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How Much Experience Do I Need To Be A Travel Nurse? – The Question I Get Asked The MOST!

I get a lot of messages on a regular basis from nurses asking about travel nursing and how to get started. I LOVE talking to you guys and encouraging you however I can. If I can have a small part in you taking the plunge to live your best life exploring the country, then I’m absolutely thrilled. Even though I’m not currently travel nursing and have switched gears this year, I am still passionate about chasing your dreams and making sure you aren’t stuck in a stagnant miserable career! Life is way too short. I was in the EXACT same place before I signed my first contract. I followed and messaged tons of travel nurses on social media, joined Facebook groups, read all the discussion posts and basically soaked in as much knowledge as I could. It was like I did everything related to travel nursing EXCEPT contact the agency to officially apply. Once I finally decided to just do it, my life truly changed. So yes, I sincerely enjoy chatting with you and discussing your career options with you when you message me on Instagram or through my blog. A few questions come up frequently, but the most asked question is definitely “How much work experience do I need to travel nurse?“. So I figured I would write a blog post about it to explain it for you!

The short answer to this question is Two Years! For nursing students and new grads this seems like forever to wait. But, as a nurse of almost five years currently, I can confidently tell you that two years FLIES BY. It will honestly be over before you know it. There’s so many reasons why two years is the magic number. I’m going to explain from a Canadian perspective, but it is absolutely relatable to American travel nurses as well. American agencies also require about two years of prior experience.

Why Two Years?

Picture this scenario as a new grad, okay? Just picture this situation. You just graduated from university and you’re green. Maybe you got lucky and had some really great preceptor clinical opportunities in your final year and maybe you learned a ton. You’re studying for your NCLEX exam and you pass it. Amazing. Confetti and fireworks, you are feeling on top of the world. (Side note- we should get more credit for passing the NCLEX because that shit is HARD! Props to us!) You apply to a travel nursing agency that’s advertising positions for new grads (highly doubt that would ever happen but just work with me here). You’ve been dreaming about becoming a travel nurse and being like all those amazing nurses on Instagram. You’re ready to see the world! Your recruiter finds you a small rural hospital up North which seems to be the only option for you. You were hoping for a big city like Vancouver or Toronto but you take what you can get since this rural hospital is desperate for a nurse to help them out. You pack your bags, get on a plane (or four in my experience), arrive in the tiny town you’re assigned and take a taxi to your housing.

The next morning, you arrive at the facility for your first shift and you’re shocked at how small the place is. You thought you had a med/surg assignment? Well, surprise! The Emergency Department is attached to the med/surg unit since the facility is so small. You get your schedule and realize you only get ONE orientation shift. Today is IT. Oh, and guess what? The nurse who was supposed to be orientating you today called in sick because he/she is so burnt out from working short. It’s only you and another travel nurse who just started here last week. And you’re handling the entire med/surg unit while helping out in the ER. You manage to work as a team and get a quick 20 minute run down of the place before doing vitals and doing a quick assessment on your two med/surg patients. Time to pass out morning meds. You still don’t have access to the Pyxis system to get the medications so you have to wait for the other nurse to finish doing an ECG on a patient who came in with chest pain this morning. She asks you to call the doctor on call in stat for this patient and to order some cardiac blood work from the lab listing off all these lab values you kind of remember from studying for the NCLEX. You look like a deer in the headlights and can’t find the phone number anywhere. There it is! You call the doctor in who is grumpy because you woke them up since they were on call all night. You find the lab paper work you remember seeing during your quick 20 minute tour and you check off a bunch of boxes that the doctor is listing on the phone. He hangs up. The other exhausted nurse comes back and asks “did he want a chest xray?”… you blankly stare and can’t remember if the doctor mentioned that. You call back and he yells at you that he ordered one. The other nurse asks you to page the lab technician to come to the hospital. Why isn’t lab here? Oh, they had to come in during the night to do stat blood work so they went home to get some sleep. You wake her up too and she’s also grumpy. She tells you that because she came in during the night, her union won’t allow her to come back to the hospital until she has the required hours in between her shifts and surprise, the other lab technician is sick. She tells you you’ll have to check your troponin yourself with the iStat machine. What is that!? You find your lifeline nurse who just got a patient in by ambulance who fell and broke his hip and needs to be flown out to the regional hospital eight hours away. She asks you to insert an IV into the cardiac patient so she can give them a bolus as they’re hypotensive. You realize you have only ever inserted two IVs in clinical…well…really just one because the other one went interstitial. Then you realize you still haven’t given your breakfast medications to your two patients and breakfast has been sitting on their bedside tables for almost an hour now. Your one patient is total care and needs to be fed and the other one is a lady with dementia who won’t stop ringing her call bell because she needs to get up to the commode to pee. It’s finally 9:00 and the manager arrives to work to absolute CHAOS. He helps out as much as he can with arranging the flights for the two sick patients and lets you use his Pyxis login for today until he can call the pharmacy and get you your own login. He is extremely irritated that he had a sick call and also that you are so under prepared and inexperienced for this contract. You finally get your medications out and go see your lady with the dementia and find that she is laying on the floor with urine all over the place because she couldn’t wait any longer for the commode….okay STOP! Oh my God, what a horrible situation.

I would not wish this shift on any nurse but I know that it’s possible. A similar shift happened to me on one of my contracts minus a few things. The fall at the end was just thrown in for a cherry on top! But it really could happen! I’ve definitely had sick calls on my orientation days and I have been orientated by other travel nurses in multiple locations.

Do you understand now why it’s two years?

We don’t say two years to make you suffer and wait for the magical day you can go out on contract. There are legit reasons why the rule is two years. Above all, patient safety is the most important thing. Do you want to be the reason for something bad happening to someone? No. You are in the business of helping and caring for other people. When a manager is looking for a travel nurse to fill in a spot on their schedule for say six weeks, they want a competent nurse who they can train quickly and who isn’t going to cost them any extra money because their budget is already cut so short. Orientating staff costs money because it’s two nurse wages rather than one… if a facility can train a skilled experienced nurse in ONE shift, they’re going to do it. Plus, you cost way more money to hire than a staff nurse to begin with because the facility is paying the agency for you. The most orientation I’ve ever received was two twelve hour shifts (one day, one night) which is honestly generous.

Jasper, Alberta halfway through my first contract

Your nursing license is also on the line. If you are not experienced and make a life threatening mistake with one of your patients, you very well could lose your nursing license. Why would you want to subject yourself to this risk? When I look back and think of my confidence level and nursing knowledge in say my first year working as an RN, I for sure wouldn’t have been able to handle travel nursing. Yeah, it’s amazing when you have older experienced nurses surrounding you who you can lean on and ask as many questions as you need to. But what if you’re in a small rural facility and you’re it? What if there’s no older nurses around to insert a difficult IV and that patient is depending on you to find a vein so they can receive important medications?

I also feel like I should mention the whole stress of the matter as well. Nursing is hard enough as it is, especially being a new grad. You have SO much to learn and you simply need time to learn it all. Practice makes perfect and you won’t get perfection in a day. You literally have your entire life to be a travel nurse, so why rush into it and create an experience that you’re ultimately really not going to end up enjoying. Travel nursing will be such a good stepping stone in your career but you first need a foundation of knowledge before you can expand it in another facility. Even experienced nurses have a hard time in a new hospital on contract. One orientation shift is obviously not ideal, but if you know the basics, you just have to build upon it and you’ll succeed. You’re always going to have questions no matter how old you are and that is absolutely fine! I just don’t understand why you would want to insert yourself into such a stressful environment with no prior knowledge. You’ll get burnt out SO FAST and you won’t enjoy being a nurse anymore. It can also get quite lonely as a traveller so you have to make sure you’re prepared to deal with that among everything else.

The day before my very first contract

If I haven’t proved my point enough yet, something else to consider is this question…How do you know what important questions to ask a recruiter about a facility if you’ve never actually worked in one before? Maybe you did your clinical training in a bigger hospital like me. We had 24/7 support from lab, x-ray, the ICU team, doctors, surgeons, a code team, respiratory therapy, you name it. Maybe if you haven’t worked as a staff nurse yet, you wouldn’t consider to ask your recruiter about the facility and the resources it has. The recruiter usually gives you a quick run down of how many beds, how many staff members are on each shift, and what the housing is like. But what if you didn’t realize that the emergency room is attached to the medical floor and you’re expected to help the ER out? That’s a lot for a baby nurse who doesn’t even know how to work on a med/surg floor yet. On the other hand, what if you came from a tiny rural facility and the new hospital is way busier and way more advanced than what you’re used to? It’s a huge culture shock for sure. Just something to consider!

I’ve been writing as if everyone is a med/surg nurse because that’s what I was but maybe you want to be an ER nurse, ICU nurse, OB or OR? Even more reason to need two years of experience. Specialty positions are even more high risk and usually require a lot more external training and courses in order to work in those positions. I can’t imagine a facility ever even entertaining the idea of a new grad traveller in any of these positions. Once again, patient safety is of the utmost importance and your license as well.

Baby Nurse Haleigh 🙂

I see some agencies advertising that they are hiring travel nurses with less than one year of experience, especially lately with Covid crisis contracts being more prominent. I can’t help but feel that if an agency is willing to risk hiring an inexperienced nurse knowing that they can compromise on patient safety that this agency isn’t the right one to work for. An agency is representing you as a nurse and you need to make sure that they have a good reputation and that they are looking out for your best interests. Your recruiter should be encouraging you to wait two years, not pushing you to start earlier when you aren’t ready yet.

Allow me to be blunt for a moment. If you are sitting here reading this and laughing and thinking this would never happen to you….you’re so much smarter and could handle yourself in these situations…just no. Check your ego please. For one, no one wants to work with a nurse like that. Two, no one wants to TRAIN a nurse like that. And three, even if you are as confident as they come, I would hate for a patient to be critically affected or compromised because of your attitude and inability to admit you’re wrong or need more training. I appreciate the confidence but you don’t want to come across as arrogant especially as a new grad. Humility people! We all start from the bottom and work our way up with time!

The golden rule of determining if you’re ready to be a travel nurse is if you can SAFELY handle the sickest patient on your unit with minimal help.

Perhaps you feel like you can safely handle this after one year? That’s amazing. Good for you. Now keep learning and challenging yourself with more complicated cases for another year. Use those two years to work on some self growth that you didn’t have time for while you were in university. Take some extra courses or obtain certifications to strengthen your prior knowledge. Get your ACLS if you can! I really wish I had done that because it really would have come in handy in the rural facilities I worked in. Pick a specialty and work hard at cementing your skills and learning about everything you can. Find some travel nurses and ask questions so you are more prepared going into it!

I know it’s hard but have patience and it’s going to be worth it! I think something important is to check yourself and make sure you aren’t being selfish. If you’re only thinking about yourself when you should be thinking about your patients and their safety, that’s a problem. Yes, travel nursing is lucrative and you’re going to make a lot of money. Yes, it’s amazing creating your own schedule and taking off a month or two to travel internationally in between contracts. Yes, it’s an amazing opportunity to see the country and meet new people. And YES. Two years DOES MATTER. It will all be worth it in the end when you are a confident, skilled nurse who can walk into a facility and handle everything thrown at you with one orientation shift. Waiting the two years is only going to benefit you. Trust me!

Thanks for reading! If you have any other travel nursing topics you’d like me to write about, please don’t be shy to make a suggestion! Message me below or on Instagram! I would love to help and chances are you aren’t the only one wondering about it! 🙂

xoxo, Hales

1 thought on “How Much Experience Do I Need To Be A Travel Nurse? – The Question I Get Asked The MOST!”

  1. So true and such a good assessment! I started traveling as an emergency nurse at my 2.5 year mark and I am so thankful for the time I took to learn and master my skills. One thing I always say when travel nursing is that the nursing is the same but where things are located and each facilities policies and procedures are what’s different. Knowing and having confidence in your medications, assessments, and skills are vital because the non-patient care tasks like finding supplies, arranging transfers and resources and working with few Human Resources takes so much more time because you don’t know the facility or the health authority. I have been traveling for two years now and I still have difficulty finding things and learning systems at each new placement I have and I am always thankful that my nursing knowledge and skill that I have developed gets me through. Also, remember that each hospital/facility can also have the added confusion around different paperwork or electronic charting systems which you also need to learn on your first day with no formal training. I have worked with meditech mois, cerner, power chart and paper only in my assignments with no formal training just seeing what others do. So having a strong nursing foundation is crucial to getting you through your assignment especially your first week.

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