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How to become a nurse

Being a nurse is a famously rewarding career choice, as it involves caring for patients on a daily basis. Nurses are not just confined to hospitals, they can work in schools, clinics, residential homes, on aeroplanes and cruise ships, or even in the military. Training to become a nurse can last from a year to a number of years, depending on the type of course you choose, where you study, and your career goals. To gain entry into a nurse training program, it is often necessary to have studied science subjects like biology at school, but this is not always essential. It can also be useful to have a number of personal attributes, such as communication skills, patience, and compassion; due to the care-orientated nature of being a nurse.

  1. Useful school subjects
  2. Undergraduate training
    1. United States of America
    2. United Kingdom
  3. Postgraduate training
    1. United States of America
    2. United Kingdom
  4. Registration  
  5. Personal skills
  6. Highlights
  7. Sources
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Useful school subjects

In the UK, prospective nurses need at least 5 GCSEs and 2 A-levels (or equivalents). The ideal subjects to have are biological and science-related subjects, such as biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and maths. A level biology is often required. Similarly, in the US, nursing programs tend to prefer those who have previously studied science subjects, especially biological sciences. However, the specific requirements vary depending on which institution you choose to study at.

Undergraduate training

United States of America

In the US, there are three types of undergraduate degrees that can lead to a career in nursing. These are: a Diploma in Nursing, an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BS/BSN). 

A Diploma in Nursing, also known as the Licensed Practical Nurse training program (LPN), is one year long and involves working under a registered nurse. These courses often do not have prerequisites, but may require minimum SAT, ACT, or TOEFL results. Nurses with an LPN qualification provide the most basic types of nursing care, such as monitoring patients and taking vital signs.

ADN programs last between 15 months and 2 years and can be carried out at a number of community colleges across America. These courses focus on technical skills, and qualified nurses can treat patients, educate them, and provide emotional care and support to patients and their families.

BSN degrees are the most in-depth type of nursing degrees in America, and are studied for 4 years. The first 2 years focus on theoretical science, such as psychology, biology, chemistry, nutrition, anatomy, physiology, and development. The following 2 years concentrate on disease, maternal and child health, pediatrics, and psychiatric nursing. The degree also involves learning about the healthcare system in general, with topics such as health economics, health informatics, policy, and social issues being completed. Typically, each year involves a clinical placement for hands on training. 

United Kingdom

In the UK, a variety of universities (including the Open University) offer nursing degrees, and the degree is normally funded by the NHS. The degree normally lasts for 3 years, half of which is spent doing supervised hospital and community placements, as the practical element of nursing is incredibly important. It is necessary to choose a specialism to study during the degree. Nursing specialisms in the UK are generally divided into 4 categories; adults, children, mental health, and learning disabilities. A handful of universities offer dual field degrees, where 2 specialisms can be studied side by side during the course of the degree.

Adult nursing involves working with patients that are over 18 years in age, in hospitals, people’s homes, health centres, and nursing homes. Once qualified in one of these areas, it is then possible to carry out further training to become a specialist in areas such as cancer care, school nursing, women’s health, and accident and emergency.

Children’s nursing involves working with children and young people up to the age of 18 or 19, often in specialist baby care or adolescent units. Children react differently to medical conditions, so children’s nurses are qualified to deal with these specific needs.

Learning disability nurses work to enable those with learning disabilities to live independently. They often work with patients in supported accommodations, hospitals, and even secure units for criminals with learning problems. It is possible to become specialised in specific areas such as epilepsy management.

Mental health nurses work with people with mental health issues at home, in residential units, and in hospitals. They support families and carers, so good communication skills are very important. Like other specialisms, mental health nurses can further their specialisation in fields such as rehabilitation or child mental health.

Postgraduate training

United States of America

In the US, qualified nurses can carry out postgraduate studies to further their knowledge and gain higher qualifications. A Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN) or a Nurse Practitioner degree (NP) is aimed for those who want to train as Advanced Practice Nurses, nurse administrators or nurse educators. In order to gain leadership roles or focus more on clinical practice, it can be useful to complete a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program (the highest level of nursing practice degree).

United Kingdom

In the UK, there is a range of postgraduate courses available at a variety of different institutions. These can lead to specialism in areas such a midwifery, as well as furthering qualifications in areas like children’s nursing. Whilst carrying out postgraduate studies is not a necessity, it can significantly increase chances of moving forward career wise, by providing new qualifications and challenges


In addition to studying nursing, in order to actually practice as a nurse, it is essential to register with the relevant board. In the UK, it is necessary to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). This simply involves them reviewing qualification documents after a nursing degree has been completed. In the US, prospective nurses must register with the board of nursing of the state that they want to work in. An exam must also be passed to prove that the candidate is competent and knowledgeable enough to work as a qualified nurse.

Personal skills

As being a nurse has both practical and caring elements, a number or personal skills and attributes can be beneficial. These are listed below:

  • Good communication and listening skills
  • A keen desire to help others
  • Teamwork skills
  • Ability to work independently
  • Physical stamina; shifts can be long and tiring
  • Ability to stay calm in stressful situations
  • A compassionate and sensitive manner
  • Patience and empathy
  • Ability to gain confidence and trust from other
  • Good organisation skills
  • Able to work flexibly
  • Competent at practical skills
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