Building a Professional Portfolio
With a much broader scope than a resume, portfolios reflect the continuum of a nurse's experience and it's never too early to create one
As founder and CEO of Decision Critical Inc. in Austin, TX, Kenneth Dion, MSN, MBA, RN, uses himself as a personal example of the importance of keeping a professional portfolio over the years.
"A portfolio goes beyond the scope of a resume to reflect involvement in committees, vignettes or exemplars of nursing experiences, and journaling to detail professional progression," he explained. "I have gaps in my curriculum vitae because I didn't capture those experiences and that documentation as I went along. There's no way I could go back and re-create that valuable documentation at this point in my career."
What's in a Portfolio?
Compared to a resume, a portfolio presents a more comprehensive portrait of a nurse's professional life.
"I like to think of a professional portfolio the way an artist thinks of his work," Dion explained. "Artists select their best pieces for their portfolios, keeping in mind the needs of the various galleries they'd like to have display their work. Nurses are knowledge workers, and we need to capture all of our professional development activities, and then display those pieces that demonstrate our knowledge base, depending on the receiving audience."
Portfolios are highly personal, reflecting the life journey of the nurse. "Some students ask me if they should put high school experiences in their portfolios," Dion said. "I tell them, put in everything of value, because you never know when you're going to need access to those experiences and that information."
Dion recommends a Web-based professional portfolio that allows nurses to flexibly record the information that's important throughout their careers. He feels so strongly about the importance of a portfolio that his company hosts portfolio seminars for members of the National Student Nurses Association at no cost.
"Some of the sections that we offer include committee membership, consulting activities, certifications and continuing education, fellowships, honors and awards, licensure, military service and membership in professional organizations," he described. "A nurse might also include publications, participation in research projects, student activities and patient or professional teaching experience." In addition to these categories typically seen on a professional resume, the electronic portfolio provides endless opportunities for reflective accounts of nursing experiences.
Portfolios Are Reflective
"Learning is a lifelong process, and there's learning occurring all the time," said Dion. "Sometimes, hyou don't know you're learning until you reflect on it. The literature stresses that portfolios are reflective, and we recommend that nurses take time every 2-3 months to work on their portfolio, journaling how they got from point A to point B, and reflecting on the art of nursing."
Nursing students and novice nurses tend to focus first on learning the science of nursing and developing confidence in their nursing skills. Later, explained Dion, "we develop the art of nursing as we gain competency in our field.
"Employers are looking for evidence that a nurse is developing in the art of nursing. Can nurses synthesize what they know, can they capture the qualitative part of what the nurse does in a professional role and can they articulate it in written form? When people read a portfolio, they want to be able to answer by saying, 'Yes, I read that nurse's case log and that log does demonstrate empathy, for example.'"
Noting that nurses historically have had a difficult time articulating their value as a profession, Dion described creating a portfolio as the first step toward this articulation process.
Drivers Behind the Move to Portfolios
Professional portfolios are becoming the norm in some healthcare settings, said Dion, and we can expect this trend to continue.
"We're seeing so many changes in the healthcare industry, and one of the biggest drivers for a professional portfolio is the move from continuing education to demonstrating continuing professional competency," he noted. "A number of states are actually considering RN license renewal by portfolio, because some nurse leaders believe that going online and taking a couple of courses doesn't necessarily demonstrate nursing competency."
Dion highlighted the ongoing and worsening nursing shortage as the second driver behind portfolios. "We know that in times of shortage, we sometimes see a decrease in quality," he remarked. "Think back to the oil shortage, when we were buying bad gasoline because that's all that was available. There needs to be an emphasis on quality when hiring and evaluating nursing professionals, and portfolios provide evidence that the nurse is continuing the lifelong journey of learning."
Nursing excellence, as epitomized by hospitals striving to achieve and maintain Magnet designation, is a third driver behind the popularity of professional portfolios.
"A significant portion of that Magnet designation is having nursing involved in decision-making at the hospital," Dion noted. "Hospitals need easily accessible, quantifiable evidence that members of the nursing staff at all levels of the organization are involved in identifying and resolving issues, as well as demonstrating ongoing professional teamwork. Those facilities that have their nurses develop portfolios will have a leg up on demonstrating that involvement."
Dion advocates a comprehensive approach to information-gathering when preparing a nursing portfolio.
"I remind nurses that they should save everything, but that they don't have to share everything," he explained. "They can store all of their professional development activities, and then pick constituent elements and create any number of portfolios from the information they have stored online. I have one portfolio for academia, for example, and one for consulting. I can e-mail access to the appropriate portfolio to prospective employers, clients or certifying bodies."
When he consults with healthcare facilities who are manually maintaining professional information, Dion is able to offer significant assistance.
"I've worked with healthcare facilities who are putting portfolios together in three-ring binders, and one chief nursing officer told me it took 6 hours per nurse for this cumbersome paper-based process," he said. "An electronic portfolio is much easier to assemble, distribute and update, and it allows for specific searches and reports. For example, a nurse manager could ask the system, 'Show me all the ACLS-certified nurses whose certification is due to expire in July.' Based on the report from that search, the manager could ask the clinical educator to proactively schedule ACLS review courses for those nurses."
Dion emphasized the importance of ensuring safe and confidential access to the information in a professional portfolio over time.
"You could burn the information onto a CD and put it in a safe deposit box, but that's risky," he pointed out. "Think about those unfortunate nurses on the Gulf Coast who no longer had a stitch of information after the devastation and flooding. An electronic portfolio maintained on a safe Web site would have provided them with pertinent licensure information, letters of recommendation, credentials and other records of their experience. And Web-based portfolios are available any time, and any place."
It's never too early to begin developing a professional portfolio. "I want to encourage nursing students to get started with their portfolios during their student years, not just for their instructors, but for themselves as professionals," said Dion. "We need to build into our lives the practice of reflection, and capture information about how we've made a difference in the world each and every day."
Sandy Keefe is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ADVANCE for Nurses.