If you’re looking for a career where you can make a real difference to people’s lives, and that gives you the opportunity to work in a wide range of roles and settings, nursing could be for you.
In this article we address the key questions you should ask yourself if you are considering a career in nursing. We’ll examine what you might do and where you could work. We’ll help you think about whether you’ve got what it takes, look at the various entry routes and give you some ideas about where a career in nursing might lead. Along the way, Alison, an experienced practice nurse, will provide you with a few top tips.
What does nursing involve?
There are four main ‘fields’ of nursing.
- Adult nurses care for patients who are injured, sick, disabled or at the end of their lives. They are also concerned with promoting good health.
- Learning disability nurses support the health, wellbeing and social inclusion of people with learning disabilities.
- Mental health nurses help people recover from, or better cope with, their illnesses.
- Children’s nurses care for babies, children and young people up to the age of 18; they also support their patients’ parents and carers.
Most mental health and learning disability nurses work in community settings helping their clients live as independently as possible.
Actual nursing roles, even within the same field, can vary enormously. However, most nurses assess patients, plan and deliver care, monitor patients and keep records. Practical care tasks vary, but can include checking on vital signs, supporting doctors with physical examinations or procedures, administering injections and drugs, dressing wounds, setting up drips and giving advice to patients or their carers. Some roles involve counselling and teaching.
Where could I work as a nurse?
Most nurses are employed in the NHS or by organisations that contract with the NHS. Some work for private healthcare providers, the Armed Forces, charities or other employers.
You could work in a general or specialist hospital or hospice. There are opportunities in accident and emergency, operating theatres, intensive care, neonatal units and on a wide range of specialist wards.
Increasingly, care is provided within the community. You could work in patients’ homes, within a GP practice, in industry or in a hostel, nursing home, school, prison or even on a cruise ship!
Would I suit a career in nursing?
As you would expect, nurses need to be resilient, calm in challenging situations, caring and sensitive to the needs of their patients, but they also require a wide range of other skills and aptitudes.
It’s essential that you can communicate clearly and are comfortable working independently as well as in a team. Nurses often work alongside doctors, therapists and other professionals, and may be assisted by support workers.
Nursing suits people who are organised, observant, flexible, able to solve problems and have confidence working with technology.
Before being accepted to nurse training, you will undergo various background and health checks. Employers and training providers will want to be sure that you understand their core values.
How do I get into nursing?
In order to work as a nurse you have to register with the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) and this means taking an NMC-approved pre-registration programme.
Full-time degree or postgraduate course
If you choose to take a full-time degree or postgraduate course you will study at university as well as spending at least half your time on clinical placements. You apply through UCAS, normally for a course in a particular field of nursing. Some programmes allow you to train in two fields, such as adult and mental health nursing; these ‘dual field courses’ take an extra year and often lead to a masters degree.
Tip: “Before you apply, research the different fields of nursing so that you are clear about what each one involves. Think about the patients or clients you want to work with, the settings that might suit you and what opportunities are available once you qualify. Some fields of nursing provide more opportunity for regular hours and continuity of patient care than others. Also bear in mind that certain fields, such as children’s nursing, are particularly competitive to enter.”
Degree course entry requirements vary, so check carefully. Some universities are more flexible than others, especially if you have relevant prior learning or experience. Along with GCSEs, National 5 or equivalent in English, maths and science, you’ll need A levels, Highers/Advanced Highers or equivalent vocational qualifications. Certain subjects, such as biology or a social science, may be specified. If you don’t have the necessary qualifications for entry, you could take an Access to Higher Education course or choose a degree course that includes a foundation year.
If you’re not yet sure that nursing is for you, you could start by taking a degree in another subject and then follow this with an NMC-approved pre-registration postgraduate course. Such programmes normally take two years, full time. Any degree subject may be acceptable for entry, but for some courses you need a relevant discipline, such as biology or psychology.
When you apply for courses, you have to show that you understand what nursing involves and that you have the aptitude for the work. Most universities expect you to have gained some relevant experience, and you will probably be asked to attend an interview or even an assessment day.
Tip: “Work experience isn’t always easy to find, but there are alternatives. You could interview a nurse – most of us are more than happy to tell you how we got started and how our careers have progressed. You could also volunteer or find part-time work at a care home or charity for people with support needs, for example. Not only will you develop some useful skills, the experience can help you decide whether or not nursing is right for you.”
If you take a full-time pre-registration nursing course, in addition to the usual student loans, you may be eligible for additional financial support. How much you can get varies widely depending on where you study. You can find information on what you may be able to claim and any associated commitments through individual universities and the relevant funding authority:
- NHS Business Services Authority in England
- Student Awards Agency Scotland
- Student Awards Services in Wales
- Student Finance Northern Ireland
Apart from taking a full-time programme, there are other ways to qualify as a Registered Nurse. You normally need similar entry requirements to those outlined for full-time courses.
Part-time or blended learning
A few pre-registration courses are available on a part-time or blended learning basis. Some are for those already working in a relevant role, perhaps as a healthcare support worker. Juggling various commitments can be challenging and you would need to meet the same academic standard as full-time students.
In England, it’s possible to take a Registered Nurse degree apprenticeship to qualify in one of the fields of nursing described earlier in this article. The apprenticeship lasts around four years and you would be employed and paid while you train. As you can imagine, there’s usually a lot of competition for vacancies.
There are a number of apprenticeships at different levels in healthcare. You could take one of these as a stepping stone into nurse training. In England, if you successfully complete a level 5 apprenticeship for nursing associates, you can apply for a shortened Registered Nurse training programme.
Training in the Armed Forces
If you are interested in the Armed Forces and meet their fitness and other entry criteria, you could train as an adult or mental health nurse in the Army, RAF or Royal Navy. You would learn to provide both general and specialist nursing care, and be prepared to work in conflict situations.
Opportunities to progress in nursing
Once you qualify as a Registered Nurse, there are many different ways in which your career can progress. All nurses have to undergo continuing professional development, but some choose to undertake training – sometimes at postgraduate level – for specialist or more advanced roles. If you want a career with more clinical or leadership responsibility, you could aim for a position as an advanced nurse practitioner, modern matron or nurse consultant.
Other ways in which your career could develop is to spend some time working abroad, possibly in a developing country, or you could move into healthcare management, nurse education, research or health promotion.
Tip: “It’s never too early to think about where your career might lead as this will give you something to aim for and might influence your choice of nursing field.”
How can I find out more about nursing?
We’ve only been able to give you a brief outline on careers in nursing, but there’s plenty of information online. A good starting point is to look at the relevant healthcare careers site for where you live: NHS Health Careers in England, NHS Scotland Careers or NHS Wales Careers. Also see the profiles on nursing on the National Careers Service, My World of Work and Careers Wales websites. Information aimed at graduates can be found through Prospects. You’ll also find advice on becoming a nurse through the Royal College of Nursing, the Nursing & Midwifery Council and nurses.co.uk.
If nursing isn’t quite the right fit for you, you could consider one of the many other careers in health. According to NHS Health Careers there are 350 roles in the NHS, so there’s bound to be something to suit you.
Debbie Steel, January 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.