How to Find a Preceptor When You’re in Nursing School

Two nurses looking at paperwork.

If you’re here, you probably already know what a preceptorship is, even if you’re a year or more out from starting your practicum. But in case you’re not already familiar with the term, a preceptorship is a mentorship agreement in which an experienced licensed nurse, medical doctor, or physician assistant provides guidance and, at times, supervision while you gain hands-on experience at a clinical site.

You complete these practicum hours as a requirement of graduation from your nursing program. Preceptorship provides an invaluable opportunity for you to glean from the knowledge of a seasoned professional in a real-life healthcare setting.

To help navigate the process of securing a preceptor, we consulted with Chelsea Vandine, Manager of Clinical Education at West Coast University. Here are some best practices as well as some lesser-known tips to finding a good match and making a good impression.

When Should I Start Looking for a Preceptor?

“It’s never too early,” Vandine stresses. “Start tapping into your personal network right away.”

The preceptor search can take time, and there’s no reason to wait to get your hunt started. It’s not unreasonable to be actively seeking a preceptor well over a year before you expect to begin. Waiting until the last minute could severely limit your options or leave you shut out entirely. Also consider that your clinical affiliation can take a couple of months to clear, and that needs to be in place before you start.

So, the short answer to when you should start is “Now.”

Why Should I Do My Own Networking?

Networking is your best strategy for finding a preceptor, and an even better strategy for finding the right one. Vandine recommends asking friends and relatives about their own doctors and nurse practitioners (NPs) as a great place to start. Looking to work in women’s health? Ask a friend if she likes her OB-GYN.

Put feelers out to friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers—you never know when that person seated next to you on a plane might turn out to be a provider or administrator at your hometown hospital. An opportunity might pop up when or where you least expect it.

Another reason to prioritize finding a preceptor through a personal connection is just that: it’s the personal connection. A preceptor with whom you have a pre-existing relationship of any kind is likely to have more of a personal investment in you.

How Can I Stand Out to Potential Preceptors?

When you meet for a possible preceptorship, above all else, be professional.

“Treat it like a job interview. Dress professionally. These doctors and nurses are getting emails nonstop, so anything you can do to stand out helps.”

-Chelsea Vandine, Manager of Clinical Education at WCU

Remember that you’re asking someone to spend significant time with you, and they’ll be looking at how you present yourself as an early sign of how you’ll conduct yourself during the preceptorship.

What else can you do? “I’ve had students bake homemade cookies and bring them in. Food makes everyone happy,” Vandine shared.

Coming to your meeting with food (or any offering) in hand is by no means a requirement, nor an expectation… but an added personal touch certainly doesn’t hurt.

And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Curiosity shows you’re eager to learn and confident enough to make the most of your preceptorship. Be strategic – consider questions that show you’re as interested in what you’ll contribute as in what you’ll gain. Ask what your potential preceptor’s expectations are and how you’ll be able to add value while learning.

How Can I Match with a Preceptor in My Area of Focus?

As a nursing student, you might feel certain that you want to work in a very specific area. The truth is you might not be able to find a placement that fits your exact requirements. We asked Vandine about imperfect placements, and she let us know this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I went to school to be a math teacher,” she shared. “You might think you want to be on an oncology floor, but you don’t know what the future holds. That’s why it’s important to place according to the wider scope your license will allow, so you’ll be casting a wider net.”

Placing in a preceptorship that isn’t your dream placement has its advantages because you’ll add versatility to your experience. Your license will cover a lot of medical treatments that you may or may not use in one given area of practice. Even though you may ultimately end up working in your planned discipline, a preceptorship in an alternate area of focus will give you exposure to a broader scope of practice. And who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with a new concentration.

Should I Offer to Pay for a Preceptor?

Whether a preceptor is paid, and by whom, varies. You should not assume you’ll be paying your preceptor, and you don’t need to offer. However, it’s not unusual for a potential preceptor to request payment for taking you on. There are a few things to consider in the event compensation is requested or expected.

First of all, this is not uncommon, and it’s not against the rules. Being a preceptor isn’t just sharing time and expertise—it’s assuming liability against the preceptor’s license. You are your preceptor’s responsibility, and so are any mistakes you may make under their supervision. So, you shouldn’t necessarily be turned off by a payment request.

That said, a preceptor who is not taking the job for the money is more likely to be taking it for the reward of teaching in and of itself. In other words, it stands to reason that an unpaid preceptor is more invested in you, and your success.

The same thinking applies to a preceptor being paid through the healthcare organization in which you place. These preceptors are often assigned to you rather than having made a decision to work with you—so again, they are less likely to have a personal stake in your growth than one found through your own network who is mentoring you for free.

If you do decide to work with a paid preceptor, beware of the more unusual request to remit payment in cash. An off-the-books transactional preceptorship may involve someone who is hoping to evade paying taxes on the income, and this should be considered a red flag.

What Happens If I Can’t Find a Preceptor?

If you have done your best but have tapped out your personal network, don’t give up. You still have other ways to connect with potential preceptors. Many students employ cold calling and going door-to-door at clinics, which can be an effective way to make a match provided you do so courteously.

You can also use social media to put out the call or approach nurses and doctors about a preceptorship, again, with proper etiquette. And there are matching services and professional networks you can leverage.

Fortunately, if you’re a nursing student at West Coast University, you don’t have to look far for assistance. At WCU, each student is assigned a clinical coordinator to help with preceptorship placement. If you can’t find a preceptorship through your own networking, WCU will help locate a preceptor within a 60-mile radius who fits your license requirements.

So, you have many avenues to preceptorship in addition to your personal network. Just make sure these paths are supplemental to your personal networking.

We wish you the best of luck with your search, and with your upcoming preceptorship! Stay tuned for our next preceptor-focused post, which will be on how to get the most value out of your preceptorship while you’re in nursing school.

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.