Background Critical care nurses provide care to acutely ill patients, yet little is known about the early socialization processes of new nurses to critical care units from the nurses’ perspectives.

Objectives To explore the early socialization processes of critical care nurses.

Methods A grounded theory design was used to generate a local theory of how critical care nurses experience socialization. Interviews and journals of participants (N = 10) during the first 4 to 5 months of the socialization experiences were collected. Preceptors were interviewed to triangulate data. Orientation materials and field notes were examined.

Results A process of 5 phases was uncovered: the prodrome, welcome to the unit, disengagement/testing, on my own, and reconciliation. Participants experienced difficulty while being evaluated by preceptors early in the orientation process because of changing expectations. Participants also expressed disappointment in their level of comfort at the end of the orientation. The theory termed “navigating the challenge” explains the nature of the changing expectations that new critical care nurses face during their socialization process.

Conclusions This exploratory study defines the phases that new critical care nurses experience during the early socialization process. Phase-specific recommendations are made on the basis of the results of the study.

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