- 12 September 2019
- 19 min read
What does a Nurse Consultant do and how you can become one
Laura Woods studied for her Masters (MSc) to become a Nurse Consultant while working as a Charge Nurse. Laura explains how you can develop your career and describes what a Nurse Consultant job means.
Topics covered in this article
Nurse Consultant - My dream job
I remember one of the lecturers on my university course being a Nurse Consultant, a specialist in her chosen field. It seemed like one of those dream jobs.
Years of study, clinical practice and devotion to an area of Nursing which had resulted in journal publications, teaching, being consulted on complex cases and a professional respect which only came with decades of commitment.
For us as student Nurses this job seemed unobtainable, I just wanted my qualification and PIN number from the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
I was determined to remain patient focused, avoid management posts and carve a career which required no further academic pursuits.
Nursing happened with people, not behind a desk!
Earlier this year I became a Nurse Consultant in Forensic Mental Health and I wrote about that journey. In this article I will reflect on my full journey.
It has been quite a transition, tainted by dips in confidence, personal growth and navigating the landscape of modern-day healthcare in the NHS.
What is a Nurse Consultant?
Nurse Consultants are qualified Nurses who have specialised in a chosen area of practice. It is not an overnight journey to become a Nurse Consultant and further academic study, research and extensive clinical experience is needed in order to progress to the role.
Advanced Nursing practice can be classified into distinct areas, with the UK / United Kingdom’s Royal College of Nursing outlining “four pillars”. Nurse Consultants in any clinical speciality need to be able to demonstrate competency and experience within the four pillars of clinical practice, the facilitation of learning, leadership and research and development.
Studying as a Student Nurse
My personal journey began within acute mental health and specifically within psychiatric intensive care units (PICUs).
I didn’t have my career planned out and had no idea which pathway it would take. I certainly needed a break from study once I had qualified and committed to learning as much as I could through clinical experience.
I remember an experienced Nurse saying to me that the first year post qualifying is the steepest learning curve and that was definitely my experience.
As my career progressed, I found that I naturally wanted to keep up to date with emerging practice.
Nursing practice is forever changing as new research is undertaken and published. As a qualified Nurse one of the best ways to keep up to date with emerging evidence and advancements is to supervise student Nurses.
Student Nurses are immersed in academia and maintain a curious and critical view of the “theory-practice” gap.
The first post qualifying course I undertook was my Mentorship course in order to formally support students whilst they were on practice placements.
The Mentorship relationship has proved to be very much a two-way dynamic throughout my career.
I have maintained an awareness of the theory’s students have been taught and also keep my own clinical practice “alive” through sharing and teaching students.
Later in my career I have been able to draw upon the Mentorship relationship to demonstrate teaching skills and an up to date knowledge.
Mentoring students is a great way to do this and I would recommend all Nurses engage with teaching students as much as possible.
Continuing Professional Development
The challenge for any Nurse is finding the time and energy to undertake more study whilst working.
All employees will have mandatory or essential training to complete as part of their contractual obligations but to progress further many Nurses will choose to return to university.
I have been lucky to have managers which supported my study, it would have been impossible without the financial backing of my NHS Trust and the practical flexibility of my hours.
I began attending conferences for PICUs and it helped keep motivated and interested. Networking with other Nurses has provided me with the inspiration to continue progressing.
Studying for a Masters
About 5 years into Nursing I met a Nurse Consultant for PICUs at a conference. He spoke passionately about his role and I bored him senseless with questions about how he got there!
Nurses do not always get the opportunity to get out there and meet other Nurses but if the opportunity arises, take it.
Across the country there are networks, organisations, conferences, seminars and events supporting Nurses to share best practice.
By keeping myself motivated and interested I reached a point in my career where I recognised I needed to undertake further formal study in order to progress into senior clinical roles.
I approached my manager and applied for funding in order to study for a Masters. I studied for a part time masters over two years whilst continuing to work as a Charge Nurse.
Gaining a MSc was a turning point in my career. I was petrified when I began. I felt out of my depth, inadequate and lacked confidence being back in academia.Masters education, I thought, was reserved for those “non-clinical” Nurses or researchers.
However, I soon became accustomed again to reading research publications and writing essays.
The joy of studying at Master’s level is that the chosen topic studied is specific but at a deeper level. My MSc was in Clinical Forensic Psychiatry and as I was fascinated with the subject matter, I was able to engage fully and enjoy every minute. Studying whilst working gave depth to my clinical skills and I noticed my clinical practice and engagement with patients improved greatly.
The value of academia in Nursing
Nursing has experienced considerable change over the decades with a debate regarding academia weaving a thread through Nursing culture for over two hundred years.
With the birth of modern-day Nursing, Florence Nightingale was vocal about Nurses “learning” on the job, she was resistant to Nursing being a profession.
A view which critics of Nurse education echoed with sighs of “too posh to wash” when Project 2000 established university-based programs.
I now sit very much in the academic camp. I was pleased when Nursing became a degree with a strong emphasis on students having the knowledge and attributes to understand research, evidence and critically view Nursing practice.
Nurses do learn “on the job”. However, academic study provides the space to reflect on practice, critique approaches and develop an understanding to the evidence base of your chosen field of Nursing.
Evidence based Nursing underpins good practice
Arguably, the core of any Nursing practice is the relationship between Nurse and patient.
But Nursing is so much more than that. There is an evidence base to what we do.
Nursing has a distinct evidence base, developed by Nurses undertaking research.
We also borrow evidence from medics, psychologists, sociologists, and psychotherapists amongst others.
I have always been interested in how Nursing is perceived. The “angels” of the “caring” profession.
Characteristics perhaps, which do not need academic accreditation. There has been much debate over the years as to whether “caring” can be taught, or whether Nursing should have moved from practice study to university-based degrees.
We are no longer Doctors’ “handmaidens”, we are professionals in our own right and by achieving further academic accreditation Nurses also achieve the respect and status the profession deserves.
How to strike a clinical career pathway within the NHS
A tension which I have experienced throughout my career is how to progress as a Nurse yet remain clinically focused.
The current structures of modern-day healthcare do not always lend themselves to clinical career pathways.
I remained as a Band 6 Charge Nurse for over eight years, whilst others around me moved into management posts.
I was perceived as anti-authority, or rebellious by some senior managers and was even asked about it at a job interview a few years ago.
Nurses who stay frontline are seen as not ambitious at best and at worse incapable of more senior roles.
Yet I would argue that the current structures do not support Nurses to progress in their careers without losing the patient contact which ultimately was the reason for choosing Nursing as a career in the first place.
I found myself nine years into Nursing, presenting at conferences, writing development programs for Nurses, assessing complex patients and with a newly gained MSc and working as a Band 6 Nurse.
Nursing has never been about the money or the hours! Yet I began to become increasingly frustrated at the disparity between my scope of daily practice and wider recognition.
I spent time reflecting and considering my options before making the leap from a Charge Nurse post to my first role with “manager” in the title.
I knew that to influence change I needed to be in a position that rightly or wrongly was seen as more valuable and respected.
For over three years I worked in management posts and Matron roles. The tension remained and I struggled balancing the management tasks of budgets, staffing, policies, performance indicators and reports with my continuing desire to engage with patients.
On a personal level, I had to navigate the structures within the NHS in order to reach a position where a Nurse Consultant post was a possibility.
What I do in my job as a Nurse Consultant
My Nurse Consultant job description determines that my role is 60% clinical. I have contact with patients every day and consult on complex or challenging cases. I no longer have managerial responsibility for budgets or day to day operations.
The supervision I deliver to Nurses is clinical and I am able to have space with junior Nurses to reflect on Nursing practice and help develop their skills.
I sit on my NHS trust’s senior Nursing board and my views and expertise contribute to changing and improving Nursing culture and ultimately patient care.
I have opportunities to network with other Nurse Consultants across the country and deliver teaching on modules at university and various training sessions to both Nurses and other health care professionals.
As a Nurse Consultant I can manage my own time
The biggest adjustment for me has been the level of autonomy. I manage my own diary entirely and prioritise time with patients and family members.
This has taken a while to get to use to after years of shift work and a direct manager.
I do have deadlines to meet when delivering pieces of work for the board or service director but can work at home or locally if needed, bliss!
How I am perceived by others has changed almost overnight with the role and I have to be cautious about what I say and how I say it. It is common for fellow Nurses to be heard to say “Laura the Nurse Consultant said this” which means I to be aware of what I am saying at all times.
Professionalism in my communications
The most important lesson for me has been learning how to vocalise my views in an appropriate way so that it influences others and practice.
As a Charge Nurse or Staff Nurse, I could have got away with expressing anger at another professional’s decision or view, now I have to reflect a lot more and communicate in a way which is more measured.
I continue to engage with case studies and author on academic publications, the learning will never stop.
Taking a systematic approach to all situations
Alongside my professional development, I have changed personally too. I have changed in my approach to things and recognise there is rarely an urgency to any situation.
I have learnt to be more systematic, measured and reflect on a range of approaches. I have learnt that every role in the NHS is of importance and I am now grateful to those Nurses who chose a managerial path as they are contributing to the machine of the NHS, for which I am only one part.
I can safely say that my current job really is my dream job. It has not been a straight line getting here but I do get moments of feeling like everything up to this point has been worth it.
How to become a Nurse Consultant
To become a Nurse Consultant, you will need to undertake further academic study. This will be at master’s or doctorate level and be in a specific area of practice.
Spend time networking with Nurse Consultants and shadow their day to day work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and look for opportunities to attend local, national or international conferences.
Taking time away from daily clinical practice can motivate you and inspire you to take risks in your career.
Journal clubs are a great way for the whole team to keep up to date with evidence and share best practice.
Think about what your service is doing and submit articles to journals too, you don’t have to be a professor to get published!
How long does it take to become a Nurse Consultant?
There are three years initial Nursing degree study of course. I then worked as a nurse for over 9 years before I first took a job as a Nurse Consultant.
That included the time spent studying for my MSc and pursuing other courses mentioned elsewhere in this article.
It may be that you will have to progress through the bandings of Nursing via managerial routes or you may have the opportunity to remain clinically focused.
A common progression will be from Staff Nurse to Charge Nurse or Sister where more training and study can be undertaken.
From here Nurses can become Team Leaders, Ward Managers, or Clinical Nurse Specialists.
How much can I earn – Nurse Consultant salary
You can expect to be paid anywhere between £54,000 – £72,000 a year. Nurse Consultants are employed at Band 8b and 8c depending on experience and skills.
What is it like being a Nurse Consultant?
Being a Nurse Consultant is a joy, but it is not an easy journey. I have had many late nights working at home whilst studying, balancing being a mum, working full time and trying to gain qualifications.
I have had moments of wondering why I am bothering, I have questioned Nursing as a whole and I have certainly had moments of feeling like I have no idea what I am doing!
But I also feel proud of myself and remain immensely proud of the Nursing profession. I remember my early university days as a student Nurse and the excitement I felt as I embarked on Nursing as a career.
As a Nurse Consultant, I am happy that the excitement remains. I look forward to each new day in my job and the patients I work with.
I hope that as I continue in my career I may inspire other Nurses in the way I have been inspired.