Perioperative nurse Karen Neaton contemplated returning to study for several years but always found the prospect ‘too daunting’.
Once her children finished school and moved out of the family home, she decided it was finally time to take the plunge and pursue further education.
The last time she had undertaken study was in 1991 when she gained her perioperative certificate.
Last October, the 49-year-old enrolled in James Cook University’s Online Master of Nursing, an innovative course that allows students the flexibility to balance work, life and study as they tackle one subject at a time over an eight-week period.
Students must complete all 12 subjects to earn the full Master of Nursing Degree and can choose from three majors – Education, Leadership and Management and Advanced Practice.
Karen splits her time working in anaesthetics and recovery across the public and private sectors and one day per week at JCU’s Medical School where she facilitates workshops that assist patients with their hearing skills.
“I had considered it [study] for a few years but found it too daunting and then my circumstances changed making it much easier,” Karen recalls.
“Getting the job at the university, I felt a certain pressure to upgrade my education and then I had a bit more freedom in my life to pursue study with the children finishing school.”
Karen chose JCU’s online course because it could allow her to juggle her regular shift-work and meeting the required contact hours.
“I work all shifts across seven days so it’s a matter of fitting in my study around the shifts,” she says.
“I have a partner and we try and keep weekends free but we’re very work and study focussed during the week and that’s when I try to do my chunks of study.
Karen says balancing work, life and study takes good time management and sacrifices.
“I’ve said no to things I used to do prior to study. A big one of those is Facebook. I’ve taken myself off social media. Another thing I used to do is mosaic classes and things like that to have downtime and be creative. But those sorts of things have gone from my schedule because of the enormous workload of the study.”
Currently completing her fifth subject, Informatics, and with 14 months to go until she finishes the Master of Nursing, Karen says she is confident the postgraduate course can elevate her career.
“I think it will secure my position at the university and make it easier to perhaps get a similar role at a different university and maybe help me to step up within my career in the hospital as well.”
JCU’s Master of Nursing Course Co-ordinator Dr Narelle Biedermann, RN, says nurses returning to study face challenges in balancing their workloads but with proper support can flourish.
To counter issues, JCU’s Online Master of Nursing provides tutor support seven days a week, facilitates communication and engagement between students themselves, and posts webinars and other resources.
“For many who haven’t studied in a long time it’s that unknown,” Dr Biedermann says of initial reservations many students display.
“You know am I going to be able to succeed?”
The course is structured to allow students to work their way through subjects in a flexible manner, she adds.
“The good thing about online learning is you can do it when it suits you. This is a university that’s open 24-hours a day for students. If they are working shift work their study is still going to be there when they finish or do have some time off or days off.”
Shift work was a key consideration for Karen, who has been fortunate to receive crucial workplace support in order to complete her study.
“I’ve been able to free up some clinical hours where I don’t go to work so I can study and that’s leave without pay and at another place I’ve been able to access my professional development leave to get assignments done and things like that. It’s made a big difference to me coping with the workload.”
Dr Biedermann’s advice to nurses considering a return to study is “just take one bite at a time”.
“Take the pressure off themselves and don’t aim for the highest possible marks. Aim to understand the content and get something out of it,” she says.
“They’ve just got to get out there and give it a go. You can always enrol in one subject and see how you go. You don’t have to enrol in our full on Masters. You can do one subject. You can do four subjects and get a Graduate Certificate. It’s a qualification that’s useful and relevant to the profession and just sets them off in the right direction for future study.”
Karen agrees and encourages nurses returning to study to bear in mind their motivations and set aside the appropriate time to complete subjects.
“It’s really addictive. I told myself in the beginning to take the pressure off that I only needed a pass. Then I started doing really well and I found that I wanted to keep doing well so I tried really hard and just put in a little bit more effort. Maybe that’s just a nursing thing; we always want to do our best.”