• 11 November 2019
  • 19 min read

How to train to be a Nurse

  • Lauren Young
    RNLD (Learning Disability Nurse)
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  • 3001

Want to know how you can train to be a nurse in the UK? This complete guide, created by a qualified Nurse, explains all the steps you need to take.

Complete guide for anyone looking to train to be a nurse

Updated 28th July 2020

Topics covered in this guide

What qualification do I need to work as a Nurse in the UK?

Which Universities offer Nursing degree courses?

Is there a bursary for student Nurses in the UK?

Are there any other routes into Nursing if I don’t study at University?

What will a Nursing degree teach me?

What is a Nursing placement and what happens on placement?

What can I expect from classroom learning during my Nursing course?

Once I qualify as a Nurse how quickly will I find a job and what salary can I expect?

How do I register with the NMC and how long will it take to get my PIN?

Do I have to join a Trade Union once I qualify as a Nurse?

What do I need to do to keep my training and development up to date as a Nurse?

What qualification do I need to be a Nurse in the UK?

There are now many routes to training as a Nurse in the UK.

One of the best known is via a degree course.

You usually need GCSEs in English, maths, and science at a minimum grade C, or 4, with at least two, sometimes three, A-levels or equivalent at level 3.

If you have studied an Access to HE Diploma, this should be in Nursing, health studies, or science.

Experience in care is usually an essential requirement, or at least desirable. This is preferably paid.

If you have no experience, try applying for work as an agency support worker.

Many large, national agencies recruit for these roles.

Also think about any care responsibilities you have with family members.

When writing your application, try to show what you have learnt from these experiences, and how these skills are relevant to nursing. Check with individual universities (we have a Universities course directory that you can use - click here to launch a new window) for specific entry requirements, or attend an open day to ask tutors in person.

Which Universities offer Nursing degree courses?

Here on Nurses.co.uk you can explore all the Universities who offer degrees in Nursing.

A single university might run several different Nursing degrees, at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

There are sometimes foundation courses too.

Read the course title and description carefully to make sure you apply to the correct one.

If the amount of courses feels overwhelming, try narrowing it down. Maybe location is important to you, or you could check the latest University rankings for Nursing to help.

A degree in Nursing usually lasts three years at undergraduate level, and you specialise from the outset.

This is because the courses are split into what are called fields to denote the specialities, namely Adult, Child, Mental Health, and Learning Disabilities depending on which population you would like to work with.

This should be clear from the course title when you apply, however if you are at all unsure you can email the course leader or admissions tutor to make sure.

It might be possible to switch between courses at the same University once you start, if you feel you have made the wrong choice.

For example, a Learning Disability Nursing student may be able to switch over to their University’s Mental Health or Adult Nursing course.

However, this would depend on the university so you should not rely on this as a method to ‘try out’ the course – try to think carefully which one you’d really like to do from the outset.

There are also dual courses, which would qualify you for two specialities – for example, Adult and Child (Birmingham City University, 2019), or Child and Mental Health (University of Plymouth, 2019).

A limited number of Universities do a dual course in Learning Disabilities and Social Work, for example the one I did at Sheffield Hallam.

If you already have a degree in a relevant subject, you could gain recognition for this in a process called Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL).

A list of courses accepting this is available from the NHS, at healthcareers.nhs.uk.

You could also study a postgraduate Masters course. These are on the UCAS website (UCAS, 2019), and can last up to 42 months.

If you are applying for postgraduate courses, be aware some are also for people who are already registered Nurses looking to top-up their skills, so may not be suitable for you.

Again, a simple email to an admissions tutor can avoid this.

Is there a bursary for student Nurses in the UK?

Funding for Nursing courses at university is a complex area, and differs throughout the UK and for EU students.

Eligible Scottish students can apply for a bursary of up to £8,100 in 2019/20 from the Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary Fund, administered by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.

This can include an expenses, and a dependants’ allowance (SAAS, 2019).

If you live in England and want to study in England, you are eligible to apply for a loan from Student Finance England.

This will depend on your household income.

You can also apply to the NHS Learning Support Fund, for travel and accommodation while on placement, child dependents allowance, and exceptional support fund.

Each of these have their own criteria, which you should check before applying. You will need to factor in paying for tuition fees, and your living costs. These could include rent or mortgage, food, travel, leisure, and any books or other equipment you wish to buy.

Average tuition fees in England are just over £9,000 per year.

If you live and want to study in Northern Ireland, you can apply for a ‘commissioned place’ at a university.

The Department for Health in Northern Ireland pays the tuition fees, and a bursary of around £5,000 per year is available to help with living costs.

If you would like to study in England, you can apply for a student loan.

If you would like to study in Wales, and commit to working in Wales for two years after graduation, you can apply for the NHS Wales bursary.

Welsh students who live and study in Wales can apply for a means-tested bursary of up to £2,643 in 2019-20, or £2,207 if you are living with your parents.

Tuition fees are paid for by NHS Wales. Students then need to work in Wales for two years after graduating.

Read our Complete Guide to Becoming a Nurse

In this guide we cover the whole of your early Nursing journey - from thinking about a career in Nursing to finally becoming a Newly Qualified Nurse looking for your first job.

Read the Guide!

Are there any other routes into Nursing if I don’t study at University?

You can now study to become a Nurse while you work within the NHS, as a Nursing degree apprentice.

You will attend university part-time, studying at degree level with release for these study days from your employer.

This will usually take four years.

Apprenticeships are funded by employers.

Finally, another route to becoming a qualified Nurse is via the Nursing associate role.

Nursing associates work alongside Nurses and support workers to provide care for a wide range of patients and service users, and is a valued role in itself.

However, it is possible to ‘top-up’ with training to reach the status of qualified Nurse.

What will a Nursing degree teach me?

A Nursing degree will teach you the skills you need to become a safe, successful Nurse.

These may be specific to the course you are taking, and can include taking someone's physical observations like temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiration rate as well as interpreting the results.

An important part of any Nursing course is also developing you as a person, in terms of what are known as ‘soft skills’.

These include empathy, communication, critical thinking, leadership, and reflection.

Some of these skills will be innate to you as a person, and perhaps being a naturally compassionate and caring person is part of the reason you became a Nurse.

A Nursing degree will encourage you to develop these skills, and give you confidence to use them to your advantage while working with patients and colleagues.

This could be via role play, or looking at theories of Nursing and the importance of compassionate care – including analysing serious case reviews, where the absence of such values leads to tragic outcomes.

Due to the type of people who are usually drawn to Nursing, I found on my own course we worked together and were not overly competitive.

An ethos of supporting one another and encouragement was fostered.

However, this may be specific to the University and course you choose to study.

What is a Nursing placement and what happens on placement?

A lot of learning takes place during placements, which are the practical elements of the course and involve spending several weeks working alongside qualified Nurses.

Specifically, the NMC requires the completion of 2300 hours of clinical placement during a three year Nursing degree.

This does not include sick leave or compassionate leave, which is allowed while on placement but these hours must be made up.

On placement, you will have the opportunity to put into practice clinical skills and observe qualified staff perform more advanced procedures.

This could include people who require catheter care, tracheostomies, feeding tubes, and taking bloods.

For some clinical skills, you observe as a student before completing training once qualified.

The skills you have access to on placement will vary depending not just where your placements are, but also which university you study at, and which specialist field you choose to graduate in.

As a student Nurse on placement, you will normally work the same shifts as employed staff.

This can be 12 or 14 hour shifts, for three or four days a week.

Do remember if you have a disability of any kind, you are still covered by the Equality Act and can request reasonable adjustments while on placement.

Speak to your tutor or university disability advisor for more details if this affects you.

Previously, all students on placement were supported by Nurse mentors – qualified Nurses who had successfully completed a mentorship programme.

Now, the NMC has replaced this role with three new ones.


A Practice Assessor will assess the students’ work for practice learning, and suggest the students’ progression on the course.


The Practice Supervisor, as the name suggests, will supervise students while on placement.


Academic Assessors will be responsible for collating and confirming students’ learning and achievements, working with the practice assessor (Association for Perioperative Practice, 2019).

Despite these changes, the quality of a student’s placement must still meet high standards set by the NMC (NMC, 2018), which are outlined and discussed on the NMC website.

What can I expect from classroom learning during my Nursing course?

While not on placement, student Nurses attend lectures at university like other students.

Lectures are based on modules, which follow set content decided by the NMC as meeting criteria for eventual qualification as Nurses.

The modules will differ slightly depending on what branch of Nursing you are studying, but can include relationship-centred care, evidence-based practice, leadership theories and skills, as well as biology and physiology.

Assessment can take the form of assignments or essays, and exams.

This will likely include a medications exam, looking at the mathematics involved in administering medication to support you to become a safe practitioner.

Practical skills will be taught and practised on either a simulation, or other students in the form of role play.

These could include First Aid, a clinical scenario (for example, a patient who is deteriorating), as well as focussing on managing specific conditions such as epilepsy or a heart attack.

If the thought of role play conjures up images of being on stage or everyone watching you, don’t let this put you off – everyone is in the same boat, and the purpose of role play on a Nursing course is to ensure you have the chance to practise in a safe environment.

I found it much better to realise I was unsure of something in a classroom, rather than on a real patient!

In the third year of some Nursing degrees, students are required to write a dissertation, which is a piece of writing often totalling 10,000-20,000 words.

This is often research based, meaning you will not be interviewing people and interpreting results, but looking at research around a specialist topic.

If your chosen course has a dissertation, the first two years will be spent writing assignments, allowing you to develop your writing skills in preparation.

So do not be put off if you have limited or no experience of producing extended pieces of writing, as the course will take this into account and build up your skills.

Once I qualify as a Nurse how quickly will I find a job and what salary can I expect?

Once you have successfully passed your University course, you will receive a degree like any other course.

An undergraduate course will usually be a Bachelor of Science, or BSc, with honours often denoting a dissertation element.

They will be graded as a First, 2:1 and so on as with other University degrees.

Most newly qualified Nurses of all branches find a job very quickly after graduation, usually even before they graduate.

94% of Nurse graduates are employed as Nurses within six months of graduation, with many companies holding recruitment days – including NHS Trusts.

As Nurses can work in a wide variety of places, starting salaries will vary. However, an NHS Band 5 Nurse with less than one years’ experience can expect to earn £24,907 (you can find out all about Nursing pay here).

How do I register with the NMC and how long will it take to get my PIN?

A Nursing degree also means you meet the requirements to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, or NMC.

It is an essential, legal requirement to register with the NMC to practise as a Nurse.

The NMC is the organisation which gives you your Nursing PIN, a unique registration code that confirms you are registered to legally work as a Nurse in the UK.

Your PIN will show the specific field you are qualified in, that is adult, child, mental health, or learning disabilities (or two of these), and is stored on the NMC register.

The register is online, and can be searched by anyone – including employers – to check your registration status.

If a Nurse has any restrictions on practise for whatever reason, they will also show up on a search of their PIN.

Your university will send your course and contact details to the NMC, who will then send you an activation code and details of applying to register online.

It is therefore important to make sure your university has your up-to-date contact details.

Your University also sends a declaration of health and character in support of your application, which you must also do.

You must also declare any criminal convictions or cautions, and pay the £120 fee for a year’s registration.

It takes around 2-10 days to be active on the NMC register.

If you are employed during this time straight after graduation, most newly qualified Nurses work as support workers while waiting for their NMC PIN.

Do I have to join a Trade Union once I qualify as a Nurse?

While it is essential to register with the NMC to practise as a Nurse in the UK, it is not essential to join a Trade Union.

However, it is advisable.

You can join a Nursing union as a student or qualified Nurse.

The aim of a Trade Union is to represent and advocate for workers’ interests, specifically if you ever have a serious dispute at work, disciplinary hearings, or feel discriminated against.

For Nurses, Nursing unions also lobby the government, undertakes research, offer advice and support, and offer learning and development.

Nursing unions are therefore treated slightly differently than other Trade Unions due to these broader activities.

Your University might even invite Trade Union representatives to talk to you.

Do remember there are several unions, so do not feel you need to sign up on the day.

Popular Trade Unions for qualified Nurses are the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), UNISON, and Unite.

Combined, these three unions have about 3.1 million members, including students.

What do I need to do to keep my training and development up to date as a Nurse?

Once qualified, the learning doesn’t stop there.

Your employer will most likely require you to attend training courses, in person, online, or both.

These are essential to make sure you have the skills needed to work with the specific clients group of the company.

They are also important to keep your NMC registration so you can continue to practise safely.

You will need to revalidate your NMC membership every three years.

To do this, you will need to evidence (amongst other things) that you have attended 35 hours of continuing professional development relevant to your practice.

20 of these hours must have been participatory, that is involves interactions with other health professionals – either in person or online.

More information can be found on the NMC website.

If you have a job in the NHS, you will be assigned training that you must attend.

These are free, and usually last a day or two.

They could be First Aid, manual handling, infection control, and similar topics relevant to your area of work.

Private companies will also offer free training, although the amount and quality will vary between companies. If you wish to continue your training and gain another qualification – for example modules to top-up your Learning Disability Nurse registration so you become dual qualified in Mental Health – this will most likely not be free.

To do this, you will most likely need to apply to University in the traditional way, and receive a loan as set out in the fees and qualifications section of this article.  

Good luck - start your nursing career now!

Nursing is a rewarding, varied career. This guide has covered everything you need to find the perfect branch of Nursing for you.

All that is left is for you to apply!

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About the author

  • Lauren Young
    RNLD (Learning Disability Nurse)

I am a qualified Learning Disability Nurse and Social Worker. I first worked with children who have learning disabilities whilst studying classical civilisation in Leeds. After seven years of working in care, I realised I wanted to take my passion further and qualify at a professional level. I am passionate about giving the people I work with, as much independence as possible.

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  • Lauren Young
    RNLD (Learning Disability Nurse)

About the author

  • Lauren Young
    RNLD (Learning Disability Nurse)

I am a qualified Learning Disability Nurse and Social Worker. I first worked with children who have learning disabilities whilst studying classical civilisation in Leeds. After seven years of working in care, I realised I wanted to take my passion further and qualify at a professional level. I am passionate about giving the people I work with, as much independence as possible.

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