Setting up your professional nursing goals in 5 easy Steps


Setting up your professional nursing goals every year is important to advancing your nursing practice. You should always be looking at various angles to make your clinical practice better and to advance your professional development. Knowing your timeline is important before setting up your nursing goals, since some goals cannot be achieved just yet. New grads, for instance, often choose the route to make their clinical practice better by working on a medical-surgical unit to gain clinical experience for 1-2 years. After 1 year of working as a nurse, new grads tend to specialize in their field of choice, whether it’s ICU, ED, oncology and so much more. Nurses who passed the 2 year mark usually focus on professional advancement, which include acquiring their certification or climbing the clinical ladder.

There are various pathways and only you dictate your own so be mindful that there is more than just a single path. With that in mind, you should also be mindful that life happens... being subjected to one path is nonsensical.  Always be prepared if unexpected events so that you don't get off track and you can easily pick up where you left off.

With all of that being said, please know the difference between timelines and pathways, from a nursing standpoint.



Timelines for nurses are hard to find around google, but talking your way through different nurses and leaders, you’ll get the gist of what your own timeline looks like. You can organize your timeline in many ways but I’ll give you the simplest way I know. To better show you this, I will use the timeline of a new grad, which is one of the simplest timelines. I’ll name our new grad (Mary Joe) :)

  1. Get hired

  2. Finish orientation (90 days from hire)

  3. Reach your 1-year mark (1 year from hire)

  4. Reach your 2-year mark (2 years from hire)

  5. Drift off to your speciality or clinical advancement

This is an optimized (or preferred) timeline. I use these terms interchangeably. You can definitely move forward to another unit after you reach your 1-year mark, but this highly depends on your performance and the requirements of your transferring unit. Gaining 2 years of experience prior to specializing is the preferred years of experience before taking on different role.


As you can see, timelines are a very general idea of what your years will look like. There’s nothing much to it until you add your path. Your pathway is a layout of what you need to do to get to where you want to be. If you’re trying to be an ICU nurse, there’s a pathway for that. If you’re trying to be an NP, there’s a different path as well. It’s like going to school all over again, except now… you are driving your own career. Your advancement is totally up to what you sign up for.

So now, I’ll add a pathway to our new grad. Mary Joe would like to be an ICU nurse someday (in 2 years) and states that she wants to get involved with hospital initiatives in the meantime. Here’s what her timeline looks like with her pathway added:

  1. Get hired

    • Orientation starts

    • Work with preceptor to get the best training possible

    • Know what your accomplishments are

    • Know what opportunities (skills, critical thinking, time management, etc) you need to be successful

  2. Finish orientation (90 days from hire)

    • You just finished your orientation and now you’re on your own

    • Review with your nursing director/manager about your plans of becoming an ICU nurse.

    • Continue building your bedside nursing experience

    • Join a unit-based committee

    • Join a hospital-based committee

    • Participate in unit- based projects

    • Start reading about clinical advancement requirements

  3. Reach your 1-year mark (1 year from hire)

    • Work with your nursing director/manager about your plans (this is a vital step - should be done during your annual evaluation)

    • Continue on committee-based initiatives

    • Gain Preceptorship experience (if comfortable)

    • Gain Charge Nurse experience (depends on performance)

    • Participate in unit-based projects

    • Shadow ICU before your 2-year mark (with the blessing of your director/manager)

  4. Reach your 2-year mark (2 years from hire)

    • Make a decision (gather your thoughts from your shadow experience to help)

  5. Drift off to your speciality or clinical advancement

Now… the timeline looks a little bit more exciting right? Again, this is a very general idea for a new grad who has plans to be an ICU nurse.

But I want to rewind to what I bolded earlier as one of the vital steps during any pathway: work with your nursing director/manager (boss) about your plans. Why is this so important?

Well, for starters, your boss could help you succeed in many ways. And this is one of them. As much as they want to keep you for life, they are aware that you have personal goals too. This is the one of the many reasons why they have yearly annuals for everyone… AND an open door policy! Because they want you to succeed in all of the things that you’re trying to do. With this, they can set up shadowing opportunities and help you transfer smoothly into your desired unit.

How to get started

Step 1: What is your current position?

Where are you currently in your nursing career? Are you just starting off as a new grad? Knowing where you currently stand will help you determine what your requirements are.

I'll reinforce the possibility of knowing your timelines for your current position in your nursing career. Remember the timeline I mentioned earlier for a new grad? It sounds like the typical timeline... well... it is. This is almost the same path from one nurse to the next, at least for those who want to move on to ICU or ED. However, not all decide to drift off their original units. I know of various nurses who started off in medical-surgical units and decided to advance their career in their home units. Some timelines are fixed, but remember that only you can dictate your timeline.

Step 2: Where do you see yourself in 3-5 years?

Do you see yourself staying as a bedside nurse in 3-5 years? Are you trying to be a Nurse Practitioner? Nurse Director? Clinical Educator? Visualizing yourself 3-5 years from now will create your path for you. If you do not know what that looks like, start talking to some people. Your boss could help you with this.

Step 3: Are there any requirements to get to where you want to be?

This step may take up a significant amount of your time to do, but planning it shouldn’t be difficult. Majority of placements, whether it is a place for school or for work, usually have requirements. If I want to get certified as a med-surg nurse, for instance, I need 2 years of acute care experience, 2000 hours, and money to take the exam. Now certification in leadership requires a BSN (Bachelor’s in Nursing), 2000 hours and 2 years in a leadership role. Not so hard to plan, but it takes some time to accomplish.

Let’s refer back to Mary Joe from earlier. An ICU unit prefers to hire a nurse with 1-2 years of acute care nursing experience so she will have to work towards that to meet their requirement.

Step 4: What do you need to do to get there?

Now that you know your requirements, you should already know what you need to do. This question seems repetitive, but only look at this question as a to-do list with a 1-year timeline.

For Mary Joe, she just has to continue her pathway that I’ve listed above. She is good to go.

But if you’re trying to get certified in a specialty, you have a different list of things that you need to do and these could be organized in a timeline in itself. Here is a sample:

  1. Allocate some money to pay for membership fees and study books

  2. Spare some time to study while working at the same time

  3. Set up a date to take the exam

  4. Pay to take the exam (usually hospitals reimburse this).

You are welcome to create your own due dates to organize your to-do list a little bit more.

Step 5: Start acting

Thank you everyone for reading this article. I hope you found this useful and encouraged you to create your own nursing goals! Feel free to comment down below for any questions! :)

Now go set your timelines, align it with pathways… and start acting.

Happy Nursing!