Adele Webb’s career path has been anything but a straight line…and she couldn’t be more grateful for that. Unlike many nurses, she didn’t enroll in nursing school until she was 29 years old. Once she started, though, she couldn’t stop. Within 10 years, she had earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD in nursing.

“I spent a lot of time reading research, and I realized I wanted to be the person doing the research,” says Webb, PhD, RN, FNAP, FAAN. “To do that I had to earn my PhD.”

Although her career as a working nurse has been equally unconventional, she quickly found herself moving up the nursing ladder. After starting her career as a staff nurse in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, she moved into pediatric emergency room care.

Then the AIDS crisis hit. She remembers vividly the day a young mother came into the emergency room with her baby. Both had AIDS, and despite all efforts to save them, they died a short time later. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and for Webb this experience triggered a deep interest to educate nurses across the globe about HIV and AIDS.

Through grants from the World Health Organization, Webb spent the next two decades in more than 50 countries teaching nurses and health care professionals about best practices for treating people with HIV and AIDS. After so many years traveling the world, she decided it was time to give back in another way and transitioned to the role of nurse educator. Today she serves as executive dean of Healthcare Initiatives for Strategic Education, Inc., the parent company of Capella University.

What does Webb’s story tell us? In short, nursing advancement opportunities are plentiful for nurses. More than ever, a career in nursing today can be as varied as you’d like.

“It’s just a great time to be a nurse, if you take the time to map out a career trajectory that is right for you,” Webb says.

To get started with creating a career path in nursing that aligns with your passions and interests, Webb offers the following advice.

Expose yourself to new opportunities

With so many career paths available to nurses today—everything from a military flight nurse to an informatics nurse to a legal nurse and many more—it can be hard to know where to start in planning for the future. While it can feel overwhelming, Webb advocates for nurses to expose themselves to as many opportunities as possible.

How can you do that? Webb recommends starting by joining a professional nursing organization like the American Nurses Association (ANA), or one of the many associations that cater to specific nursing specialties.

“Professional nursing organizations typically have many resources to help you stay on top of what’s new and evolving in nursing and health care,” Webb says. “Make use of those resources and let them help inspire and guide your career path.”

She also recommends that nurses expand their horizons by regularly attending conferences, earning new credentials and pursing advanced degrees. 

“Never stop being curious and exploring where a nursing career can take you,” Webb says.

Set achievable, measurable goals

It sounds so simple, yet few people do it: Webb recommends that nurses take the time to identify and document their specific career goals. Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years? Do you have the experience and credentials to get there? What needs to happen to get you on track? Explore these questions and draft a personal career development plan.

“Yes, it is important to set goals, but think in baby steps,” Webb advises. “Career goals can quickly feel overwhelming and unattainable if you don’t take it step by step. Goal setting should involve incremental accomplishments that are attainable. It’s great to have the end result in mind, but keep your focus on what’s next and what’s achievable. Don’t set yourself up for failure.”

She also advocates to identify a peer/friend to share your goals with and who can keep you accountable to them.

Identify a mentor

Who better to help guide you down your career path than someone who’s been there? Webb encourages nurses to find a mentor who has the experiences and credentials they aspire to. It doesn’t have to be an overly formal relationship. More often than not, seasoned nurses will be flattered if you ask them for their help and will welcome the opportunity to pay it forward.

“Never underestimate how useful it can be to have a mentor in your life who can not only give you practical advice, but who can help instill the confidence you need to get there,” Webb says.

Job shadow

Although you may be absolutely certain what you ultimately want to do with your nursing career, you don’t really know for sure until you’ve actually done it, according to Webb. She recommends that nurses seek out real-world, tangible experiences doing the work they dream of doing. Or job shadow someone in a role that interests you to gain the confidence that your dreams match up with reality.

“There are unfortunately many stories of people who’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to pursue a job or position that they ultimately ended up hating,” Webb says. “A lot of jobs may seem really great until you actually do them. Job shadowing can help you make that determination. If you are going to invest your time and energy in a goal, get the real-life experiences that demonstrate what it would look like for you.”

Finally, Webb stresses that creating a career path in nursing is not something you do once at the beginning of your career: it should be an ongoing process that continues throughout your career.

“Always be exploring and always be thinking about what’s next,” Webb says. “Just as my career has, your career can take twists and turns at any time, and that’s a wonderful thing. Be ready for those opportunities and embrace them when they come.”

Explore an online degree in nursing from Capella University.