Becoming a nurse: course and career guide

Should I do a degree in nursing?
When applying to do a nursing degree, you need to show that you have the right personal qualities as well as the necessary grades. Find out more about the kind of experience you need and the different specialities that you can go into.

Nursing degrees equip you with the skills, ethics and scientific knowledge needed to care for people when they’re at their most vulnerable. The course is much more placement-focused than many other degrees, so you’ll need a practical and positive attitude, as well as a compassionate bedside manner.

What is the new nursing degree apprenticeship?

You need a degree to become a nurse, but if you don’t fancy going to university full time you might be interested in the nursing degree apprenticeship that has just been launched. Apprentice nurses will complete a four-year programme, working for the NHS as a paid employee while studying for a nursing degree at the same time and not needing to pay tuition fees. It's all very new, so keep checking for updates on how to apply.

Nursing degree requirements

  • To get onto a nursing degree, you generally need an A level, Advanced Higher or equivalent qualification in at least one science from biology, chemistry, physics, applied science, health and social care, psychology, sociology or physical education, plus two other subjects.
  • However, some universities specifically require biology or chemistry.
  • Typical offers for A level grades range from BBC to ABB.
  • For those studying in Scotland, typical Advanced Higher offers range from BBC to ABB, and typical Higher offers range from BBCCC to AABBB. You should keep in mind that some universities only consider applicants offering Advanced Highers or equivalent qualifications.
  • You’re also likely to need five GCSEs at grade C or above, or equivalent, including English language, maths and science.
  • You can also get onto a nursing degree by completing the Access to Higher Education Diploma in nursing. Generally, universities either ask for 45 credits from level three and 15 credits from level two, or 60 credits from level three. Of those attained at level three, at least 30 credits usually need to be passed at distinction grade, and the remaining credits should be passed at merit grade. However, exact requirements vary from university to university.

What nursing work experience do I need to get onto a degree course?

You’ll need experience in a caring, people-centred environment. Volunteering in a care home or hospice for a few hours per week for a year could help to demonstrate the dedication, empathy and proactive attitude that universities are looking for. One or two-week hospital placements are another option, although these are likely to be less hands-on. If you want to be a children’s nurse, it’s also worth getting work experience in a primary school or nursery.

Madiha Murad is a first year adult nursing student at Keele University. She comments: ‘Nursing students have an intense and varied workload, so you need to show that you know what you’re getting yourself into. Your interviewers also need to see what kind of person you are. Kindness, responsibility, thoroughness and good communication are just a few of the qualities and skills that they look for. Make sure that you highlight these when talking about your previous experience.’

Types of nursing degree

All nursing degrees have to follow a similar syllabus, as they’re controlled by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). However, the focus will vary according to the type of nursing degree that you choose. The four types are:

  • adult nursing
  • children’s nursing
  • mental health nursing
  • learning disability nursing.

These are all three years long. Some universities offer dual-field degrees (eg adult nursing with mental health nursing), which take four years to complete.

Topics typically studied by all nursing students include:

  • anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology
  • basic life support
  • bloods and cannulations
  • manual handling – learning how to lift and turn patients safely
  • body systems such as the cardiovascular, alimentary and respiratory systems
  • drug calculations – learning to ensure that patients are given the right dosage for their weight and condition
  • caring for acutely ill and deteriorating patients
  • healthcare ethics and law.

There are also topics that are specific to each of the four types of nursing degree.

Topics specific to adult nursing degrees

  • Ethics of adult nursing – learning how to care for patients while respecting their individual wishes, cultural background and religious beliefs.
  • Age-specific care – adult nurses care for adults of all ages. Therefore, there is often guidance on how to cater to specific age groups, such as elderly people.

Topics specific to children’s nursing degrees

  • Working with families – learning how to support parents and carers as well as children.
  • Communicating with children – children may be unable to describe their symptoms in the same detail that adults can. Therefore, children’s nurses must learn to interpret their behaviour in order to determine the severity of their condition.
  • Promoting healthy development – minimising the impact of childhood illness as the child matures into an adult.

Topics specific to mental health nursing degrees

  • Detailed study of specific mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and depression.
  • Assessment and intervention – learning to identify patients’ needs and which method of care they’ll respond best to. Mental health nurses must also learn to spot when someone may be a danger to themselves, and how to intervene appropriately.
  • Managing mental health conditions – learning about different treatments and coping strategies, such as therapy (eg cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling), social activities and medication.

Topics specific to learning disability nursing degrees

  • Learning disability nursing practice – learning about how you can contribute to and improve the lives of those with learning disabilities, as well as their families and carers. This includes helping to reduce barriers to independent living.
  • Managing learning disabilities – learning how to maintain the wellbeing of people with learning disabilities, eg through regular health screenings and by implementing everyday strategies.
  • Promoting social inclusion – this involves working to reduce discrimination against people with learning disabilities and, in some cases, helping them to learn new skills to find work.

What teaching methods are used on a nursing degree?

Nursing degrees are generally made up of alternating blocks of theory and placement. This means that students start by spending a set amount of time in university, developing their skills and learning scientific theory. They then go on placement and apply this knowledge to practical situations.

Teaching methods include:

  • Lectures – these are typically used to teach aspects of healthcare science, such as anatomy and physiology.
  • Tutorials – these are small groups of students led by tutors. In tutorials, students generally practise drug calculations and discuss hypothetical patient scenarios.
  • Practical skills sessions – these involve practising basic life support on dummies, practising injections and blood-taking on model arms and communicating with actors playing the role of patients.
  • Placements – putting skills into practice on a hospital ward (or sometimes at a day centre for learning disability nursing students). Your responsibilities will increase as you progress through the course. Under the supervision of qualified nurses, you’ll perform duties such as administering medications to patients (orally, topically, intravenously and via intramuscular injections), taking blood and inserting enemas and catheters.

What assessment methods are used on a nursing degree?

Nursing students need to show that they can both retain and apply what they learn. Assessment methods therefore include:

  • Written exams – typically used to test students’ scientific knowledge. These cover topics such as body systems, anatomy and physiology.
  • Drug calculations tests – these tend to be done on a computer.
  • Practical assessments, known as OSCEs (Objective Structured Clinical Examinations). Example tasks include:
    • Performing basic life support on a dummy.
    • Taking blood from a model arm.
    • A communications assessment – clearly explaining diagnoses and treatments to an actor playing the role of a patient. This assessment can also involve giving advice, dealing with patient anxiety and obtaining the patient’s informed consent to be treated.
    • A drug administration exercise – students are given a patient’s drug chart and drug cupboard, and have to administer the right medication in the right quantity.
  • Coursework and presentations.

How many contact hours will I have on a nursing degree?

Contact time is when you are being taught by university staff. When in university, nursing students can expect to have around 20–25 contact hours per week. The rest of their time is spent reading around topics and completing tasks (eg drug calculations) in preparation for tutorials.

When on placement, nursing students work for 37.5 hours per week (adding up to 2,300 hours over three years). This involves shift work, meaning that early mornings, late nights and night shifts are often required. Placement hours are unpaid.

Nursing bursaries, grants and travel reimbursements

Nursing students will have to apply for student loans to cover tuition fees and living costs. Any grants will come from the government (if the student is eligible to receive a maintenance grant) or from the university’s fund (if the student fulfils certain criteria). Available bursaries vary from university from university, so – if money is likely to be a problem – it’s worth checking what’s on offer before sending any applications.

If the cost of travelling to your placement exceeds the cost of getting to your university campus, you’ll be reimbursed the difference. If you drive, you’ll be paid for the difference in mileage. If you use public transport, such as buses or trains, you’ll need to save and present your tickets to be reimbursed.

Other factors to consider before studying to be a nurse

Expect short summer breaks at university and shift work throughout your career

The arrangement of hospital placements means that, as a nursing student, you’re likely to get a much shorter summer break than other students. Nurses at all levels are expected to do shift work, which often involves long, irregular hours. You need to think about whether you are happy to make this commitment. If not, nursing isn’t for you.

‘You’ll be expected to wash, dress and feed patients’

Also, when on placement – and throughout your career – you’ll need to maintain a keen, hands-on approach. Diane Clarke is a second year adult nursing student at Keele University. She comments: ‘Before starting my nursing degree, I worked as a healthcare assistant. This was not only helpful during the application process, but also gave me a basic understanding of what nursing is really about. While on placement, you’ll be expected to wash, dress and feed patients alongside healthcare assistants and qualified nurses – it’s an important part of the job. This came as a shock to some of the other students.’

‘Nurses have a huge amount of responsibility and that can be daunting’

Trinh Bolderston is a senior staff nurse and student mentor at Royal Stoke University Hospital. She explains: ‘Nurses have a huge amount of responsibility, and that can be daunting for some people. So when on placement, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’m impressed by students who show enthusiasm and initiative, but caution is also important. The patients’ safety comes first, so don’t attempt anything that you haven’t been trained to do.’

‘Nursing involves a lot of commitment’

Tania Burgis is a third year adult nursing student at Bournemouth University. She adds: ‘Nursing involves a lot of commitment and you can’t just wing it. You need to be passionate about helping people and should take pride in your work. It can be distressing to see people at their most vulnerable, but you can be the person that comforts them, supports their families and celebrates with them when they recover. Nursing is ever-changing, so you also need to be willing to keep up with recent developments.’

Nursing careers and alternatives

Because nursing is such a vocation-centred degree, most nursing graduates go on to become nurses working on hospital wards or in GP surgeries. However, there are a few other options.

Careers in nursing

To work as a nurse, you must be registered with the NMC. Students usually send off their registration applications during their third year at university. Once you are registered, career options include:

  • Working as an adult nurse on a hospital ward. This career is open to those with a degree in adult nursing.
  • Working as a neonatal nurse in an intensive care unit for babies. This career is open to those with a degree in adult nursing or children’s nursing. After six months, you’ll be encouraged to continue your professional development, which typically involves further study and training focused on different aspects of neonatal nursing.
  • Working as a children’s nurse on a children’s hospital ward, in a day care centre or in a child health clinic. This career is open to those with a degree in children’s nursing.
  • Working as a mental health nurse, either on a psychiatric ward, in an outpatient clinic, in a community healthcare centre or in a residential centre. This career is open to those with a degree in mental health nursing.
  • Working as a learning disabilities nurse on a specialist hospital ward, in a residential or community centre, in a workplace or in a school. This career is open to those with a degree in learning disabilities nursing.

Some careers are open to nurses from all four degree backgrounds but require specialist training. These include:

  • Working as a district nurse – this involves visiting people in their own homes or residential care homes, assessing their needs and ensuring that they’re receiving the best possible care.
  • Working as a nurse practitioner in a GP surgery. This involves giving vaccinations and travel advice, obtaining blood samples, making diagnoses and writing prescriptions.
  • Working as a theatre nurse – assisting surgeons during operations and providing preoperative and postoperative care.

Rachel Drury is a qualified staff nurse. She comments: ‘A lot of people I know ended up working on a ward where they had had a recent placement. In the final year you could request placements, so there were opportunities to work in places that were of interest to you. So if there is somewhere where you particularly enjoy working – and would like to return to as a qualified nurse – make sure that you make a good impression!’

If you work in a hospital, you’ll begin as a staff nurse and may choose to remain in this role. However, you can also work your way up to more senior nursing roles, such as ‘sister’ and ‘ward manager.’ This usually requires substantial nursing experience and the completion of an NHS-devised leadership training programme.

If you wish to change your speciality, you’ll need a postgraduate qualification in your chosen field (eg an MSc in children’s nursing).

Some nurses become university lecturers. Such posts require a masters degree and often a PhD.

Careers outside nursing

In theory, many jobs are open to graduates from any degree background. However, employers in some areas – such as law – tend to prefer academic degrees rather than vocational degrees. Therefore, nursing probably isn’t the best degree to do if you are undecided about your career path.

If – having graduated – you do decide that you want a career outside of nursing, you’ll need to give convincing reasons for your change of direction. For more information, check out our article on what else you can do with a medicine or nursing degree on our graduate careers site TARGETjobs.

What skills will I gain on a nursing course?

Student nurses gain a range of nursing-specific and transferable skills, all of which are valued by employers (particularly in a healthcare or social setting). These include:

  • the ability to administer medication safely and accurately
  • the ability to learn, retain and apply scientific theory
  • responsibility and a thorough approach
  • the ability to work under pressure
  • confident communication and empathy.

Giorgina Viglione graduated from Anglia Ruskin University with a degree in adult nursing in 2015. She comments: ‘As a nurse, you'll be working with a variety of people trained in different disciplines (such as midwifery, medicine, radiology and physiotherapy) as well as other nurses. Therefore, teamwork is one of the most important skills that you learn.’

Camille Castillo graduated from Keele University with a degree in adult nursing in 2015. She adds: ‘You learn so much, but the course emphasises the six Cs of nursing: care, compassion, competence, communication, courage and commitment.’

Alternatives to nursing degrees – other subjects to consider

If you’d like to work in a healthcare setting, you might want to consider the following degrees.

  • Medicine
  • Midwifery
  • Physiotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Orthoptics.

For more information, check out our articles on medicine degrees and alternatives to a medicine degree.

If you are unsure about which career you want to go into, but have an interest in heath, biological science or social science, the following degrees may suit you.

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Biology
  • Biomedical sciences.

Because these degrees aren’t tailored towards any specific vocation, there’ll be a wider range of careers that you can get into as a graduate.

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