Securing a grad nursing position


Nurse Uncut has carried many articles about new grad unemployment (see our list of links at the end of today’s post). There’s no doubt conditions are especially tough at the moment (possibly tougher in states other than NSW). Today, Laurie Bickhoff, who graduated as an RN from the University of Newcastle in 2012,  gives some advice on maximising your chances of securing a job as a graduate in these competitive times.

Nursing has always been considered a ‘safe’ career choice, in that jobs were easy to come by and the sentiment ‘you’ll never have to look for work’ widely accepted. Now, however, that has all changed, especially for graduate nurses. Throughout Australia, the competition for graduate positions has never been higher. A graduate job is far from guaranteed.

Laurie Bickhoff.

According to an Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation government submission, published this April, in 2014 an estimated 15% of all nursing and midwifery graduates Australia-wide will be left unemployed.  In 2013, 60% of Tasmanian and 72% of Queensland graduates were unemployed, joining another 800 graduates in Victoria, 400 in Western Australia and 280 in South Australia. Given these numbers, the pressure to secure a graduate position is incredibly high. (You can read about my stress waiting to hear if I would be successful in gaining employment here.)

The question on every nursing student’s mind is ‘How can I maximise my chances of securing a graduate nursing position?’ Hopefully, this post might give you some useful tips and advice.


I repeatedly hear students asking, “Are grades a determining factor in graduate selection?” with a common response being “No-one looks at them”. I have to disagree with the sentiment that marks are not important. First and foremost, to be a safe and competent nurse and avoid doing accidental harm to your patients, you need the sound knowledge and critical thinking skills which come through dedication to learning. Secondly, students on clinical placements who have this knowledge base and ability to ask pertinent questions make very good impressions on their supervising nurses and NUMs, impressions that can lead to positive references. Thirdly, your graduate interview will ask scenario-based questions, which to answer correctly and completely you will need to draw on the knowledge you have gained throughout your studies.

Lastly, while not all organisations look at your over-all GPA, there are some that do, especially in the private sector. As competition for graduate jobs increases, I believe more and more organisations will look closely at grades. However, at the same time, these organisations are also realising that grades are not the only indicator of your knowledge and skills and are changing their recruitment processes to reflect this.

For example, the QLD Mater Health Services graduate recruitment is a four pronged approach, which includes a team activity, a role play activity, a one-on-one interview and a paper-based activity. This approach allows applicants to demonstrate a wide range of skills and competencies in different situations.

Taking all these points into account, while your official grades per se may not be a determining factor, what you learn during your degree, your ability to transfer this knowledge into practice and your critical thinking skills are what will help you stand out in graduate selections. So in my opinion, preparation for securing a graduate position really starts from day one of your degree.

Clinical placements

Clinical placements are an amazing opportunity for students, both for learning and making new connections. Every prac should be considered a job interview, especially those undertaken in your final year of studies. Turn up on time, be enthusiastic, work hard and be mindful who you complain to about the hospital or previous placements – you will be surprised how small a world nursing really is.

Make the effort to introduce yourself to the NUM and personally thank them at the end of your placement. Making a good impression on prac can lead to a great reference or even, down the track, a job offer.

Part-time jobs

Studying nursing is challenging enough. Trying to juggle study with family commitments and trying to maintain some kind of social life is even tougher. However, it is a reality for many students: they will need to work to support themselves during their degree. If possible, look for work in a healthcare organisation. Working as an assistant in nursing (AIN) or personal care assistant can help you develop skills in building therapeutic relationships and time management. Many hospitals now employee undergraduate AINs, so keep an eye out for advertised positions, especially any in the local healthcare district (LHD) you are planning on applying to for a graduate position. These positions not only give you experience, but once again, help you build your professional network.

If you are not working part-time, look for volunteering opportunities, particularly in a health-related field, or any leadership or mentoring positions within your university. These opportunities demonstrate commitment to your field and reflect your values and character.

Resume/cover letter

Your cover letter and resume give the selection panel their first impression of you, so make sure it’s a good one. If your university has a career service, make use of it and ask their advice. A simple web search will show numerous websites offering tips on how to write a professional resume. However, look for sites run by healthcare or nursing organisations or at least educational institutions. These sites will give more specific advice on nursing applications.

Before submitting any cover letter, resume or application, there’s one essential rule – proofread, proofread, proofread. Asking a family member or colleague to also read over your resume can help find errors you have missed. Spelling or grammatical errors demonstrate to recruiters a lack of attention to detail and can lead to them forming a negative opinion of your work. Review your layout and ensure it is also clean and easy to read.

Look at all your options

Make sure you put in more than just one application. Research which healthcare organisations in your area offer graduate positions, including private hospitals and aged care facilities. If you are happy to move, look into applying to the public health sectors in other states. Look into rural or remote programs if you are interested in this area.

Make sure you have considered all areas of nursing. Physical rehab, drug and alcohol detoxification and mental health offer unique learning environments and will teach you skills which translate into other nursing specialities.

Putting all your eggs in the one basket can lead to disappointment and see you missing other opportunities.

The all-important interview – Preparation

Most graduate programs use a panel interview to determine the successful applicants. These can be nerve wracking events, so it is essential you have prepared beforehand. Double check what documentation you are required to bring to the interview. Don’t leave this until the morning or night before. You may need official printouts from your university or certified copies of certificates. Having all the correct documentation ready early will reduce your stress on the day and start your interview process off on the right foot.

Check with the LHD you are applying to and see if they run practice interview sessions. These are invaluable and will give you an insight into the type of questions they are likely to ask. Get a group together and practice panel interviews. A simple Google search on ‘nursing interview questions’ will give you plenty to practice with.

Research the LHD you’re applying to, making sure you know their core values and how these might influence the answers you give. Find out what their graduate program has to offer and if applicable to a question, use this information to highlight why you chose to apply to their program. Interviewers will normally give you the opportunity to ask questions – have a couple prepared. Questions focusing on continuing education opportunities or ongoing employment at the completion of the graduate program can leave the interview panel with a good impression.

On the day

It should go without saying, but I’m going to anyway – do not be late. This creates a bad impression before you have even met the panel. I strongly recommend giving yourself extra time to allow for traffic or difficulty parking and to also stop your nerves increasing from being worried you won’t make it on time. If, due to unforeseen circumstances, you are running late, call the organisation before the starting time of the interview and let them know. This is just common courtesy and they may also be able to rearrange your interview time.

Presentation is important. It is the first and last impression you make with your interview panel. It is important to think about the profession you are interviewing for when deciding on how you will present yourself. Smart (read clean and ironed) business attire, neat hair, minimal make-up, clean fingernails – these all combine to present a picture of a professional nurse.

The actual interview

I’m not going to lie – walking into that interview is a scary moment. Years of study and hours of prac have all led to this. Your interviewers know you are nervous and most will try to reassure you before beginning. Greet your panel, shaking hands if you feel comfortable, and try to remember their names.

During the interview, don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat the question if needed. If you realise you have answered the incorrectly, it is better to admit this with something along the lines of ‘actually reflecting on that answer, I think I would…”, rather than just leaving the answer as is. You are likely to be given some water and taking a sip can be useful if you need a few seconds before answering a question.

Try to make eye contact with the panel when answering and remember, they do not want you to fail. After all, they have all experienced the stress of job interviews themselves. At the end of the interview, thank the panel, by name if you remember them, and leave a great final impression.

After the interview

When the interview has finished and your nerves have settled enough to let you write or type, it is a good idea to jot down your interview questions. Chances are this won’t be your last nursing interview, so start building a file of interview questions you can use to help you prepare in the future. One day, you will look back at these questions and realise how much you have learnt over the course of your career.

What if I don’t get a position?

Unfortunately, as discussed at the start of this post, not everyone will be successful in securing a position within a graduate program. This does not mean your career has ended before it even starts. It does mean you will need to work harder now to get your first nursing job.

This is when all those connections you made during your clinical placements, part-time jobs or volunteering come into play. Contact those NUMs and others within your professional network who may be in the position to offer you a job or at least, be able to point you in the right direction. Explain your situation and why you would be an asset to their department and if they do not have a position available, ask if they would keep you in mind if anything arises.

Keep in contact with the graduate co-ordinator of the hospital you applied for. There will be people who are offered a position but decline or who drop out of the program after a few months. Their spots may be offered to those who missed out on first-round offers. The program may also have a mid-year intake, so be sure you ask if you can be considered for any positions left open.

If you didn’t already, consider all the other options, including the private sector, aged care facilities, casual or agency nursing, and rural or remote areas.  Contact these organisations and see if they have positions available or if there is someone you can talk to about submitting your resume to keep on file.

Don’t give up. Keep applying and interviewing. For positions you are unsuccessful for, ask if they can provide you with feedback. This can help you make what are often small adjustments which lead to a big improvement in your interview skills.

My graduate program interview questions when I applied in 2012:

  • What qualities do you have that will make you a successful RN?
  • You are caring for a patient with MRSA, what precautions do you take to protect yourself, colleagues and the patient’s family?
  • You find a patient has fallen in the bathroom and is bleeding from a head injury, what do you do?
  • Can you give us an example of when you have worked within a team in the clinical setting?
  • You are getting an s8 medication, and after signing out of the book, the second RN leaves saying she is too busy to go to the patient bedside, what action do you take?
  • What are you required to do to maintain your national registration with APHRA?

I would also make sure you have a great answer ready for:

  • What are your professional responsibilities when it comes to the use of social media?

There is more advice printed in the Hive & in ACN’s 2014 Expo guide, from John Kemsley-Brown (ACN Executive Manager- Education), 2012 ENL Sherrie Lee and Laurie – read this on Laurie’s blog.

Thank you to Laurie for letting us republish her article, which first appeared on her blog Defining Nursing (which is just one of the many great blogs written by nurses and midwives that you’ll find on our blogroll.)

Previously on Nurse Uncut:

Finn’s new grad diary

Grads need jobs!

CNE: Nurses must stop eating their young

I am a nurse who is not a nurse

I’m an unemployed new grad

The new grad unemployment crisis

My first year as a graduate nurse


  1. While I am not trying to discourage people from studying nursing, I do feel the need to highlight a few points to prospective students:

    – From 2012, caps for university places were removed, allowing an unlimited intake of students into Bachelor of Nursing degrees. I started in 2013 and the intake at our uni has literally skyrocketed since the removal of caps on student places, according to some of our teachers. Add to this, the universities and private colleges that have started to offer nursing degrees in the last couple of years (in Sydney alone!)

    – Hospitals can’t even facilitate clinical placements for all students enrolled, so many are doing their placements in aged care centres, child care centres and homeless shelters. One person I spoke to did his placement for paediatrics (2nd year) in a childcare centre where the bulk of his time was spent changing nappies! Clinical placements in hospitals may also start to dry up in the coming years, if hospitals struggle to get any decent funding.

    – New grad unemployment stats will drastically change from 2015/2016.

    – Add to all of this the proposed budget cuts to health and unemployment of new grads is likely to get much worse over the coming years (even in NSW).

    – Laurie Bickhoff did graduate in 2012 so the numbers were much more in her favour than they will be for the current cohort of students that will start graduating from 2015.

    While my comment does paint a negative picture, I am not trying to discourage prospective students if they want to study nursing. All I want to do is give the best information I possibly can so people can weigh up their options as to what they want to study. This article does seem give a hint of false hope by noting 15% unemployment across Australia and that NSW is better off than other states. I could be wrong but that’s how I felt when reading through the first few paragraphs.

    Everything mentioned about making yourself employable is all good and well, especially with respect to grades, getting experience as an AIN and good clinical references. So nothing to fault there! Just remember that you will be doing this alongside many other students going for the same job when you graduate.

    By all means let me know if you agree or disagree with any of the points raised in my comment.

    • Hi Mike, I am currently studying the Diploma of Nursing, with plans to complete the Degree straight after, working as an EN while at uni/ study holidays etc. Are there any tips you would suggest? I have been thinking along the lines of possible agency work to get some experience to start with. As I would like to continue onto RN, I feel perhaps a grad program may not be my best place to start? What are your thoughts please?

  2. I work for Healthscope, a company that owns several private hospitals around Australia. Healthscope have been hiring new grads straight onto their casual pool since July 2014 and I’ve worked with several of them (at the Hobart Private Hospital). They will take you on straight from Uni, without a grad program under your belt, and you will be expected to hit the ground running and take up a full patient load on very busy wards (mostly surgical). But be warned, you will receive no orientation, no supernumerary time, no mentor and pretty much no mercy. If you are confident and competent, it’s an option.

    Can I also point out that in Tasmania, although the ANMF claims 60% of grads can’t get jobs, a number of healthcare services down here are so desperate for nurses they have been willing to take on new grads as employees extraneous to a grad program. Nearly all of these facilities tell me they receive virtually no applications whatsoever.

    There’s more out there than your capital city acute care hospitals, folks.

    • Hi Dale. Do you know the name of these hospitals who accept new grad nurses? Please I am desperate to find work. Hope to hear from you.

  3. If you don’t get a graduate position your career is pretty much over. Your chances of getting a nursing position is zero especially if you can’t get a graduate position within the next 12 months, mature aged or you are ex-military. You can beg and plead, it won’t make any difference. If you do get a nursing position without any graduate training, you will be targeted & shown NO mercy by the senior staff and experienced nurses. You will be eaten alive and no-one will give a care.

    • Be positive and keep looking around. Some places may provide you with short training if you are a new grad. To me, hospital jobs don’t matter. As long as I have a stable income, I don’t mind going into aged care or community.

  4. After completing a dual degree in paramedicine/nursing I failed to obtain a grad position in either field. I found that grades did not matter (I was an average hd student) as some students who did manage to get a grade position barely passing, whilst one failed so much, it took her an extra 2 years to graduate and obtain a position at a prominent Sydney hospital.

    As for employment, I had worked in the hospital system for almost 10 years prior to graduating. Working as an Ain may assist with understanding the Uni content, I don’t believe it assists with obtaining a graduate position.

    I graduated in 2015 and found that there were too many students graduating, both in nursing and paramedicine, for everyone to successfully obtain a position. The intake number into these courses continues to rise. In the end it feels like it’s about the Uni profiting while we end up with a huge hecs debt and no employement.

    I did eventually found casual work in a rural facility. I did find that I was expected to hit the floor and know everything. There is no support and it is hard work (especially mentally). I tend to head home and continue to study what I found I did not understand during the shift. While this is an option for people, it is very stressful and expect to be eaten alive with little or no support.


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