How to become a nurse

Updated 15 August 2023

Nursing is a popular and reliable career choice in the UK. Nurses work in the medical field and have many opportunities for career progression and specialisation. In this article, we describe what a nurse does, what it takes to become a nurse and the skills and certifications associated with this profession.

What is a nurse?

A nurse is a medical professional that cares for people who are sick, injured or have physical disabilities. Nurses save the lives of patients every day, monitoring their vitals and ensuring they receive the care they need. They work alongside doctors and other healthcare providers to decide the best way to treat a patient. Many nursing students choose to concentrate their studies or pursue a career in a particular area of the healthcare industry based on what's most interesting to them, for example, paediatrics, gerontology or anaesthesiology.

Related: Nurse role and responsibilities

How to become a nurse

There are 2 main ways to become a nurse in the UK:

1. A university course

Most people become a nurse by getting a nursing degree. Once you have decided that you want to become a nurse, you need to decide what area of nursing you want to work in. The 4 fields of nursing that are approved by the Nursing & Midwifery Council are:

  • Adult nursing

  • Children's nursing

  • Learning disability nursing

  • Mental health nursing

Also, there are some degrees known as dual degrees that will allow you to study two of the fields at the same time. If you have already attended university and want to change over to nursing, you can join the second year of a nursing degree if you already have a degree in:

  • A health-related subject

  • Psychology

  • Life sciences

  • Social work

It usually takes three years to complete a nursing degree. Entry requirements for a nursing degree will vary depending on the university. For most universities, you will need four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4, including English, maths and science. You will also need two or three A levels, including a science, or a level 3 diploma.

2. An apprenticeship

You can also become a nurse by completing a registered nurse degree apprenticeship (RNDA). Apprenticeships apply practical training in a job with study. Those completing an RNDA will work at a hospital or medical facility but also have a part-time schedule so they can attend university. This is a more flexible route towards becoming a nurse, as it doesn't require full-time attendance at university.

Most RNDAs take four years to complete. However, if you have accreditation of prior learning and experience (APEL) in a relevant study, it may reduce the length of the apprenticeship to only two years. You can check to see if most hospitals consider your previous courses APEL in this NHS Course Finder. To apply for an RNDA you will need four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 along with A levels, or equivalent.

Related: Higher Apprenticeships: Everything You Need to Know

Necessary certification

Once you have completed the education and training necessary to become a nurse, you will need to register with the Nursing & Midwifery Council. This organisation is the professional regulator for nurses in the UK and sets the standards of practice and behaviour for nurses. To receive this certification, you will need to take a competency test and an English test.

Many hospitals and medical establishments also require nurses to pass an enhanced background check. This is a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check and employers need this for all employees that deal with children or in healthcare. A DBS check will show unspent convictions, cautions, reprimands and final warning by authorities.

Related: How to Get Your First Job

What to expect working as a nurse

The day-to-day tasks of a nurse will change depending on the day and what hospital or company you work for. Here are some general tasks that all nurses must know how to perform:

  • Take a patient's vital signs including temperature, blood pressure and heart rate

  • Assist doctors with physical examinations of patients

  • Administer drugs and injections

  • Clean and dress wounds

  • Set up drips and blood transfusions

  • Use medical equipment associated with your hospital

  • Monitor patients' progress and give updates to their doctors

  • Work with other healthcare providers to decide on the best treatment for a patient

  • Advise patients and their relatives

Related: Guide to midwife skills: With definition and examples

Necessary skills for a career in nursing

Being a nurse can sometimes be difficult, both emotionally and physically. Here are some necessary skills that you will need to be a successful nurse:

Sensitivity and understanding

It's important to have sensitivity and understanding for the people that you are treating. Many people going through a medical episode or procedure may be afraid or even unkind. It's important to know how to deal with people as they go through these emotions. Having empathy for the patient can help you understand what they are going through and allow you to connect with them. Having a good relationship with a patient can make your other tasks much easier.

Related: Nurse CV skills and how to present them effectively

The ability to work well under pressure

As a nurse, every day offers new, exciting challenges. Nurses work with different patients who have varying types of health concerns. While the variety can make their work more interesting, it can also be a source of uncertainty and pressure. Nurses have to be prepared to work in life or death situations and they must be able to perform their technical tasks under great stress. Situations in a hospital can escalate quickly, and a nurse must be able to keep up with the pace.


A nurse must have excellent communication skills. They need to tailor their communication style depending on who they are speaking to. When they are discussing the patient with fellow nurses and doctors they need to be informative, efficient and professional. When they are communicating with the patient or the patient's family, they must be empathetic and be able to explain complex medical processes in simpler terms.

Related: What Are Communication Skills?

Customer service

While providing the best care for the patient is your number one task as a nurse, it's also important to treat them and their family with excellent customer service. Being in a hospital or any other medical establishment can be stressful for some people. A nurse must be able to sense when a patient or their family member is uncomfortable or upset and try to diffuse the situation. Nurses can put a patient at ease while they perform medical tests and procedures on the patient.

The ability to work well with others

Nurses must be able to work well with other members of the medical staff to efficiently perform their job. They must be able to talk with other nurses as well as doctors, paramedics, healthcare assistants and any other medical staff that care for the patient. Understanding your role in the healthcare team and how it relates to others can help provide fast, efficient care for the patient.

A desire to help others

All nurses must have a desire to help others and provide the best medical care. Many people consider nursing as much as a lifelong calling as it is a job. For many nurses, the desire to help others in their time of need keeps them motivated when they have a tough day.

Related: 10 Valuable Soft Skills That You Need to Succeed in Your Career

Nursing salary

A nurse's average salary is £30,997 in the United Kingdom. This figure can vary depending on certain factors such as need, specific job responsibilities, training, education and experience level. This is a starting salary and an experienced nurse can make as much as £37,890 a year.

A nurse's salary is based on a 37- to 42-hour working week. Most nurses work shifts, which means they may work abnormal hours during the 24-hour period. Nurses must also occasionally work on weekends and bank holidays.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate’s experience, academic background and location.

Career progression

After a few years of experience as a nurse, many people decide to specialise in a particular field such as intensive care or operating theatre work. They may also complete additional training to become a nursing sister, ward manager or team leader. Or they could choose to train as a midwife, neonatal nurse, health visitor or district nurse. You could also move into management, as a matron or director of nursing. All these career options are available to people who have a degree in nursing.

If you choose to get a postgraduate qualification, you could become an advanced nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist, then a nurse consultant. There are also opportunities to go into teaching and research.

Related: How To Write a Nursing Reference Letter: The Basics

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are associated with Indeed.

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