How To Become A Nurse: The Basics

Considering stepping into Nursing? If you want a career that’s different every day, balances professional knowledge with practical skills, and involves helping others, then look no further. With opportunities to work in a local setting, or to apply your skills internationally, nursing offers both job satisfaction and excellent prospects for development.

student nurse

To become a Nurse you must complete a degree in Pre-Registration Nursing at an Approved Educational Institution (or AEI), as these are the only places that the qualification would be provided. Following this you will be required to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), and then the path is open for applying for nursing positions.

Studying a degree in Pre-Registration Nursing usually takes 3 years, and specifies in one of four areas; however some educational institutions will offer a dual speciality, such as Learning Difficulties with Adult Nursing.

The specialities open to you to choose between are:

  • Mental Health - as many as one in three people in the UK have encountered a mental health problem, and this leads to a need for empathetic, understanding Nurses. Mental Health Nursing can take place in varied settings, and offers opportunities to help someone rebuild their life, improve their coping skills, and maintain physical wellbeing. The potential stigma surrounding mental health can lead to challenges in this field; however it is a highly rewarding field to offer your skills in.
  • Children’s - Children’s Nursing (sometimes referred to as Paediatric Nursing) offers a highly varied career, and requires a specific skillset. Children’s Nurses need to be excellent communicators - sometimes without spoken language, as children may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. Nurses working with children must also be patient, as there could be times when the role is frustrating. Helping families is another aspect of children’s nursing, and therefore a gentle approach is needed.
  • Learning Difficulties - Working with someone who has a disability can be a demanding role, but can often lead to a strong sense of satisfaction. Helping someone gain independence, learn new skills, and improving their physical health are just some of the ways a Disability Nurse works with an individual. Nurses working with a person who has a learning difficulty also need to be assertive, as there may be negative feedback in some situations.
  • Adult - Adult Nursing is perhaps the most varied speciality, and there is likely to be a different challenge every day. The ability to multitask is key, as many patients will have to be looked after at any one time, with the same level of care and good bedside manner being paid to each person. As with all nursing roles, the need to be supportive of everyone involved is paramount, with a gentle approach required in particularly difficult situations.

Usually, all degree positions are applied for through UCAS (Undergraduate Courses at University and College), however some institutions may consider direct applications from mature students (21+).

Pre-Registration Nursing degrees are made up of two components:

  • Theory - undertaken in a university setting (AEI)
  • Practice - a placement in the chosen field

Both account for 50% of the overall end result, meaning that the qualification is both professional and academic.

The theory section is taken at an Approved Educational Institution, consisting of lectures, seminars, and tutorials, and focuses on three key areas:

  • Communication ability - It is important that a Nurse be able to communicate across a range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and other aspects. There is also a need for a Nurse to be skilled at communication quickly with other healthcare professionals in order to secure the best outcome for the patient.
  • Observation - A patient may deteriorate quickly, or require rapid care, and therefore a Nurse must have excellent observation skills. They must also be observational and aware during treatment in order to check the care is proceeding as it should.
  • Caring skills - A Nurse must provide a high level of care to each patient under their remit, and ensure that each patient is in the best possible condition. The skills learnt by a Nurse are wide ranging and so each can require a different approach, however the same caring attitude is required.

Practice will take the form of clinical placements, and will be related to the specification chosen. These placements may take place in a hospital setting, in the community, and sometimes may have a balance of both.

Both the theory and the practical section of the degree are designed to test four areas of competence:

  • Practical Nursing skills and decision making - For example when to call for assistance, how to administer emergency measures
  • Team working, management skills, and leadership abilities; how to work efficiently with other healthcare professionals
  • Professional values
  • Interpersonal and communication skills; developing good bedside manner, helping close relatives with difficult issues

Throughout a Nursing degree, there may be the opportunity for students to work alongside those studying in other healthcare routes, such as Midwifery or Pharmacy. This exposure offers a route into understanding different aspects of medical care, and helps build vital networking connections.

Some universities offer the option of studying a Nursing degree part time, lasting around 5 to 6 years. These part time courses are constructed much in the same way as a full time undergraduate degree, however they are primarily to those already working in the NHS. For example, if you are working as an Assistant Practitioner you may wish to further your career, or pursue a different path.

Commenting on her studies, Hannah, a current nursing student, answered these questions:

What specialty do you study? What made you decide to pick that one?

I study Adult Nursing. I decided to go in that direction as I believe that there’s a broader scope of practice available, as it often overlaps into many other areas.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Looking after a patient who was deteriorating physically, and having to convince the medical staff around me that immediate action was needed to help the patient.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before you started your Nursing degree?

That sometimes you can never do as much as you’d like to for someone; time, resources, and staff don’t allow for it.  

What piece of advice would you offer for prospective Nursing students?

Enjoy the experience of being a student on placement. Make the most of all the experiences you have whilst working with people from different teams, and try to learn as much as you can from different environments such as operating theatres.

Aside from a degree, after registering with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the NMC will seek certain attributes. For example, it is required that a Nurse be of solid physical health, that they show good character and a lack of bias in order to create a well-rounded individual.

Once you are qualified as a Nurse, there is great potential for career progression, with multiple paths open depending on your area of speciality, and how you want to go forward. Being a Nurse can be challenging at times, demanding, even stressful, but offers the opportunity to be an extremely rewarding career choice. 

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