A NEW NURSING graduate I'll call Mary sat face to face with Ms. Jones, the cardiac step-down unit nurse manager at the local hospital. Mary had already submitted her job application and cover letter and was now being interviewed about her qualifications for an open position. Partway through the interview, Ms. Jones said, "Prove to me you're the right nurse for this job. What have you done, other than finishing school, that demonstrates the qualities we seek?"
Having anticipated this question and opportunity, Mary had carefully reviewed and organized her career portfolio. From her portfolio binder, Mary showed Ms. Jones documents that clearly illustrated specific qualities and characteristics listed in the position's job description. Five days after the interview, Ms. Jones telephoned Mary and asked her to join their team as its newest member.
You too can maximize your career opportunities with a polished portfolio. To learn more about why and how to prepare one, read on.
Showcasing your work
For decades, photographers, models, actors, and artists have used portfolios to show off their work.1 Career portfolios are also becoming an expected and important component of the job application process for nurses.
Career portfolios, also known as professional portfolios, augment your resumé. Ideally, your career portfolio will be a snapshot or an annotation of your nursing skills and your problem-solving and critical thinking abilities. Design yours to demonstrate who you are as a nurse and professional.
To help you secure employment or graduate school admission, include documents that showcase your work and abilities.1 You can and should use your career portfolio during these interviews.2 You can also use it to validate life-long learning, proving your commitment to continued competence to employers and nursing boards.
Portfolios offer rewards
Not only does a career portfolio improve your chances at securing the nursing position you seek, but it can also help you prepare for the interview when you review its contents.
If, during important interviews, you have a difficult time articulating your attributes, your career portfolio speaks for itself.2 It tells the interviewer that you're a professional nurse who plans ahead, remains organized, and attends carefully to details.
Besides job skills, a career portfolio also includes documents that address your responsibility for life-long learning, such as nursing-related seminars, staff-development programs, and training sessions you've attended; continuing education credits and contact hours you've earned; and courses you've completed. These items are important documents that validate continued competence for your board of nursing as well as prospective employers.
Even if you've just finished school, evidence of outside-the-classroom education speaks volumes to an employer. For example, if you've completed an optional advanced cardiac life support class in addition to your senior coursework, your potential employer will know that you see yourself as a committed professional nurse.
Building a career portfolio
Remember that your portfolio is unique to you. There are no portfolio templates; one size doesn't fit all.
A less-is-best approach is almost always a good one. Your portfolio needs to be succinct, clear, orderly, attractive, instructive, and absolutely accurate.2
Remember that your portfolio will develop and grow with you throughout your career. And just as you fine-tune your resumé for each job you seek, you'll do the same with your portfolio. Here are a few guidelines to help you arrange a portfolio that will meet your needs over time.
I recommend starting with a large ring binder because it lets you make easy additions, deletions, and organizational changes. Choose a ring binder with clear plastic sleeves into which you'll slide a front title sheet and side panel. Select a binder that also has front and back inside pockets to hold extra copies of your resumé. You can place portfolio documents into clear sheet protectors that are open on the top and have ring holes on the side, with a separate compartment for the page you'll insert. Besides keeping your documents clean and undamaged, sheet protectors are easy to turn.3
The title page is the front cover of your career portfolio. Include your name and a short summary sentence or phrase. You might set it up like this:
Career Portfolio for Jane C. Jones, RN Knowledge, Experience, Skills
You'll probably create the table of contents after you've made all the inclusions and changes. (See Composing your portfolio.) Then create divider tabs or have them made at a local printing facility to correspond with the categories in the table of contents.
You can arrange the categories to correspond with your resumé or use a chronological, alphabetical, or experience-based approach. Whatever organizational method you choose, be sure to consider how you—and thus your portfolio—will grow and change.
Finally, create a portfolio computer Word file and store it on your hard drive and at least one other location. Because some employers request electronic portfolios, you'll need to keep your electronic file professional and organized as well.
Putting your portfolio to use
Carefully edit and proofread your career portfolio. Ask a trusted colleague to review your work as a "pretend" potential employer. Prepare flash card employer-generated questions and rehearse the employment interview with your colleague. That rehearsal will help you explain the contents of your portfolio with a focus on the job you seek.
Bring your career portfolio to each employment or school interview. Imagine the interviewer saying, "I see on your resumé that you completed a 300-hour precepted clinical practicum in our hospital's medical unit. What did you enjoy most about that experience?" Using your portfolio, you'll be able to respond confidently: "The assignments I liked best were those involving patients who needed very complex care." As you answer, open your career portfolio to the reference from your preceptor's clinical evaluation commending the care you gave to patients with multiple physical and emotional needs.
Finally, because your career portfolio should become an ongoing, dynamic, professional practice document, review and update it every few months. Use it to showcase the outstanding nurse you have become. Congratulations!
Composing your portfolio3,4
Include these items in your career portfolio and consider using them as categories for the table of contents and tabbed dividers.
- Professional objective, goals, and biography (your contact information and nursing license numbers). Put these items first in your career portfolio.
- Resumé. Make sure your resumé is current and carefully written. I strongly recommend using professional resumé assistance, which your school may provide for free for students and alumni. Because you may send it before the interview, your resumé should be able to stand on its own. Consider putting your goals and resumé second in your portfolio, and keep some additional copies of your resumé in the folder's inside front pocket.
- References. On one page, list the names, titles, and contact information for at least three professional references. This tabbed section could also include signed reference letters from current and former employers, faculty, and preceptors.
- School transcripts and course descriptions. The transcripts can be unofficial copies.
- Copies of your nursing license and all certifications. Also include other evidence of special training.
- Professional organizations. Indicate whether you're a member or an officer. Students and new graduates can include student organizations such as the National Student Nurses' Association.
- Evidence of continuing education or lifelong learning. When including continuing education experiences in your career portfolio, add a brief paragraph about why you chose to attend the class and what nursing knowledge you gained.2 I also suggest including a list of nursing journals that you currently subscribe to and read.
- Professional and nursing honors and awards. In this list, include the award title, date, organization, and the reason you received it.
- Professional publications and presentations. List completed and published (or in press) manuscripts, brochures, flyers, or manuals. You could also add samples of these publications that represent your best work. Incorporate any professional presentations you've made, adding locations, dates, times, and subject matter.
- Volunteer and community service. Because your resumé may not adequately outline knowledge, skills, and experiences obtained through volunteer work, enter these items in your career portfolio. List the organizations, dates of services, and skills demonstrated.
- Samples of your best work representing items on the job description, such as:
- problem solving: demonstrate how you solved difficult problems with care maps, decision trees, or projects.
- critical thinking: show a care plan written for a difficult patient, including the rationale for interventions implemented, and faculty remarks. Conceal the patient's identity to protect patient privacy.
- communication: describe how you handled a team conference, with the rationale, or include writing samples.
- leadership: include examples such as class office held, preceptor evaluation from leadership rotation, or staffing assignments made, with rationale.
- team and group work: describe a difficult group project or assignment requiring collaboration or tell about your sports participation.
- time management: tell how and why care priorities were made for a group of patients. Again, take steps to protect patient privacy.
- caring: include thank-you notes from grateful patients or families.
- clinical skills: if you're a student or recent graduate, include a skills list from lab and clinical courses and faculty-signed check-off sheets for high-level skills, such as I.V therapy, central venous access device management, and pain management. Include criteria sheets for any special skills you've mastered, such as arterial blood gas draws or ECG interpretation. Provide a summary of any completed capstone, emersion, or preceptor projects including facility, dates, supervisor, and knowledge gained.