Are you a nurse that’s been contemplating a return to school? We recently had the opportunity to interview Nicole Thomas, a Doctorally Prepared Registered Nurse and owner of Nicole Thomas – INC, about her experiences in higher academia. Keep reading to find out what insights she has about pursuing advanced degrees and how she can help you achieve your career goals.
1. Tell us about yourself. What is your education and background within the nursing field?
My name is Nicole Thomas and I am a Doctorally Prepared Registered Nurse with a specialization in healthcare systems leadership. Additionally, I am a Certified Case Manager.
Like so many other nurses, I started my career on the med-surg floor. However, after working 12-hour shifts for two years, I knew that I needed something more flexible, something that would allow me to be more present for my family. That’s when I made the transition to home healthcare. I worked in home healthcare for about three years before I had the opportunity to transition to managed care.
As a nurse in managed care, I learned three important lessons: healthcare is a business; healthcare is heavily influenced by community and politics; and patients need leaders that are going to advocate for their well being and their rights. Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to take on the role as Associate Director for Medical and Clinical Operations when the state of Louisiana decided to privatize their Medicaid system.
Since my days with the State of Louisiana, my career has grown and changed in so many ways. Currently, I do a lot of private consulting for government agencies and businesses. I also teach full-time in the academic space and I offer my coaching services to other clinicians that are looking to build a meaningful career.
2. What initially attracted you to a career in healthcare?
Growing up, I had amazing parents. I knew that they loved me and that they were doing everything within their power to help me succeed. However, my parents struggled financially, and life was hard at times. After seeing their struggles, I knew that I wanted to have a stable career that would allow me to provide for my/my family’s needs.
I was very fortunate to go to a high school with a medical magnet program. Students that were enrolled in the program had the opportunity to learn about all the different healthcare career options that are available. Out of all the sectors that we learned about, I found nursing the most interesting. Through my enrollment in this program, I was able to volunteer at a local hospital as a candy striper. There I got to interact with more nurses, learn more about the profession and discover my passion for helping people. I knew then that nursing was the right choice for me.
3. What has been your motivation for pursuing advanced degrees and training?
Throughout my career in healthcare, I have had the opportunity to work with various vulnerable populations. I have also come to learn that if I want a seat at the table with the decision makers, those shaping the policies that directly affect vulnerable populations, I need to have the education, facts and credentials to sit there. So often, political decisions are based on “the numbers.” My education and experience have allowed me to show the human side of healthcare and what happens when policy is dictated only by what the charts and graphs show.
4. How did you find balance between working and going to school?
Finding a balance between all my priorities has been the journey of a lifetime. It is a lesson that I am still learning. That being said, as I worked and went to school, one of the most powerful lessons that I learned was how to say “no.”
As healthcare providers, we’re natural givers. For most of us, it is difficult to hold back a part of our time, energy, emotions, etc. just for ourselves. When we do, we’re overwhelmed with feelings of selfishness. However, I have found tremendous power in shifting my mindset from “I’m being selfish when I say no” to “I’m being strategic when I say no.”
Our time, our energy, our emotions are finite resources that can help us get where we want to go. If we’re saying “yes” to something that doesn’t support our long-term goals or objectives, we’re investing our resources unwisely. You are worthy of a return on your investments. Be strategic about when and where you say “yes.”
5. What benefits have you seen, either personally or professionally, as you have pursued more education?
Continuing my education has opened so many doors for me professionally. I now have access to people and places that I never would have before. As a result, I can use my knowledge and real-life experiences to influence patient care for good. I get to be a part of the solution.
Additionally, I think pursuing my education has helped me to grow my emotional intelligence. For instance, in conversations with my family I am more open to discussions and finding out why someone believes or thinks the way they do. Previously, I would have said that there’s a right way and a wrong way. Now I’m more open and receptive to perspectives.
6. What has been the biggest obstacle that you have overcome in pursuing your educational goals? How did you overcome that obstacle?
The biggest obstacle that I had to overcome while pursuing my education was not having clarity on why I was doing it. When I initially went back to school, I was doing it because all my friends and colleagues were. I was enrolled in a nurse practitioner program because that was what everyone else was doing. As a result, I was miserable. It wasn’t the right fit for me, and I was doing poorly in school.
I ended up taking a year off from school and I spent the time working on myself. I got more intentional about what I wanted, what was important to me and where I wanted my career to go. That’s when I realized that a PhD was the right program for me. Once I had that clarity and a vision for myself, committing time and energy to my academics became easier.
7. What advice would you give to a nurse that is contemplating going back to school?
I think the best piece of advice that I can give to a nurse that is contemplating going back to school is to think about where you see yourself, both professionally and personally, ten years from now. Ask yourself if you are going to be happy if your career stays exactly where it is right now. If the answer is no, what work experience, certification and/or degree do you need to obtain to get where you want to go. Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to get distracted by what other people say and do. Be true to what your inner voice is telling you.
I would also highly recommend building a strong support team. You are going to need people that are going to cheer you on and hold you accountable to your goals. Your journey will be so much easier if you are surrounded by people that believe in you.
You are going to need people that are going to cheer you on and hold you accountable to your goals. Your journey will be so much easier if you are surrounded by people that believe in you.
8. What tools, resources, tips would you recommend to a nurse that knows they want more education/training but is unsure where to start?
I would highly recommend starting with the American Nurses Association’s website. It is an amazing resource that is filled with a plethora of articles, tools and tips that are prepared by clinicians within different specialties/disciplines. Really take the time to read about and explore all the different educational avenues that are available.
I would also recommend finding a mentor, someone that works in the field that you’re contemplating. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions and really pick their brain about what school and working in that field is like. They’ve been there and done it already. Learn from their wisdom.
9. You are the owner and founder of Nicole Thomas – INC, an educational firm that provides tools and resources to healthcare professionals looking to take their career to the next level. What was your motivation for starting this business?
I started Nicole Thomas – INC because I saw so much of myself in the younger nurses that I was encountering. They were good nurses that loved the profession. However, they were unsatisfied with their career and they didn’t know how to affect change in their lives. Since I had experienced that exact struggle, I knew that I could create a service that would help them navigate through the confusion.
10. On your website (Nicole Thomas – Inc) and in your book (In Health, On Purpose!), you talk about “living purposefully as a healthcare professional.” What does that mean to you?
To me, “living purposefully as a healthcare professional” means that I have a clear sense of purpose as a nurse. It means that I am passionate about what I do and why I do it. Life is going to throw everyone curve balls. You are bound to have bad days and weeks at work. However, when you’re clear about what you do and why do it, you can weather any storm that comes your way.
11. What can clinicians expect from a partnership with you?
Clinicians that partner with me can expect to be held accountable to their goals and their commitments. I will be their cheerleader and their mentor, and I will call them out on their excuses. I’m tough but that is because I’ve been where they are now, and I know how amazing life can be on the other side. I’m committed to helping my clients build their legacy.
I’m tough but that is because I’ve been where they are now, and I know how amazing life can be on the other side.
12. We live in an extremely uncertain time right now. In your opinion, how can clinicians use this time (during a global pandemic) to their advantage?
Clinicians should definitely be using this time of uncertainty to develop themselves professionally. So many institutions are offering virtual courses right now. You can take a class in the comfort of your own home and at your own pace. There are no excuses for why you can’t do something to increase your value in the employment marketplace. When this pandemic ends, there is going to be a whole new world of opportunities available. Those clinicians that take the time to prepare and better themselves now are the ones that are going to be able to take advantage of those opportunities immediately.