The Job and What's Involved

Nurses are an essential part of the healthcare team. They work with patients who are ill or injured or who have problems due to age or disability. As well as providing care for patients and supporting their treatment and recovery, nurses give support and advice to patients' families and carers. They also promote good health.

Nurses work in a wide variety of different settings:

Hospital ward - a nurse may check a patient's medical history and devise a care plan, check blood pressure and temperature and observe and record changes in the patient's condition, give medication and change dressings.

Accident and emergency unit - a nurse may assess patients' conditions, decide on the order in which they should be treated (known as triage) and treat a wide range of conditions, from wounds to heart attacks.

Operating theatre - nurses assist surgeons and other healthcare professionals by preparing and passing instruments, and also by caring for patients in the recovery room.

GP's surgery or health centre - a nurse may run clinics for people with conditions such as asthma and diabetes, carry out health screening, take blood for testing and give injections.

Community based - nurses offer care and support to patients in their homes and other community settings.

Nurses work closely with other members of the healthcare team including doctors, radiographers, physiotherapists, pharmacists and healthcare assistants. They may also liaise with other professionals including social workers and teachers to make sure patients have all the support they need.

Nurses train to work in one of four branches:

- Adult nursing
- Children's nursing
- Mental health nursing
- Learning disability nursing

Nurses usually work up to 37.5 hours a week. Depending on their place of work this might include a shift or rota system to cover early mornings, evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays. Overtime may be available. There are many opportunities for flexible or part-time work. A driving licence is useful for nurses working in the community.

Most nurses wear uniform as well as protective clothing such as gloves, masks and aprons when required.

Salaries for qualified nurses working in the National Health Service (NHS) start at £19,166 a year. Salaries are higher in the London area.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 670,000 nurses in the UK. The majority are employed by the NHS. There are also opportunities:

  • In private healthcare.
  • With nursing agencies.
  • With private nursing and residential homes.
  • With charities and voluntary organisations.
  • In the pharmaceutical industry.
  • With the Prison Service.
  • In the Armed Forces.
  • In schools and universities.
  • In the occupational health departments of large organisations
  • On cruise ships.

Vacancies are advertised in local newspapers, on the jobs bulletins and websites of NHS trusts and charities, in specialist magazines like Nursing Times, and at

Candidates must pass occupational health and Criminal Records Bureau checks.

Education and Training

Nurses must hold a degree or diploma in nursing recognised by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). These are offered at universities and colleges throughout the UK. Each university decides its own academic entry requirements, but all applicants must demonstrate ability in literacy and numeracy, and provide evidence of good health and good character.

Candidates for diploma courses usually need the equivalent of at least five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) including English and a science subject. Degree course entry usually requires five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) and two A levels/three H grades or equivalent. Full-time diploma courses last three years. Degree courses last three or four years. The minimum age to start training is 17.5 years (17 in Scotland).

In England it may be possible to join a nurse cadet Apprenticeship or training scheme. These usually last up to two years and lead to an NVQ/SVQ Level 3 or Access course pass. This could act as a qualification for entry to a nursing diploma course.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work, Careers Wales; and for Northern Ireland contact

Entrants without formal qualifications may be able to take an Access course (offered through colleges of further education) before applying for a nursing degree or diploma. Access to health and social care courses are the most relevant. The Access course should consist of at least four subjects including anatomy and physiology and study skills. Both full and part-time courses are available. Candidates for entry to the degree or diploma course must have evidence of having successfully completed a full Access course.

In Scotland Access courses are run by the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) and are offered by a number of institutions and colleges of further education. These consist of 12 Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) units. Students who successfully complete a SWAP course may be offered a place on a nursing course.

Graduates with a relevant degree (for example a health-related or biology-based degree) may apply for an accelerated training programme leading to a diploma, postgraduate diploma or a Masters degree. Accelerated programmes usually last a minimum of 24 months.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Before applying for a course, candidates choose which of the four branches of nursing they wish to study. During the first year all courses share a common foundation programme. In the remaining years training focuses on the branch of their choice. All courses are 50 per cent theory and 50 per cent practical, and involve placements in local hospital and community settings. Very occasionally trainee nurses can change branches at the end of the first year.

On completing their course, nurses must register with the NMC to be eligible to practise.

The NHS and other employers are committed to offering learning and development opportunities to nurses. New treatments and techniques are introduced all the time so it is essential that nurses update their skills and knowledge on an ongoing basis. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is essential in order to remain eligible to practise.

Registered nurses may also choose from a wide range of courses to extend their skills in a variety of specialist areas. They may also take a two-year course to qualify in one of the other three branches of nursing.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A nurse should:

  • Have excellent people skills and be able to relate well to people from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.
  • Have practical skills.
  • Remain calm in difficult situations.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Have empathy with patients and their families and be able to gain their trust.
  • Be non-judgemental.
  • Have the confidence to make decisions and work independently.
  • Work well alone and as part of a team.
  • Be able to prioritise a busy workload.
  • Be prepared to help patients with intimate tasks.
  • Be confident with writing and numerical work.
  • Be physically fit and emotionally strong.
  • Not be squeamish.

Your Long Term Prospects

With experience and further training, there are good opportunities for promotion and specialisation.

Nurses may apply for leadership roles with wider responsibilities, such as sister, charge nurse or nurse consultant, or move into nurse management or general NHS management.

They can take further specialist training in order to work in areas such as diabetes, pain management, operating theatres or to become health visitors, district nurses or occupational health nurses. With additional training they may move into teaching or research.

Nurses with appropriate post-registration experience can apply to offer health advice by telephone as part of NHS Direct in England and Wales and NHS 24 in Scotland.

There may be opportunities to work overseas.

Get Further Information

NHS England: NHS Careers,
PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655

NHS Scotland: Careers and Opportunities
in the NHS Scotland
Tel: 0845 601 4647

NHS Wales:

Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC),
23 Portland Place, London W1B 1PZ
Tel: 020 7637 7181

The Royal College of Midwives,
15 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NH
Tel: 020 7312 3535

Royal College of Nursing (RCN),
20 Cavendish Square, London W1G 0RN
Tel: 020 7409 3333

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