How to Get Back to a Nursing Career After a Break

Close up female nurse writing on medical record in clinic waiting room
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If you’ve taken a few years off from your nursing career—to take care of young children, for example—you might be looking at returning with a mix of trepidation and excitement.

Trepidation, because things change so quickly in nursing. Excitement, because the majority of nurses report high career satisfaction (though not always high job satisfaction, but that’s a story for a different article).

To make the transition back to work easier and less stressful, it pays to prepare for the challenges that returning nurses face.

Tips for Getting Back to a Nursing Career After a Break

Returning to your nursing career will be easier if you take a few steps while you’re away from work. It’s not impossible to find a new nursing job if you let some of these things slide, but it’ll take longer and be more stressful than if you kept current on aspects of nursing like your certifications while you were out.

While You’re Away From Work

Keep up your license: Possibly the most important thing you can do to facilitate an easy transition is to keep your license current. Depending on your state’s requirements, reinstating a lapsed license may involve paying extra fees, catching up on continuing education units (CEUs), or even taking the NCLEX-RN exam all over again (and who wants to go through that?).

Maintain your certifications: Most nurses are required to have their Basic Life Support (BLS) certification before they begin working as a nurse. It’s a good idea to keep up your BLS certification while you’re not working so that you don’t have to renew it in a hurry before you return to work. The same goes for any other certifications you might have obtained that would make you a more valuable candidate for an employer, including Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS).

Take a refresher course: If you let your license lapse or become inactive for several years, your state board of nursing may require you to take a refresher course before reinstating your license. These programs typically cost between $1,500 and $3,000, and they take a few weeks or months to complete. To avoid wasting your money on fraudulent or irrelevant courses, contact your state board of nursing for approved programs.

Stay current with continuing education requirements: Again, state requirements vary when it comes to continuing education requirements. In Texas, for example, registered nurses must complete 20 contact hours (in many cases, that means hours of instruction) every two years, while Washington state requires RNs to complete 45 contact hours every three years. Some states—including Arizona, Connecticut, and Missouri—have no continuing education requirement at all.

To find out the requirements in your state, see your state board of nursing’s website.

When You’re Ready to Return

Once you’re ready to return to work, there are a few things you might want to do to maximize your chances of getting hired.

Update your resume: The bad news is that returning to nursing after a break almost certainly means investing some time and money updating your skills. The good news is that now that you’ve updated those skills, you’ve got plenty to put on your resume.

Just like any job seeker returning to work after a break in employment, you might choose a different resume type than the standard, chronological resume. For example, a functional resume highlights your skills and certifications, not your work history, which may help hiring managers see past the gap. A resume profile can also call out your recent work brushing up your skills.

Know what kind of benefits and hours you’re looking for: When you’re looking for a new nursing job, it’s important to know what you need in terms of benefits, scheduling, etc., before you interview.

If you’re returning to work after taking time off to care for a child or a sick family member, you may still need some flexibility. In nursing, as you know, this tends to mean shift preferences or part-time status instead of full-time. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a clinical nursing job that will let you leave early to pick up a child from daycare, for example, or one that commits to never scheduling you on the holidays.

Knowing your requirements will help you determine whether a job is a good fit for you. For instance, if you want hours, but not benefits, going per diem might work for you. Or, if you’re one of those rare and lucky souls who don’t need much sleep, working nights could be a good fit.

Network, network, network: If you left on good terms with your old employer, a good way to break back into the nursing profession is to call up your old manager to see if they’re hiring. You can also look for job listings on the corporate site and inquire about specific opportunities.

You don't have to go straight to asking for a job—you can simply ask your old coworkers, bosses, and friends in the nursing profession for coffee dates to catch up. Then, if an opportunity comes up organically, you can express your interest. Referrals are a solid way to get hired in any industry, and your contacts may know of opportunities before they become public.

Remember Your Value

A nursing program graduate once said, “There may be a nursing shortage. But there’s not a new nurse shortage.” If you think back to your first days as a nurse, you probably know what they were talking about.

Experience is worth a lot in the nursing field because you learn the real business of being a nurse while you’re at work, not while you’re at school. You have the experience, which makes you a valuable commodity for a nurse manager who’s looking to hire staff. Don’t let your time away from work make you undervalue yourself.