Thriving as a Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant: 8 Essential Strategies for Success After Graduation

June 16, 2023   |   Nurse Practitioners

Graduating as a nurse practitioner or physician assistant is a major milestone academically and professionally. But what can feel like an ending after years of hard work is only a new beginning. 

To help you navigate this new chapter, we asked seasoned NPs and PAs for their best graduation advice, including the essential strategies to help you thrive as a new practitioner. From passing your certification boards test to landing your first job, to avoiding burnout with self care and financial security, this guide will help you start on the right foot.

How to pass your certification boards exam

Passing your certification boards exam is the critical first step for new PA and NP graduates of a nurse practitioner or physician assistant program. Besides reviewing the material and taking practice tests, taking some timed tests under similar conditions as the actual board exams is a good idea. This can help mentally and physically prepare you for the actual board examination under pressure. 

Of course, graduating and studying for your board certification is the beginning of the learning journey for new PA and NP graduates. Robert Blumm, MA, PA, PA-C Emeritus, DFAAPAI, says, “I used to tell my students that adding the coveted ‘C’ after their name does not make them qualified providers. It takes two years after certification to put it all together. This is your unofficial residency.”

After passing board certification, says Blumm, comes the hard work of learning your craft. “Be patient, ask questions and study and review those procedures and encounters of the day.”

Tips for landing your first job

As a new nurse practitioner graduate, finding your first job can be stressful. The good news is that healthcare is a field where everyone is seeking qualified candidates. While many positions require someone with experience, someone is always willing to train a new grad, especially if your personality fits the institution’s culture. Karen Gentile, owner of
Pediatric TeleCare recommends staying open-minded about your first job offer. “Sometimes gaining that first round of experience is more important than whether or not it’s the perfect fit. There’s a high chance that your first job won’t be your last, so don’t overthink it.” 

Finding the placement that’s right for you is key. Dina Zimmerman, APRN, owner of Provider STAT, says while the field is full of opportunities, look in the areas you enjoy most. And find a kind manager and environment because that will determine whether you like your job. Asking for what you need, even in your first job, is important. “Stand up for yourself when it comes to your salary. Be sure you’re asking for something more reasonable nowadays because nurses in many places get more per hour than NPs when we don’t open our mouths,” says Zimmerman.

While networking, don’t be afraid to reach out and make connections with professionals in the field who may be able to provide guidance or even help open doors for potential job prospects. This will help you clarify what kind of position is best for you. Gentile says, every educator, preceptor, nurse and front desk staff member is a potential future job offer. “Everyone you come in contact with should leave with a positive impression of you because someday they will be looking to hire a new provider and will remember you. I’ve recommended and hired past students into positions I have resigned from because I knew they would fill my shoes appropriately. I’ve turned down students who were not professional or hard-working because they would not have made good colleagues,” she says.

Karli Burridge, PA-C, MMS, FOMA, founder of Gaining Health, says if your dream position doesn’t currently exist, create it. “You don’t need to wait around for jobs to be posted. If you know where you want to work, or with whom, and what you want to do, then create a solid business plan, prepare your resume and request a meeting.” 

Continue learning after graduation

While it’s true that NP and PA graduation and boards testing marks the end of formal education, it’s only the beginning of your learning journey. Most of what Randy Danielsen, PhD, DHL(h), PA-C Emeritus, DFAAPA of
The Center for the Future of the Health Professions, knows he’s learned on the job. That’s why he recommends continually seeking professional development opportunities even beyond the continuing medical education (CME) classes for your field. “Medicine is a rapidly evolving field, with new research, technologies and treatment modalities emerging regularly. Stay up to date with the latest medical advancements, guidelines, and best practices by attending conferences, participating in workshops and engaging in CME. This commitment to lifelong learning will not only enhance your clinical knowledge and skills but also demonstrate your dedication to providing the best possible care to your patients.”

A key part of learning is to be open to feedback. Brighid Gannon, a psychiatric NP and owner of Lavender recommends new NPs practice to remain open to feedback and proactively ask for it. This can be challenging, but knowing that you don’t know everything initially, especially, is key to learning from others.

Cultivate effective communication skills

Whether it’s working with patients or colleagues in your practice, communication is at the heart of what it means to be a PA or an NP. Patient education depends on your ability to articulate what patients need to know clearly. Communicating with empathy makes them more likely to follow through with your recommendations. 

Strong communication comes with practice. Dr. Danielsen says, “Practice active listening, empathy and the ability to explain medical concepts in plain language to patients. Strong communication skills will improve patient outcomes and contribute to a positive and productive work environment.”

Find mentors and ask for help

As a new PA, it’s crucial to understand your scope of practice and seek appropriate supervision. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, seek guidance, and collaborate with supervising physicians or experienced PAs when encountering complex cases or unfamiliar situations.

Gentile says it’s important to remain humble. “The scariest new grad is the one who is too scared to admit that they don’t know everything and don’t ask for help. It takes time and maturity to realize that all disciplines in medicine use colleagues as a sounding board. Even the most seasoned physicians ask other providers for advice.”

Prioritize self-care

It’s easy to fall into the trap of overworking or taking on too many responsibilities in healthcare. This is especially true for a new nurse practitioner or physician assistant. Dr. Danielson says, “Learn to set boundaries early on by understanding your role, knowing your limits and effectively communicating. Prioritizing your well-being and maintaining a healthy work-life balance will help you sustain your career in the long run.”

Self-care takes time, but it’s worth ensuring you have a healthy work-life balance and avoiding the burnout that’s all too common in the field. Take breaks, exercise, engage in hobbies, and seek support when needed to prevent burnout.

Make use of wellness resources available in the workplace, like counseling services or access to gym facilities if applicable. Taking advantage of these resources can help reduce stress levels while on the job and provide an outlet for emotional support when needed.  

Set yourself up for financial stability from the start

Retirement seems far off when you’re a new NP or PA program graduate. But setting aside money for retirement as soon as you begin your career will add up later. Consider investing in retirement funds such as 401ks or IRAs to plan for long-term financial security. Investing in mutual funds or stocks may also be beneficial; however, this should only be done cautiously after careful research on the investment’s risk level and potential return on investment (ROI).

Click here to see our financial checklist for healthcare professionals.

Be sure you’re insured when you begin your career

Medical malpractice insurance gives you peace of mind. If a claim is made against you, and you are not protected, you risk personal damages and financial losses. Most employer-provided liability insurance coverage does not fully cover the individual employees since the employer’s interests are prioritized.

Medical malpractice insurance covers incidents such as:

  • Bodily injury to others
  • Property damage
  • Sexual harassment
  • Stolen patient information
  • Allegation against students

CM&F offers reliable liability insurance for new PAs and new NPs at a reduced rate. If you graduated within the past year and are applying for full-time coverage, you are eligible for a lower annual premium for your first four years in practice while building your career.

By considering these eight tips from seasoned practitioners, new NP and PA graduates can lay a solid foundation for a successful and fulfilling career in healthcare. Remember, learning is a lifelong journey, and each experience presents an opportunity for growth and improvement.

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