6 Tips for Working Nurses Taking Online Graduate Classes

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Let’s get this out of the way first: Every nurse pursuing a graduate degree will have a silly “gloves in the freezer” moment, says Deborah Zbegner, the dean of the Passan School of Nursing at Wilkes University. Nurses balancing work, school, and family life should anticipate – and learn to embrace – these kinds of whimsical situations.

Zbegner, Ph.D., CRNP, WHNP-BC, RNC-REIN, who worked one day a week as a nurse practitioner when she was an assistant professor of nursing, recalls freezing her gloves behind the hamburger patties when she studied for her master’s degree part time while working full time and rearing her children. “You will have those moments. You will question those moments and move on,” she says. Zbegner moved on and later earned her doctorate.

Other working nurses who have returned to school share similar experiences. Pursuing an advanced degree in a distance learning format can alleviate some challenges, but the self-discipline required to succeed may be greater. Here are some tips for nurses taking online graduate courses while working a 12-hour or eight-hour shift.

1. Time management and multitasking is key

Nurses’ ability to prioritize will come in handy. Etch out that time and focus, Zbegner says. Be responsible and accountable for your assignments.

  • When you get the syllabus, highlight when assignments are due and other important dates.
  • Create a study schedule and divide the work into chunks, according to how much time each task will take.
  • Make a calendar that includes study time, work time, and family time — and stick to it.

2. Take each day and class one at a time

In a blink, the month, course, degree will be completed. “Time moves so quickly, you’ll be unaware of how much you accomplished. Blink your eye; you’ll be amazed how quickly courses got accomplished. Only look at one week at a time. Blink, and a month’s gone; blink, and the courses are done. Maybe you burned some dinners, missed some practices. You got through. It’s over before you know it,” Zbegner says.

3. Be self-directed

In a physical classroom, you can hide behind someone and might be able to skip some of the reading. Online students, though, are required to read and engage. Responses should be thought-provoking and scholarly, in line with nurses’ evidence-based practices.

  • Exercise civility on discussion boards and during online chats.
  • Be aware of word choice, the characters used, font size and type because you can’t judge the tone of voice, make eye contact, or view body language.
  • Know how often you are required to post on discussion boards.
  • Make sure you have any required video or audio plug-ins.

4. Don’t be intimidated by self-doubt

Nursing provides flexibility in hours, shifts, specialties for anyone — male or female and those who have families. You never have to leave nursing, you can move from education to administration, you can do research or combine those roles, Zbegner says.

“For me, it has been one of the most fulfilling professions,” she says. “Don’t be intimidated by the online environment or the self-doubt that comes with it.” Zbegner suggests thinking about the doors the graduate degree will open. It might be within the health care facility where the nurse currently works, or it might be a chance to teach as an adjunct or online while continuing a clinical practice.

5. Talk to the faculty

The faculty members all work in practical nursing and leadership environments and have taught undergraduate and clinical classes. They all work outside academia and are versed in the problems that face the health care industry, Zbegner says. All have been students while working and with a family so they will be able to understand student issues.

  • If you don’t understand something, seek help right away.
  • Ask questions to clarify issues in the course.

6. Give yourself a break

First, do no harm — to yourself. Ask yourself if you really need to dust once a week or hand-wax a car. Go in with a sense of humor and a realistic attitude.

Next, reduce stress with something enjoyable and meaningful. Physical activity, singing, crafts, meditation, travel, massages are some outlets, according to Linda Weston Kramer, RN, BSN, CCRN, in her reflection about going to graduate school.

And if you discover your gloves in the freezer, file it away as a story you can share.

written by Marcie Gugenheim

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