCN congress, local groups and recruitment open days.
  • Create a linkedin account and reach out to other healthcare professionals or employers
  • Get involved with RCN campaigns, RCN forums, RCN facebook pages, or RCN twitter pages
  • Attend your next local RCN branch meeting, or employer's board meeting

When you do network with others, make sure you make a record of their contact details and ask them if you can get in touch for advice in the future.

There's more detailed information and advice on networking here.


Take the initiative and seek out shadowing opportunities. If you’re employed, it will help your case if you can explain to your manager why you think the shadowing would improve or enhance your practice or knowledge in your current post.

Think about the skills and experience you could bring back with you. It doesn't necessarily have to be within your workplace; you could consider contacting external organisations such as hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, GP surgeries, charities, or you local council for example. It's a great way to learn, gain experience, get a taste of a different role and make contacts; all of which could then potentially open up new doors for you.

Ideally you can arrange shadowing within working time if you're employed. If this isn’t possible, you may want to consider doing it unpaid and/or in your own time. It could really pay off in the long term and act as your ticket into another role or sector.

Arrange informal visits

It may not have occurred to you that you could arrange an informal visit with a prospective employer, but this practice is actually very common within the healthcare industry with the majority of employers keen to accommodate. It's a fantastic way to gain insight into a new workplace environment and assess whether you think that environment would be right for you. It's also another opportunity to make new contacts, ask questions, and make a good impression.

Remember that even though it's an, "informal," visit, the employer will be watching carefully to see how you conduct yourself. Simple things like thanking someone for showing you around, holding the door open for others, or smiling at patients can make a lasting impression.

Further tips:

  • Be specific about which particular area or setting you'd want to visit and/or any people you'd want to spend time with
  • Research the employer and setting well before you go
  • Prepare in advance some questions to ask or points to talk about during your visit
  • If applying for jobsafterwards, reference your visit in your covering letter or job application, maybe explaining why you liked it there or what impressed you


Pressures in the workplace such as service demands, lack of time, lack of funding or staffing issues could mean opportunities for development or progression are scarce.

By volunteering you could either enhance existing skills or learn completely new ones, and bridge knowledge/experience gaps that you might have otherwise found tricky to fill. In nearly all cases, free training will be provided and you may only need to spare as little as an hour a fortnight.

For example, perhaps you’ve always wanted to work in end of life care, but have no palliative care experience. Volunteering for a local hospice or charity could help you bridge that gap. Alternatively, maybe you want to apply for hospital based jobs, but have no prior experience of working on a ward. Most NHS trusts offer volunteering opportunities such “befriender volunteer," "ward volunteer," or "mealtime volunteer."

It's a great way to find out whether you feel suited to a particular environment. At the same time, you'll be helping people who need it most.

You can read more about volunteering to learn new skills here.

Sabbatical and secondments

A sabbatical or secondment is where you negotiate a temporary period of time away from your current job to do something else. This is good for employers because it allows you to gain skills, knowledge or qualifications that could then be put to good use within their service and workforce.

This time out could be used to perform another role, do project work or research, or to study towards a qualification to name a few. It could be done with your company or with a third party (i.e. a charity, different employer or external organisation/company) and could last as little as a few weeks to a few years.

The more relevant the secondment or sabbatical is to your role and where it fits within your organisation, the more likely you are to be paid whilst doing it. In some cases your employer would pay, in others the third party would pay, or in others the costs might be shared.
A lot of employers have a secondment or sabbatical policy, so be sure to check this out. If they don’t, ask for a meeting with your manager(s) and prepare to make a business case for yourself. If you are successful, get any agreement in writing and contact your local rep to check over the terms and conditions before you sign anything.

Make the most of your 121 and appraisal system

Put some time aside well in advance of your next 121 or appraisal to think about which development opportunities you can discuss with your manager.

This is a perfect time for you to agree on some goals. If you have specified that you want to do something in your 121 or appraisal, you are more likely to be considered for any subsequent opportunities should they arise. Ideas include asking to:

  • Take on more responsibility
  • Be involved in training staff / be involved with inductions
  • Discussing study days
  • Shadowing other colleagues / units / departments / workplaces
  • Agree time off for study / training / volunteering
  • Be involved in project work

You should feel comfortable to discuss your career with your employer. A good employer will want their managers to encourage staff, help identify opportunities and be supportive of any career objectives.

Understand the job landscape

Take it upon yourself to become an expert. There are of many ways to do this, but the easiest is to search on the internet. Look through vacancies on job websites and social media and sign up to receive alerts from job searching websites, agencies and specific employers. You'll soon learn which roles are in demand, which employers tend to recruit more, which geographical areas are better to seek work in, what the pay, hours and/or conditions are like, and what sort of experience and skills employers are asking for.

Speaking to recruitment agencies and nursing agencies can also be a good idea; they might be able to offer you information about the current job market in your area and offer you work if you are interested.

Knowing what’s out there is important as it helps you to realise your worth. If you can see endless job adverts describing the job you already do, but with more pay / better prospects / more resources to develop you, this could make you think about whether it's time to think about moving.

If you’re applying for jobs in the private sector, you might want to the RCN's advice on fair pay and fair terms in the independent sector.

Use prospective employers

If you see a job you like the look of, contact the employer and ask if you can arrange an informal visit or informal chat to discuss the role. This is an excellent way to introduce yourself, stand out from the other candidates, find out more about the role, and assess whether or not it would suit you.

If you're worried you might not “fit the bill,” contact the employer for further advice. Upon speaking to someone, you may come to the conclusion that you're more than qualified to apply. Otherwise, you could use this opportunity to gather information about what actions or steps you could take next.

Bear in mind some employers will be more helpful than others or have more time than others so don't be deterred if they can't speak to you, and keep trying elsewhere

Use your colleagues and peers

Seek out advice from your peers. This could be as simple as asking someone if you can shadow them, or if they could spare some time to give you any career advice or tips.

Ask what they did to get where they are now, if they have any contacts they could put you in touch with, what resources they found helpful, or what courses they took.

Join professional networks / professional forums

Members of professional networks are more likely to be up to date with the latest news and initiatives; either within the healthcare industry in general, or within their specialty.

It’s good for you because it means you can keep in the loop, keep inspired and motivated, and network with others. You’re also more likely to learn about new and exciting opportunities, courses, events, and job vacancies. It can also demonstrate enthusiasm to your field and a proactive approach to professional development; all of which employers love.

The RCN has a wide range of professional forums and networks which you can join for free. Some of these forums have their own dedicated facebook groups, meaning you can connect with other healthcare professionals in your chosen nursing field.