Your web browser is outdated and may be insecure

The RCN recommends using an updated browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome

nurse filling in patient chart

Become a nurse

Advice on beginning your nursing career

Become a nurse

As a registered nurse, you can enjoy a diverse and rewarding career that really makes a difference. Nurses act as leaders, carers and clinicians, taking responsibility for the care they provide to patients.

Experienced nurses find fulfilling careers in positions of responsibility, often running nurse-led clinics, or taking leadership roles at executive level. It is possible to develop your career in clinical, research, education and management roles.

A typical day in nursing is busy and diverse; nurses don't just work in hospitals. There are opportunities to work in GP surgeries, clinics, nursing and residential homes, occupational health services, voluntary organisations, the pharmaceutical industry, or in the military.

To work as a nurse, you need a degree in nursing and you must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). You’ll need to choose which of the four nursing specialisms (adult, children, mental health, or learning disability) you’d like to study. Nursing requires a high level of technical competence and clinical decision-making skills. To develop these, you'll spend half of your nursing degree on supervised placements in local hospital and community settings.

Visit the NHS Careers website to find a university offering nursing degrees in England or in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There are also courses run by the Open University. You can visit each university’s website to learn more about the content of a particular course. You might want to go along to an open day to get more information on the course and talk to lecturers and current students. Once you have decided on your course and university, you can apply for a place through UCAS. If you are employed in the health sector, your employer may support you to study part-time for a nursing degree.

The RCN is a trade union and professional body, so we aren’t directly involved in the training of new nurses. You’ll find all the information you need on nursing as a career, and a course finder on the NHS Careers website.

Each university sets its own requirements, so make sure you check with them before applying. This is usually around five GCSEs plus two A-levels or equivalent. You will also have to:

  • demonstrate evidence of literacy and numeracy
  • complete a health questionnaire and identify any special needs related to a disability
  • declare any past criminal convictions
  • allow the university to check whether you have a police record. You will not automatically be barred if you have a criminal conviction or caution. The university will take into account the circumstances and will treat any information in the strictest of confidence.

If you’re already working as a health care assistant, speak to your employer as they may support you to meet the entrance requirements through an apprentice scheme.

From 1 August 2017 new students in England on most nursing, midwifery and allied health professional pre-registration courses will have access to the standard student support package of tuition fee loans and support for living costs, rather than getting an NHS bursary. 

The Department of Health have published information on NHS bursary reform on their website.

The Funding Clinic provides more information on the new system and the funding available. 

All registered nurses must choose from one of four specialisms as part of their nursing degree – adult nursing, children's nursing, mental health nursing or learning disability nursing. It’s possible to change after graduating, so this doesn’t mean your career is decided. 


Adult nursing

Adult nurses work with patients over 18. They can work in hospitals or in community settings such as people’s homes, health centres or nursing homes.  Once qualified, they can take extra courses to specialise in areas such as cancer care, women's health, accident and emergency, critical care, practice nursing, health visiting or school nursing.


Children's nursing

Children’s nurses work with children and young people up to 19 years old, and can work in a variety of settings, from specialist baby care units to adolescent units. Children react to illness in a very different way to adults, and children’s nurses are specially trained to understand their needs. Children's nurses also support, advise and educate parents and carers. Once qualified, they can specialise in areas such as health visiting, school nursing, intensive care, child safeguarding and cancer care.


Learning disability nursing

Nurses who qualify in this branch of nursing help people with learning disabilities to live independent and fulfilling lives. They may work with people in supported accommodation, or with those who need more intensive support - for instance, in hospitals or in specialist secure units for offenders with learning disabilities. There is also the opportunity to specialise in areas such as epilepsy management or working with people with sensory impairment.


Mental health nursing

Mental health nurses plan and deliver care for people living at home, in small residential units or in specialist hospital services. Nurses working in this field need enhanced communication skills to support families and carers. They work with other health care professionals to ensure patients with mental illness get the specialised care they need.  They may develop expertise in areas such as rehabilitation, child and adolescent mental health, substance misuse or working in secure settings. 

What is nursing like?

These three nurses show just how varied, complex and skilled nursing is today. Nursing staff work in diverse settings - in hospitals, communities, the workplace and the classroom - and use their expertise to adapt their skills to offer the best care and support to their patients. Watch this film to take a look at what modern nursing is like today.

Other routes into nursing

Health care assistants and other support roles are at the heart of the nursing team.

health care assistant smiling at patient

Information about starting a career as a nurse or midwife 

Read our career guide for more information about nursing and midwifery, the qualifications you need, where you can study, costs and more.

front cover of RCN nursing career guide