This article consolidates a year of research, which Jacobs hopes will save other new graduates time and offer some fresh ideas. Her best advice is to not get discouraged by a competitive job market. Many times, potential employers have indicated that they're most impressed with passion, professionalism, and a demonstrated effort to learn the field of oncology.

In student nursing forums, I’ve read questions like, “I just graduated and am looking for a job in oncology. Any suggestions?” On the hospital and cancer center job boards, the requirements for nursing positions in oncology are often lengthy and technical. Almost all of them start with “Minimum experience required: one to three years of hospital experience. Acute or critical care experience preferred. BSN preferred. Oncology experience preferred.”

Before you get discouraged, start mapping out a plan to get the position you desire. Include how you’ll further your education and professional qualifications with certifications, skills practice, and exposure to more advanced nursing care once you’ve mastered the basics on the job. You should also be thinking about the type of employer you want to work for and how the institution cultivates new graduates.

Take Advantage of ONS Resources to Get Started

If you haven’t already, take advantage of the discounted student rate and join the Oncology Nursing Society. ONS chapters are particularly enthused about introducing students to oncology nursing, with many offering mentoring programs and free or reduced-price attendance at meetings and seminars. E-mail the president or membership chair so he or she will know to formally introduce you, and consider visiting an ONS chapter in a larger metropolitan area if your region doesn’t have one or offer many opportunities for oncology nursing. The December 2011 ONS Connect explores some additional ways that chapters have coached student nurses.

Some chapters may also facilitate nurse extern programs, which typically refer to a student nurse’s work experience at a hospital while the nurse is still in school. Formal extern programs are usually offered during the summer, with an application deadline in late fall. Other extern opportunities are offered whenever a particular department or unit has openings, allowing you to work part-time while attending classes.

While you’re waiting to get on-the-job oncology nursing experience, start reading about what you need to know with some basic courses online. Take an ONS online course such as Cancer Basics, Access Devices: The Virtual Clinic, Safe Handling of Hazardous Drugs, Integrating Psychosocial Care Into Oncology Practice, and Cancer Biology. Online courses count as continuing education credits that you can apply toward state continuing nursing education requirements or your oncology nursing certification renewal, once certification is obtained.

All oncology nursing certifications maintain certain eligibility requirements, including a minimum of one year of experience as an RN within the three years prior to application and a minimum of 1,000 hours of oncology nursing practice within the two and one half years prior to application for initial certification. More information about obtaining certification can be found through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation, an ONS affiliate.

After six months of employment as a registered nurse in any field of nursing, you’re eligible to take the two-day Chemotherapy and Biotherapy Course and earn your chemotherapy provider card. Even if it’s not needed or required where you currently work, it’s a good idea to have your provider card as you look for a career in oncology nursing. You can start learning ahead of time with the popular textbook Chemotherapy and Biotherapy Guidelines and Recommendations for Practice (Third Edition).

Your cover letter and resume should highlight your ONS membership, oncology studies, and if applicable, your efforts toward a BSN, oncology nursing certification or nurse practitioner degree.  Discussing your future plans upfront to employers shows your commitment and foresight to the rigorous preparation that oncology nursing requires.

Apply to Places and Practices That Are Friendly to New Hires

I’d recommend broadening your options to consider any nursing role that will give you skills and experience just out of school. Start with medical/surgical opportunities in a hospital and put in your time in order to move up to specialty departments such as oncology or critical care. If you’re pursuing a BSN in nursing, consider the Army or Navy as great opportunities to earn money for your education and gain job stability after graduation.

What if hospitals in your area aren’t hiring new grads or limit eligibility to RNs with only bachelor’s degrees? Find a practice location elsewhere. A larger metropolitan area may have opportunities outside of hospitals at clinics, private practices, and cancer institutes involved in clinical trials. In contrast, rural and smaller communities have the largest nursing shortages and are very welcoming to new graduate nurses. 3RNet, the National Rural Recruitment and Retention Network, may surprise you with immediate responses for every state you express an interest in once you’ve created an online profile. You can filter your search here for loan-repayment-eligible employers.

If you’re flexible about relocating, consider searching out of state and in less populated regions where there is a shortage of medical providers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) links you to opportunities in your state, country, or zip code that are designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) or Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs). The HRSA offers several federal loan repayment programs and scholarships for nurses who work in these high-need and underserved areas.

As you’re considering relocating for your career, familiarize yourself with the nurse licensure compact program, which grants RNs and licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPN/VNs) a multistate license. If the state where you are licensed is a member, you can more easily apply to RN and LPN positions in other states that are part of the compact licensure agreement. Currently, 24 states are participating in this licensure agreement.

Read part II.

Theresa Jacobs graduated with an Associate of Applied Science in Nursing degree from Yavapai College in Prescott, AZ in December 2012.  While working as a new RN in 2013, she'll pursue her RN-BSN degree online through Northern Arizona University in 2013. Nursing is her second career and she considers herself a non-traditional student.