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Skilling up: the postgrad edge


In comparison to other disciplines, Australian nursing has only come relatively lately to academia.

Traditionally, academic qualifications were not viewed as necessary for nurses.

The movement of nursing education to the tertiary sector has seen many changes from the traditional apprenticeship model, and the characteristics of nurse academics reflect these.

– Kay Roberts and Beverley Turnbull, Collegian, 2002 Jan;9(1):24-30

These changes are still relevant today, for a profession that has only been recognised as a tertiary qualification since the 80s and continues to fight for better recognition within the healthcare system.

But how many nurses do you know who complete more than the minimum CPD required for each registration period?

At a time when conversations are being had about increasing nurse leadership in the Australian health system, continuing education at the postgraduate level could be key to achieving this.

“One of the things people underestimate is that they think a nurse is a nurse is a nurse,” says Australian College of Nursing chief executive Kylie Ward.

“[But] your junior doctors and your training doctors come and go. The doctors in those areas, and I am just referring to an acute system at the moment, are specialists who are not employed to be in the ward or a hospital unit all the time. They have heavily relied on the expertise and leadership of nurses.”

Ward sees undergraduate qualifications as the minimum education that allows a nurse the opportunity to practise, but she wants nurses to think about progressing their skills sooner rather than later.

“What we would expect and advocate as the professional body is that a nurse would spend a year consolidating the learnings at a novice level, and then I would expect by second year a nurse should be entering postgraduate certificate qualification with an intention to moving towards a master’s at some stage,” she says.

This was the path that Ammu Nandi followed. Nandi is an oncology nurse at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne and is currently studying for a master’s degree.

Originally doing an undergraduate degree in teaching, she made the switch to nursing and has continually upskilled since graduating in 2015. Keeping up to date in an evolving field is her motivation.

“I finished university, did my grad year, then I had a year of just regular nursing,” she says.

“Once I got into the graduate certificate, I had two years out of uni and I was a little bit nervous about it. I thought, ‘Oh, how am I going to go studying again?’

“But I actually really enjoyed it, and I realised I’m the type of person that if I’m not doing something or keeping myself busy and not having that progress, I guess I feel like I’m a bit stagnant.”

The combination of work and study can be daunting for some, but Nandi says she is lucky to have the support of her course supervisor as well as her workplace.

“I think if you don’t have a supportive workplace you’d really struggle. But in the case of my master’s degree, no, because I get five extra study days. I get five extra exam days,” she says.

“Everything that I’ve requested I’ve received, and I’ve got about 10–15 days of study leave.

“So that’s a lot of time that I can work on my master’s and also not be worried about my financial situation because I’m being paid for it.”

Polly Dufton, clinical nurse consultant at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre and current PhD student, wasn’t always a natural academic, but it is the pursuit of the unanswered questions that drives her to study.

“When you’re perhaps a little bit more junior, you come across these questions and you go, ‘Oh, well, what can I do about it?’” she says.

“I feel like now I have more ability to actually make changes with some of my work, because I try to keep some of my work as translational – for lack of a better term – as possible so that it impacts the work I do every day.”

Polly entered nursing through an enrolled nurse program and, surprisingly, struggled to get into a bachelor of nursing, but she believes her subsequent success is down to hard work.

“Every time the offers came out and it wasn’t mine, I was heartbroken,” she admits.

“I don’t believe that a PhD’s got anything to do with being smart, because I didn’t do very well in Year 12 either, which I think is the other interesting thing. I was having a good time. I didn’t really want to study in Year 12.”

Education and confidence go hand in hand for Dufton. Completing her postgraduate certificate and working on her PhD has given her the skills to implement researched knowledge into her practice.

“Some of the stuff that you learn in postgraduate education is about finding evidence, and using evidence, and making your practice reflect the evidence that’s out there.

“It’s given me confidence in decision making, confidence in communicating, advocating for my patients, and I can back it up with evidence.

“And often now that’s met with, ‘Okay, great. [You] taught me something,’ from the doctors,” she says proudly.

Undertaking study while working day to day can be challenging. For Dufton, her PhD coincided with a pregnancy, but in tough times you find skills you didn’t know you had.

“It’s very different now because I can’t spend my evenings working and I can’t spend my weekends working. It’s much more challenging now trying to find the time,” she says.

“I’ve become incredibly productive in the hours that I do have to do work, which is quite the skill that I have mastered. But it’s very hard with a family and other commitments,” she adds.

Nandi agrees that postgraduate study is a big commitment and that every nurse should consider what they are interested in and if it is really for them.

“If you’re not sure about doing it, I think look into what your end goal is,” she says.

“But I don’t think, at the end of the day, any knowledge is wasted knowledge.

“There’s nothing to lose from it. It will always help you. And it will always look good on your CV as well.”

And much like Ward, Dufton says life-long education is about nurses gaining recognition for the integral role they play in healthcare.

“It’s about giving nurses the credibility as being professionals and being a really important part of that team that cares for people.”

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