Are you thinking of studying Nursing?

Image shows a pen and a stethoscope.

Nursing is a subject that has changed a great deal in recent years.
While once you could become a nurse as a school leaver, now registering with the Nursing and Midwifery Council requires a degree (though A-level requirements for Nursing are usually reasonably low). The scope of the duties required of a nurse are very broad: they work with people of all ages with diverse health conditions, improving the quality of their patients’ lives in ways that include providing straightforward medical care, to double-checking doctors’ instructions, to acting as a liaison between doctors, patients and families, to counselling, to helping infirm patients with the requirements of daily living – and more besides. The purpose of a nursing degree is to prepare future nurses for this challenging and rewarding career.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

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Clinical skills are an important component of your studies.

A nursing degree combines life sciences with social sciences and training in clinical skills. The life sciences you will study will include anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, nutrition and human biology. It is part of the job of a nurse to act as a safeguard on doctors’ instructions, so you will gain a sufficient understanding of medicine in order to be able to identify and prevent errors by doctors, such as mistakes in prescriptions.
In social sciences, you will study a broader curriculum including public and community health, professional practice, leadership and management, communication and professional ethics. This teaches you the theory behind nursing, how to interact well with patients and the healthcare context in which nurses operate, among other things.
Training in clinical skills will happen first in simulated practice, but then on lengthy placements in multiple hospitals in order for you to learn how to interact with and care for patients from a practical perspective. It may well be the case that on placement you follow the exact same shift pattern as qualified nurses, so this is your opportunity to get a real taste for what your professional life will be like after graduation.

What do I need for a Nursing degree?

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Nurses have to learn and retain a great deal of information.

Nursing is partly a science course, and partly a course in communication and interpersonal skills. As a consequence, while prospective nurses are often required to take one or two science subjects (in order of preference: Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Physics), many universities will also encourage applicants to study softer sciences and social sciences, such as Psychology, Sociology or Health and Social Care.
Work experience that relates to Nursing, such as volunteering in a care home, is not required but may well prove advantageous, especially given that good interpersonal skills are such a requirement in Nursing. You may also be asked to complete an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check to see if you have a criminal record, as you will be working with vulnerable people.
Particular personal traits are also required. Patience is crucial, as is a complete lack of squeamishness. Nursing is also a more challenging course than its relatively low entry requirements might suggest, so the ability to learn, retain and act on a large quantity of information – from remembering that a particular patient dislikes being placed on his right side to recalling obscure drug interactions – is vital.

What skills will I acquire?

Nurses acquire a varied skillset, covering interpersonal and medical skills and skills in time management, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, organisation, empathy and the ability to remain calm even under trying circumstances. The real-world experience of healthcare that you begin to accumulate even from the first year of your degree is also of immense value in fields such as healthcare administration and social work.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

Image shows a hospital ship.
There will be plenty of opportunities to travel after you graduate.

Probably not – some universities may offer the chance to go on placement in a more exotic location, but if so, it will probably only be for a small part of the total time you’ll spend on placement; a couple of weeks or a month is the norm. However, if you are keen to travel, there are many charities offering opportunities for qualified nurses to volunteer abroad. Many countries have a shortage of qualified nurses, so there are abundant opportunities to work abroad after you graduate as well. For the most intrepid graduates, Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontiers) is a charity that delivers emergency medical care internationally where it is most needed, including during pandemics or in conflict zones, and it employs nurses as well as doctors.

What careers are possible with a Nursing degree?

The vast majority of Nursing graduates – 96% – are employed in healthcare, although this can be more varied that you might expect. It doesn’t necessarily mean working in a hospital; there are roles for nurses such as practice nurses (in a doctor’s surgery), school nurses (who provide health education in schools and administer immunisation programmes) and health visitors (who work in the community, usually travelling within a specific geographical area, to provide healthcare assistance to families and children in the first few years of life). Other alternatives for the few people who don’t choose to stay in healthcare are counselling, social work and education.

Related degrees

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You might be more interested in medical research.

If you’re interested in Nursing, you might also want to consider:

  • Medicine – the sharp distinction between doctors and nurses is being eroded (especially given increasing numbers of nurse practitioners), but if you want more prestige and more responsibility than a nurse, you might wish to consider Medicine.
  • Biomedical Sciences – this is a good option if you’re strongly interested in medicine and working to make people’s lives better, but don’t want the daily patient interaction required of doctors and nurses.

A final thought on Nursing

Nursing is a poorly paid, low-status job with long, pressured hours and low holiday entitlement. All the same, this rapidly changing career, which is professionalising at a remarkable rate, can be hugely rewarding for the right person. You will really get to know the people whose lives you are improving and, in some cases, saving. It is a career that allows you to go home every night — and indeed some mornings, after a night shift — knowing that you have made a genuine difference.

Image credits: banner; syringe; books; ship; petri dishes.