Careers as a nurse

Nurse with child and parent
Find out how to train to be a nurse and the different types of nurse you could become. We’ve also spoken to a learning disability nurse about what her job involves.

Nursing careers are straightforward to get into and offer lots of different job options once you’ve qualified. You’re not restricted to working on the wards – for example, you could be a health visitor supporting parents and young children in their homes, or a clinic academic nurse who combines nursing with healthcare research. Or you could work in a prison, like the learning disability nurse we’ve spoken to below.

How do I train to be a nurse?

To become a nurse you need to:

  • Take a nursing degree that’s accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). There are four types to choose from: adult nursing, children’s nursing, mental health nursing or learning disability nursing. Most nursing degrees involve going to university in the standard way and then going on placements from time to time as part of your course. However, there are now a small number of nursing degree apprenticeships that combine working as a paid NHS employee with studying part time at university. Read more about nursing degrees, including what to expect and entry requirements.
  • Register with the NMC, which should be a simple process if you’ve taken an accredited degree in the UK.
  • Apply for nursing jobs and start your career.
  • As you work, get involved in further learning opportunities. Nurses now need to revalidate their NMC registration every three years. There are various requirements for this, including having taken part in at least 35 hours of relevant learning activities – known as continuing professional development, or CPD – since you last revalidated.

Types of nurse you could become

Once you’ve started your career there are lots of different areas of nursing to choose from. For example, you could become:

  • a nurse specialist, specialising in a particular condition such as diabetes or dementia
  • a matron, overseeing patient care and safety across a group of wards
  • a ward sister, aka charge nurse, overseeing an individual ward
  • a practice nurse (aka general practice nurse), working at a GP surgery doing tasks such as giving vaccinations, taking blood samples and treating wounds
  • a health visitor – typically you’ll support parents of children from birth to five years old, checking that they and their child are well and advising on behavioural issues; you might also work with vulnerable adults such as people who are homeless
  • a neonatal nurse, looking after newborn babies who are unwell or premature and supporting their parents
  • a theatre nurse, assisting surgeons during operations and looking after patients before and after surgery
  • a clinical academic nurse, combining nursing work with academic research into a particular aspect of healthcare
  • a university lecturer, teaching students about nursing and conducting your own academic healthcare research
  • a district nurse, visiting patients for whom it is difficult to leave the house in their own homes
  • a school nurse
  • a prison nurse
  • a midwife (see below).

Becoming a midwife

Be aware that midwifery is technically a separate profession from nursing. One route into it is to do a midwifery degree rather than a nursing degree. You can also become an adult nurse first, then become a midwife by taking a shortened, 80-week midwifery degree course.

Life as a learning disability nurse

TARGETcareers spoke to a registered learning disability nurse about her work. She is employed by the NHS and works in a young offenders’ prison as a primary health care nurse.

How did you get onto a learning disability nursing degree?

I passed three A levels, one of which had to be science based – mine was psychology. Different universities have different entry requirements. Universities like students to have prior experience in the field of healthcare – to achieve this I volunteered at a local care home. You must also pass different interviews, and often pass different tests such as maths and writing.

Why did you choose a career in learning disability nursing?

I studied psychology at college and was eager to learn more about why people act the way they do and what options were available for people who may be struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. This led me to consider nursing as an option. I wanted to focus on individuals’ wellbeing and their life as a whole, ensuring that anyone in my care was having optimum health and they were being considered as individuals, rather than as their diagnosis. While volunteering I worked closely with some individuals who had learning disabilities and found that I really enjoyed this. I also had the chance to discuss the role with a learning disability nurse who explained what she does and what she could do – it sounded exactly like what I wanted to do.

What do learning disability nurses do?

Learning disability nurses work with individuals with learning disabilities to enable optimum health and wellbeing in their lives. They also work with families and different professionals to ensure the individual is receiving the right care and support they require. We can work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, mental health hospitals (including secure hospitals), in both learning disability and mental health community teams, in diagnostic teams (such as diagnosing ADHD or autism), and settings a lot of people don’t consider, such as prison settings.

Learning disability nurses don’t aim to cure an illness; they don’t focus on one aspect of the individual such as their diagnosis, and they consider the individual as a whole and assist them to make decisions about their life and care needs.

What are your responsibilities as a learning disability nurse at a young offenders’ prison?

My responsibilities include:

  • going on medication rounds at multiple times throughout the day
  • conducting physical health assessments
  • reviewing injuries and illness
  • reviewing young people after restraints
  • triaging young people who need to see the GP (deciding which cases are urgent and need to be seen first, and which are less urgent)
  • giving immunisations and vaccinations
  • taking blood tests
  • conducting sexual health screens
  • seeing young people who leave the prison (eg for hospital appointments, court appearances, or when released)
  • assessing every young person who is brought into the prison on their first night
  • attending emergencies and determining whether an emergency ambulance is needed
  • ensuring every young person is offered available services (eg dentist and optician)
  • working collaboratively with the mental health team and substance misuse team.

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