Aspiring nurses – do you know that practical experience can be just as valuable as your formal academic training? Many aspiring nurses are focused on obtaining the needed credentials, which means doing well in classes and on exams. However, practical experience can be just as important as academics. Hands-on experience gives you a taste of what it’s like to work as a nurse and helps you develop professional empathy when dealing directly with patients.
Volunteering in clinical settings or taking on an internship are great ways to get hands-on nursing experience that fits into your class schedule. In addition, shadowing experienced professionals allows you to see the nursing profession up close. You not only see how an experienced nurse handles the demands of the profession, but you also get to sample different areas to help you decide where you might want to work after graduation.
Practical Experience for Prospective Nurses and Its Benefits
Whether you’re already in nursing school or just beginning the application process, there is much to gain from integrating practical experience with your academic studies. There are also many ways – from volunteering to internships to job shadowing – to gain that hands-on experience in nursing or the healthcare field more broadly.
Some of the benefits of practical experience, like getting a feel for the profession and building your resume, are obvious. However, practical experience during your nursing education can benefit you in other ways, too. Not only is it great for networking and building your resume, but it can also help you learn about nursing in ways that can’t be duplicated in a classroom.
Types of Experience
Hospitals and other medical centers often need volunteers for a wide variety of responsibilities. Clinical volunteers often do administrative work while learning how a medical office operates. They might also provide as-needed support for medical staff. Some hospitals even give specialized responsibilities to volunteers who are in nursing school.
Internships are more focused and specialized than volunteering. They offer higher-level responsibilities geared toward those studying nursing. Many hospitals offer internships, but so do clinics, nonprofits, research labs, and universities. Some internships even pay a salary, stipend, or expenses.
For nursing students and those planning to apply to nursing school, shadowing shows the day in the life of a nurse. Shadowing involves following a professional in your field of interest through their typical day of work. This allows you to ask questions about situations and tasks as they are happening.
How can this experience help your school and career prospects?
Getting practical experience as a prospective nurse holds many benefits both for your academic journey and your career prospects. Those benefits include:
- Creating connections and meeting potential mentors
During a nursing internship, shadowing, or volunteering, you work side-by-side with experienced nurses, medical administrators, and even other nursing students. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the profession and to make connections you can rely on for advice and support throughout your nursing career.
- Gaining invaluable hands-on experience that builds your resume
Practical experience makes your resume stand out to potential employers. It gives them confidence that you can handle the responsibilities of nursing. It also gives you a much better idea of what to expect at your first job.
- Solidifying your decision to enter nursing school or choose a specialty
Committing to a nursing career or a specialty within nursing isn’t a decision to take lightly. Practical experience can help you decide if nursing is the right choice for you. It can also help you determine if a specialty area like pediatric or psychiatric nursing is the best path.
- Learning soft skills that can’t be taught in a classroom
Some of the most important skills a nurse has aren’t ones they learned in a classroom. Effectively communicating with patients while showing empathy and remaining professional is essential. Solid communication with coworkers is also important as are soft skills like being organized, time management, and problem-solving are crucial for a nurse. Soft skills like these and others are best learned in a practical setting.
What to Expect from a Nursing Internship or Volunteering
Expectations differ depending on whether you’re taking on an internship or fellowship or are volunteering. Read the requirements and expectations of any commitment carefully before you apply or accept a position since these opportunities can vary significantly. Even though there are differences, there are some shared expectations among them. Some of the main expectations are discussed below.
What are the requirements to earn a nursing internship?
Requirements vary among different nursing internships. Depending on whether it is a student internship or an internship for recent graduates, you may or may not need a nursing license. For student internships, you’ll need to be enrolled in an accredited nursing program. Some internships require a BSN or MSN, though some programs accept applications from any nursing student, including those with ASNs.
Where do nurse interns typically work?
Nurse interns typically work in clinical settings, usually in hospitals. The larger the hospital, the more likely they’ll offer one or more nurse internship programs. Specialty hospitals are likely to offer specialized nursing internships. For example, a children’s hospital might offer internships in pediatric nursing. These may not be well-suited for nursing students looking to work in geriatric medicine but may be ideal for those interested in pediatric medicine as their specialty.
What do nurse interns do?
The duties and responsibilities of a nurse intern vary depending on the hospital or medical center. A nurse intern performs clinical procedures and gives general care to patients while under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN) or another senior member of the nursing staff. Their duties might can include checking vitals, giving medicine, and ensuring patient comfort.
Do nursing interns get paid?
Nursing internships are usually paid, though not as much as a licensed nurse, and the pay will be hourly rather than salary. The average nursing intern in the U.S. makes $23.76 per hour, but the rate varies depending on location with some employers paying nurse interns double this rate and others paying as little as half.
How long is a typical nursing internship?
There are a variety of different lengths of nursing internships. For full-time student nurse interns, programs often last two to three months or the length of a summer. However, there are also part-time internships and volunteer opportunities that can last an academic term or semester. Some full-time internships last a year or more and are tailored for recent nursing graduates and require applicants to have a nursing license to practice nursing.
How do nursing internships differ from other experiences like practicums, clinicals, and externships?
Internships and externships can be similar in terms of responsibilities. However, interns generally have more responsibilities and less supervision than externs, and internship programs usually last longer than externships. Internships are more likely to be paid while some externships, and almost all volunteer opportunities, are unpaid. Clinical and other practical experience are generally offered as part of a given nursing school program, but students must apply for internships, externships, and volunteer positions on their own.
Are there different types of specialized nursing internships?
There can be highly specialized types of nursing internships, but many are very general. For instance, some nursing internships at large research hospitals show interns a variety of different types of specialist nursing and have interns rotating in and out of different departments throughout the internship. Internships in more specialized settings, like pediatric or elder-care facilities, may be best for those considering specializing in those areas.
What Volunteer and Internship Opportunities Exist?
If you’re a nursing student, your school likely has programs in place to help you find internship and volunteer opportunities. Speaking to your school’s career office or student services is a good idea since they’ll know about opportunities conveniently located near your campus. There are also opportunities for nursing students to volunteer, intern, and gain practical experience throughout the U.S., and it can be good to explore a wide variety of programs. Below are examples of opportunities in different regions of the country.
Antelope Valley Medical Center in Lancaster, California offers a program for nursing students where they work alongside providers. While under close supervision, interns experience a variety of nursing duties, including wound care, physical therapy, and nurse administration. Interested students should be available for at least one eight-to-twelve-hour working day per week for this paid opportunity. Apply online with a transcript and letter of recommendation from a nursing instructor. Interns at Antelope Valley Medical Center may have the opportunity to take on a permanent role there after graduation.
Huntington Health, a nationally-recognized hospital in Pasadena, California offers internships for nursing students in their emergency services department. This is a paid position for current nursing students or recent graduates, and applicants must have completed or be enrolled in at least one semester or a quarter of credit in an accredited AA, BSN, or MSN nursing program. Applicants need 3.0 GPAs or higher and current American Heart Association BLS Provider certification. Interns work part-time in the evenings, making the position suitable for enrolled students with daytime classes.
For students enrolled in any accredited nursing education program (AA, BSN, or MSN), Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley, California offers an internship program in their acute care department. Interns combine their care duties with shadowing and instruction from experienced acute care nurses. The internship is a paid program, and applicants need current American Heart Association BLS Provider certification. They must also submit their transcripts, a letter of recommendation from a clinical instructor, and verification of current enrollment.
Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois offers student internships in a variety of nursing specialties as well as those in engineering, medical administration, and other areas. Interns assist full-time nursing staff in both patient care and nursing administration as needed. Internships in maternal health, Alzheimer’s nursing, radiology, NICU, and others are also available. Applicants must be enrolled in an accredited nursing program and can apply online.
Cook County Health in Cook County, Illinois offers a full-time externship program for current nursing students. This is a paid externship with a competitive salary. Externs assist with bathing, checking vital signs, patient positioning, patient rounding, specimen collection, and more. Applicants must commit to a maximum of 18 hours per week for 16 weeks (i.e., one academic semester). Applicants should be currently enrolled in an accredited BSN or ASN program. Applicants with CNA qualifications are preferred.
The University of Michigan, a world-renowned research university in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers summer externship programs for BSN students. Externs carry out nursing responsibilities in pediatric or adult acute or critical care under close supervision by experienced nursing professionals. The program includes a stipend of $6,400 to cover living expenses during the program, which last about 10 weeks. Applicants must be in their second or third year of a traditional BSN program at an accredited institution with GPAs of 3.0 or higher and should apply online.
The first of the nationally-recognized St. Jude’s children’s oncology hospitals in Memphis, Tennessee offers summer pediatric nursing externships for nursing students or recent graduates. The paid externship lasts 12 to 14 weeks and includes new employee training. Applicants should be currently enrolled in or have graduated within 12 months from an accredited school of nursing with 3.2 or higher GPAs. Externships are offered in five different areas, including acute and intermediate care, inpatient leukemia and solid tumor, and inpatient bone marrow transplant.
Orlando Health in Orlando, Florida offers per diem internships for current nursing students. Student interns provide patient care under direct supervision and receive experience and training working with patients’ dietary, mobility, mental health, and other concerns. Applicants need a minimum of one semester of nursing instruction from an accredited college or university and must be currently enrolled. While no experience is required, interns must maintain American Heart Association BLS Provider certification.
The world-renowned Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville, Florida health center offers a residency program for specialized acute inpatient nursing. This paid position includes benefits like relocation for those living more than 70 miles away and is for recent graduates of accredited nursing programs. Candidates with bachelor’s or associate degrees or diploma certifications are welcome to apply. Residents are trained in the skills necessary for careers in acute care nursing while carrying out responsibilities at an acute care healthcare site. Applications must include transcripts, a resume, a letter of recommendation, and a letter of intent.
Mount Sinai Hospital System, a nationally-renowned hospital system in New York City, offers paid student internships for current nursing students. Interns check patient vitals, document clinical data, assist with patient mobility and sanitary needs, and more. Applicants must have completed their first year of an accredited BSN program with GPAs of 3.25 or higher and at least one clinical medical-surgical rotation. Interested students should apply online.
New York City’s famous New York Presbyterian Hospital offers an externship program for current bachelor’s students (BSN) in nursing. Externs are offered paid positions as either nursing attendants, nursing companions, or summer nursing externs. All are part-time positions suitable for current nursing students. While working alongside nurses, physicians, and other healthcare professionals, externs gain experience and skills to prepare them for a career in nursing. Applicants should be in their second or third year of an accredited BSN program and should apply online.
Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC offers the LAUNCH summer internship program for current nursing students halfway through their nursing degree program. This is a 12- to 14-week paid externship for students interested in pediatric nursing who have already completed at least one clinical rotation. Interns begin with a four-day general orientation before working closely with an individual supervisor, nurse manager, and preceptor in their assigned units. The program is available only in the summer, and applicants should apply the preceding autumn/early winter.
5 Tips for Finding and Landing a Volunteer or Internship Opportunity
Deciding to volunteer, be an intern, or otherwise gain practical experience is the first step. Finding the find the right opportunity for you is the next, and it can be a tricky one. Luckily, there are a variety of resources online and in-person to help you during the research and application process. Taking advantage of opportunities and resources both through your school and outside of it is crucial. Below are tips for searching out and landing the right practical experience opportunity for you.
- Know what you are looking for and what you require (i.e., only paid internships or a specific type of nursing or location): Knowing where you want to work and the type of opportunities, you’re most interested in helps narrow down potential applications.
- Start looking early: Many competitive internships, especially those with prestigious organizations, have strict application deadlines. Looking early gives you plenty of time to gather the necessary application materials.
- Use your school’s career center connections or alumni network: Check with your nursing school advisor or your school’s career center to see what resources they have available.
- Check out job fairs or online job listings: Check job boards regularly and attend job fairs, when possible, to keep abreast of all the current opportunities.
- Research places you’d like to volunteer and intern and reach out to them directly: If there’s a particular hospital or health system you’re interested in, get in touch with their administrative department. This shows initiative and can lead to more opportunities.
Interview with a Working Nurse
We spoke with a graduate from University of Michigan School of Nursing, a top-ranked US nursing school. She is also a former emergency room nurse who now works in healthcare data analysis discussed her experiences in nursing education and immediately after graduation. Here’s what she had to say about nursing education and practical experience.
1. Describe a little bit of your nursing career.
I worked as an emergency room nurse, a sedation nurse, and a labor and delivery nurse. In addition to my bedside duties, I have been a member of several unit sub-subcommittees. I assisted in the training of staff during annual competencies. I gave lectures to new graduate nurses on my unit. I performed unit-based chart audits to ensure compliance with regulatory quality measures. I also was an Advanced Cardiac Life Support Instructor and a Certified Emergency Nurse. I am currently no longer working as a nurse as my career interests have changed.
2. How did you get into your specialty?
I wanted nothing to do with emergency originally. My mother was a trauma nurse for decades. Her stories were often quite gruesome, and I used to be squeamish. I initially thought I wanted to go into labor and delivery, but after I graduated, I learned it was difficult to become a labor and delivery nurse without prior experience. I had enjoyed my clinical rotation in a surgical intensive care unit, so I thought of becoming an ICU nurse. Unfortunately, I encountered the same issue as I did with labor and delivery. The clinical nurse specialist of the unit I rotated on recommended a program specifically tailored to graduate nurses in the emergency department. I submitted my resume and was promptly accepted.
3. Did you volunteer or have any internships before or during nursing school?
I volunteered occasionally at an assisted living facility as well as at a humane society. I did not have any internships before or during nursing school. I was working as a nursing assistant in a cardiac step-down unit.
4. What were the best and worst parts of those experiences?
My job as a nursing assistant provided me with an advantage both at school and later as a nurse. I was able to learn certain skills earlier due to them being part of my job duties. Some of the nurses I worked with knew I was in nursing school, so they took extra time to teach me different facets of their jobs. I also learned how to delegate care and treat my nursing assistants with respect since I could empathize with them.
5. If you could redo your nursing education, what would you change?
If I had known I would end up in the emergency department, I would have tried to obtain a nursing externship in an emergency room. The more clinical experience you can have, the better. I learned so much more in the six months I was trained in the ER than I did in four years of nursing school, especially when it came to priority setting and time management. I also learned various skills and equipment I was never taught or shown in nursing school.