A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Travel Nurse

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Travel nurses have the life. They have a meaningful job, helping patients and hospitals in need. They get to travel from town to town — seeing the world, meeting new friends, and going on adventures. And they make good money while doing it all.

Interested? Here’s a beginner’s guide to becoming a travel nurse.

Dream big and set specific goals.

Before you set out on the road to become a travel nurse, decide what you want to get out of your new profession. Establish the vision and goals that will drive you along the way.

Motivations

  • What are your motivations for becoming a travel nurse?
  • What aspects of the profession are most important to you?
    • If freedom is number one, how can you structure your career so you remain mobile, independent, and in charge of your own life?
    • If adventure tops your list, what new experiences do you want to gain during your different gigs?
    • If helping others is your motivator, what organizations or populations would you find it most rewarding to serve?

Locations

  • What places would you love to visit?
  • What type of organizations do you want to work for?
  • Are there any specific hospitals you dream about being a part of?
  • What do you want out of your home base?
    • How much time do you want to spend there?
    • Do you need a place just for tax purposes or a true home to spend your time between gigs?

Professional development

  • What hard skills do you want to gain?
  • What soft skills do you want to develop?
  • What kind of relationships do you want to create with your coworkers and supervisors?

Allow your vision to change and grow as you do. Allow your goals to be your true north. Your answers to these questions about the lofty stuff will help you make better decisions about the nitty-gritty.

Go get your degree.

As with many career paths, your first steps to becoming a travel nurse will take place at school.  To become a travel nurse, you first need to be a registered nurse. A variety of options are available to pursue this degree, each with benefits and drawbacks. Here’s a comparison of the two most popular degree paths.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)
Program length 2-3 years 4 years
Program cost $3,435 per year at a public institution $7,350 annually at a public institution to $30,521 annually at a private institution
Curriculum Introductory courses in:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Psychology
  • Human development
  • Nutrition
  • Nursing fundamentals
  • Pharmacology for nurses
BSN coursework is generally more intensive:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Psychology
  • Human development
  • Nutrition
  • Nursing fundamentals
  • Pharmacology for nurses

You will also learn:

  • Theories of nursing
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Ethics courses
Career opportunity Entry-level positions More advanced positions
Related options Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN): Similar degree to ADN. Different institutions use different naming conventions, but the two degrees are interchangeable. Accelerated BSN: For pre-nursing students who already have a Bachelor’s degree in another field. General takes 11 to 18 months of full-time coursework, with no breaks between semesters or quarters.

Some nurses pursue even more advanced degrees, such as a Masters or PhD in nursing. These require more time and money — and expand your career options.

No matter what program you choose, nursing school is a serious challenge! Here are some tips to do your best:Some nurses pursue even more advanced degrees, such as a Masters or PhD in nursing. These require more time and money — and expand your career options.

    • Carve out space in your life for tons of study time. Dedicate a few uninterrupted hours every day.
    • Know what to expect. Talk to recent graduates about their experience.
      • What study tricks did they pick up along the way?
      • What organizational strategies helped them to succeed?
      • What tips did they learn to balance work, school, family, and friends?
      • How did they manage stress?
      • What do they wish they had known before they started?
    • Get organized. You’ll have a lot of information coming your way. You need to have a system to organize your study materials – and your time.
    • Pay attention to how you learn best. Know yourself.
    • Form a study group. Your nursing school work will sometimes feel like learning a new language. It’s great to have partners to speak that language with. They will help you catch things you miss in lecture, push you to perform better, and help you not feel isolated during those long study hours. 
    • Take good care of yourself. Nursing school is your practice for the high-intensity life of a nurse. Use this opportunity to take care of yourself, especially when you’re stressed:
      • Regularly eat healthy meals
      • Exercise
      • Sleep
      • Have fun (don’t skip this one!)

Ace your NCLEX-RN exam.

Once you graduate, you still won’t quite be an RN. You’ll have your hard-earned degree, but before you can practice as an RN, you must pass your National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for Registered Nurses.

You will be tested in the following areas:

  • Management of care
  • Safety and infection control
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychosocial integrity
  • Basic care and comfort
  • Pharmacological and parenteral therapies
  • Reduction of risk potential „
  • Physiological adaptation

You take the NCLEX-RN exam on a computer. It’s an adaptive test, so each answer you provide determines the next question you receive. If you are doing well, the questions will get more and more difficult. Incorrect answers will result in easier questions.

You’ll use all the study skills you honed in nursing school, plus a few more.

Rack up some nursing experience.

Once you’ve gotten your education and certification, you’re ready to gain some hands-on experience. To become a travel nurse, you’ll need at least one year of traditional nursing experience under your belt. Some hospitals or agencies may require even more.

All experience is not quite equal. Consider the following when securing your first nursing jobs:

    • Remember: location, location, location. Half of the states in the U.S. have compact nursing licenses. This is a single multistate license that allows you to work in any of these 25 states. Head for one of these states to save yourself time, money, and hassle once you become a travel nurse.
    • Consider your specialty wisely. Gain experience in a specialty that will keep you traveling. Here are some in-demand nursing specialties for travelers:
      • Emergency room
      • Intensive care unit
      • Neonatal intensive care unit
      • Operating room
      • Telemetry
      • Medical/surgery
    • Think about what hard skills you want to gain. Picture how your first job will look on your resume and skills checklist before you even begin.
    • Don’t forget soft skills. Focus on what soft skills will be most important for you as a travel nurse — and work to hone them. If you nail these important skills, your clinical references will surely discuss what a perfect candidate you are:
      • Adaptability
      • Ease with change
      • Teamwork
      • Friendliness
      • Hard work
      • Attention to detail

Find a travel nursing agency that fits.

Once you’ve achieved the status of skilled RN, gather your job team. Your travel nursing agency will get you on the road, provide you with stellar job opportunities, and have your back throughout the job hunt. You can see what an important decision this is! So take your time, vet your agencies, and find the one that fits you best.

Here are some questions to explore before committing to a travel nursing staffing firm.

On relationship and firm quality:

  • What does the firm value most of all in the recruiter-travel nurse relationship?
  • Do they have testimonials from satisfied travelers?
  • How quickly do recruiters respond to their candidates
  • How many travelers or other candidates does each recruiter manage at once?
  • What do travel nurses like best about working with the agency?
  • What are travel nurses’ biggest challenges in working with the agency?

On opportunities:

  • How many open travel nursing positions do they fill each month?
  • What destinations do they most commonly send travelers?
  • How would they describe their relationships with client hospitals and medical centers?

On job structure:

  • What do they expect of their travel nurses?
  • What’s their floating policy?
  • What’s their sick policy? Are there any protections for illness during an assignment?
  • Do they ever extend travel nurse contracts?

On pay rates, benefits, and taxes:

  • What’s their average weekly net pay?
  • What’s their overtime policy?
  • What percentage of their overall compensation package is tax-free?
  • What stipends do they offer?
  • Do they reimburse for any of the following?
    • Moving expenses
    • Car rentals
    • Continuing education units (CEUs)
    • Licensing fees
    • Physical tests
  • Do they offer referral bonuses?
  • What does the medical benefits package include?
  • What’s the most common feedback they get from travelers on their medical benefits?

On housing:

  • Do they offer a housing stipend? If so, what’s the average amount?
  • What options do they offer for agency-provided housing?
  • Do they have pictures of a typical unit in agency-provided housing?
  • How do they handle situations in which a nurse dislikes their housing situation?

On problem solving:

  • How do they respond to a conflict between a travel nurse and a medical organization?
  • What are their after-hours and emergency contact options?

With these questions as your guide, have discussions with your potential recruiter to see if you’re on the same page. Shop around and find an agency that meets your criteria, will work with you until you’re happy, and is committed to your continued success.

Looking for more on travel nursing staffing agencies? Check out our blog on how to pick the right firm for you.

Write a strong travel nursing resume.

Your travel nursing resume sells you to staffing agencies as an experienced, professional, responsible nurse. It’s also a crucial part of the application that gets passed on to hospitals and medical organizations so they can suss out if you’re a good fit.

Your resume and cover letter can get your foot in the door — or get the door closed in your face. Here are some tips on making sure your travel nursing resume is top notch.

    • Take your time with it. Such an important document in your career needs some TLC. Be thoughtful with the information you provide — and how you provide it.
    • Research examples of successful travel nurse resumes. You don’t need to go it alone. Check out the models that are out there — and then make them your own.
    • Be thorough. You don’t want to lose out on an important opportunity because you omitted crucial info. Make sure your travel nurse resume has every item that a hospital expects.
    • Avoid common mistakes. Hiring managers and recruiters see tons of resumes in a day. They likely have eagle-eye for errors, inappropriate formatting, overgeneralizations, and faux pas. Dig into industry standards and make sure your resume meets expectations.

Want more on travel nursing resumes? Check out our blog post on writing the perfect travel nurse resume.

Send in a top-notch travel nursing application.

Your travel nursing application is more than just your resume. Your recruiter will also pass on two other crucial documents: your skills checklist and your clinical references.

Practice makes your skills checklist perfect.

Your skills checklist is an inventory of all the experience you’ve picked up so far in your career. The checklists are self-assessment to determine the degree of your proficiency in common nursing duties.

  • Get familiar with skills inventories before you apply for travel nursing jobs. That way, you won’t be caught off guard, filling out your first 100-item list of skills you should’ve already mastered.
  • Check out sample travel nursing skills checklists.
  • Use your own skills inventory as a goal sheet throughout your nursing career to strategically sharpen your skills.

Form close connections for rave reviews.

While all items in your travel nursing application show your competence and proficiency as a nurse, your clinical references also give hiring managers a glimpse into your professional relationships.

Your supervisors will provide these letters of support. As with every aspect of your application, think about your references long before you’re on the job hunt.

  • Cultivate strong, open relationships with your superiors.
    • Regularly ask your team leader and other supervisors how you can improve, especially during your initial job experiences.
  • Keep up-to-date contact information on all your previous supervisors.
    • Before you leave a position, request your supervisors’ permanent email addresses. That way, if they change companies or retire, you can still touch base for a reference.
  • Develop your own protocol for querying supervisors who are less familiar with you. Though it’s recommended to get references from those who worked closest with you, this isn’t always possible.

Enjoy your first gig!

You did it! You did your homework, worked hard, formed your connections, and landed your first travel nursing gig! Congratulations!

Ready to look for your next gig? Contact TotalMed today.

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