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How to survive as a student nurse

So your life as a student nurse is about to begin. Are you ready? Three student nurses give you the lowdown on what will get you through and help you make the most of the experience ahead


Katrina Michelle Rowan

Student nurse Katrina Michelle Rowan

Student nurse Katrina Michelle Rowan

My first day as a student nurse was the most terrifying and the most exciting day of my life. I remember being scared about everything. Would I make any friends? Would I understand the academic side after being out of education for over 10 years? Would I cope on the wards? Would I be able to manage giving my first bedbath? Now, 2 ½ years into my training, I have conquered all those fears and loved every minute.

If you’re feeling nervous, let me reassure you. You are about to start the most amazing adventure. The next few years will be the most rewarding of your life.

Being a student nurse is a privilege and a wonderful experience. Yes it can be hard, yes you may struggle, but every moment is worth it. As you learn, you will acquire valuable memories that will stay with you throughout your career.

Pick yourself up if you have a bad day, cry if you need to… then put it down to experience and face the new day with a smile. The good days far outweigh the bad and thanks from a patient will make your heart sing.

The next few years may be tough, but you can, and will, get through them. You will make friends who will stay with you for the rest of your life. Hold on to those special people who encourage and support you.

So what’s the most important thing to do as you embrace this new stage of your life? Enjoy it! Good luck to everyone who is embarking on this wonderful career - you won’t regret a minute of it.

Katrina’s top tips

  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, but try your hardest and be proud of your achievements.
  • Always hand in drafts of work so you can stay on the right track. Your marks should benefit.
  • Never try and do something if you are unclear about what you’ve been asked to do. It is always better to ask - 10 times if needs be - so you understand 100%.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself. You will make mistakes, but that is how you learn. I learnt never to yank a stuck bedpan out of a commode, especially if the contents aren’t solid.
  • If you have a personal tutor - use them. They will be the one to write your reference so introduce yourself and keep them up to date with your progress and achievements.
  • Keep a diary and/or write reflective accounts of your experiences. This may seem like a chore but when you read it, you’ll realise just how far you’ve come. It’s also a good way of venting emotions and putting things in perspective.
  • Don’t refer to patients by their condition or bed number -learn their names! That and a kind word can work wonders.


Beth Morris

Student nurse Beth Morris

Student nurse Beth Morris

It’s pointless embarking on nurse training thinking everyone will think you are the best thing to happen to nursing. Do yourself a massive favour and get some thick skin. Learning to “take it on the chin” will protect you from the harshness of everything you say and do for three years being scrutinised and pulled apart. Also, realise that there won’t be any point sulking when you are referred to as “the student”, rather than by your name.

As a student, it is a certainty that you will be criticised - constructively and otherwise - regardless of how well you might think you are doing. There will be times when nothing even needs to be said for the disapproval to be tangible (if you are late for handover, for example).

Get used to it - personal assessments and appraisals are part of the job.

Be prepared to be told that you are not perfect - and don’t become too sensitive. Nobody wants a student who runs out wailing hysterically because they have been told their uniform could do with an iron.

That isn’t to say that your skin should be so tough and gnarly that you become “rhino nurse”. There is a very fine line between insight and indifference. Listen to feedback and accept it with good grace. Understand that it probably isn’t personal and that prompted changes may be necessary - use it to your advantage. Mentors have your best interests at heart, and it is their responsibility to bring capable, safe and well adjusted nurses into the profession. As such, they need to polish up any rough edges.

Be aware, however, that bullying is never acceptable; nor is unjustified criticism that may jeopardise your progress or knock your confidence. If you have concerns, get the practice facilitators involved pronto.

Along with thick skin, it is hugely beneficial to also have a sense of humour because it isn’t just your mentor who will be watching you. Some patients will gladly tell you that your bum looks big and you look tired.


Erin Doherty

Student nurse Erin Doherty

Student nurse Erin Doherty

Respect healthcare assistants. They know the wards inside out and will take the time to show you how to make a bed properly. If you’re looking for something, they will know where to find things. Form good relationships with HCAs and they will support you.

Make sure you know what you are doing. Make sure you understand and are capable of doing exactly what has been asked. Nobody will think less of you for being careful.

If a patient asks “Am I going to be OK?”, think very carefully about the response. We all went into nursing wanting to help heal people, but it’s imperative that you never make a promise that can’t be kept. Seek advice from your mentor.

Don’t be afraid to cry. I wouldn’t recommend you do it on the ward, but it is perfectly OK to cry. We all have awful days as student nurses and it’s important to deal with them. And then it’s time to move on - tomorrow will bring new challenges and new people.

Never refuse a task without good reason. Believe it or not, I have worked on placements with students who refused to make beds and shower patients - they viewed this as an HCA’s job. Basic care is the grounding of our occupation and you should never forget that. Patients’ needs come before paperwork.

When working in messy wards, take a spare uniform for your locker. Turning up in your crisp white tunic for a shift and having it soiled half an hour later is infuriating. Be prepared for all eventualities.

It is OK to ask for help. Emotional, educational or practical support should always be available if you need it. Nursing is a demanding job. Some things take longer to learn than others and some situations will be new to you, so don’t be afraid to lean on those around you.

Readers' comments (25)

  • Beth Morris-you've hit the nail on its head!!!

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  • I agree-but I don't think it's a good thing! I am a third year nursing student and I'm afraid I will never get used to the bullying and often unfriendly world of nursing. I'm a pretty tough cookie but I'm not prepared to compromise my personality and desire to actually be nice to people in order to succeed in nursing. As soon as I finish my training,I intend to do further training and move away from the bitchy hospital environment. I wonder how many other people with a genuine desire to care for patients in a nice and friendly manner have been put off like me? Ultimately,this means patients suffer-I think there should definitely be more emphasis on compassion in today's world of nursing.

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  • Its so hard being on a ward full of bitchy nurses who make u feel that your going to be the worse nurse in the world, but I know im not as I try my hardest at everything I do and love taking care of people. At the end of the day placement is only a small number of weeks out the fantastic career infront of us and will hopefully never be near the people who made me feel worthless again

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  • I am a student nurse and I have also experienced quite a few bitchy frustrated female nurses. Thank fully there are some good role models that are very helpful, but it is interesting why so many nurses seem to be working in an environment with patients who need good nursing care but are often subjected to moody uptight nurses. I hope that I recognize in myself if I am becoming burnt out and my mood affects the quality of my nursing care. Because of the quality of nurses in some hospitals I have been a student in I realise that the hospital environment is not where I want to work for to long. My dream is to work in the community with people at home so I can practise at the pace I like away from the all the bitching of people with unfullfilled lives.

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  • I find it very sad that student nurses are being put off working in a hospital environment. I too had bad experiences as a student, my confidence was knocked numerous times, however I feel that these experiences will be what will set me aside from being the nurse that is moody and critical to having motivation and more dedication to becoming a role model to future students. How else will things change if we all shy away???

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  • a student nurse on her first visit to the ward from the classroom told the ward sister not to tell her off in front of a patient. the reply was they all know that you don't know anything - what an encouraging start! it shocked us all but also filled us with admiration that she had dared to speak up to a sister in this way the response she got also shocked us. she was Americian and tended to be more outspoken than her English counterparts and after her initial surprise and anger at such a retort it may have slid off her like water off a duck's back but I have never forgotton it or the often bigotted attitudes of many nurses and ward sisters I encountered throughout my training and afterwards.

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  • I have been a nurse for many years than i care to remember and sadly i have to agree with many of the comments above i do not understand the bitchy bullying nature i hate it i now work in the community and still i find this sort of culture there
    the ward sister was wrong and i admire that student for standing up to that sister hopefully she is not there any more nursing doesnt need that sort of attitude of any of its staff regardless of what grade you
    students are there to learn and be supported
    but i also agree with other comments learn from the Hcas they are a fount of knowledge they knoiw their way around a ward
    and do basic care how do you know how patients pressure areas are? how they are feeling ? whats worrying them? how a wound site is healing or catheter is draining the list is endless, this is how you learn assessment skills
    i enjoy having student nurses i see it as a two way relationship and we can learn from them too

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  • "Don’t refer to patients by their condition or bed number -learn their names! That and a kind word can work wonders."

    Excellent article and we have, thank goodness moved on from the above piece of advice.

    I wonder if you know how it used to be? As the junior nurse (First year) on my first set of nights it was my 'duty' to take night sister round the 30-bedded Nightingale surgical ward and tell her the bed number, consultant's name and diagnosis, current condition and how many days post-op each patient was. No notes were allowed, I never had a good memory (at least I didn't have to remember the patients' names as these were of no interest to sister!) and couldn't pronounce let alone remember half the names of their disorders or the operations they had had. The first five or so all went well as I learned all this by heart but after than I began to falter and was marched back to the desk by sister where she severely reprimanded the third year student in charge of the ward as her junior did not know her patients well enough!

    These and many other experiences have never been forgotton and can mark a nurse for life, although fortunately in my case they are accompanied by some happier memories and experiences during my career as a qualified nurse.

    My life as a nurse only began once I was qualified and has opened up so many doors and with each shift, containing so many unknows and new experiences, better than the last.

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  • I am a HCA and am extremely lucky that I work in a GP practice where I am not treated as a lackey or an idiot and have such a positive environment that I am hoping to move into nursing. I knew hospitals could be bitchy (as a patient I've had some fairly nasty nurses!) but am beginning to realise how much, however I won't let it put me off. A friend recently qualified and said she spent six weeks last year with one mentor who told her every little thing she did wrong would let her take the lead in situations then pull her apart, it almost put her off. The appraisal afterwards was a testimony to her hard work, ability to learn and take constructive criticism so she now appreciates what the mentor was trying too achieve and this is the information I will take with me into training. I do appreciate the student nurses here taking the time to pass on their knowledge and experiences.

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  • after two days I will start my clinic practice as a student hopefully everythings will be good to have healty environment to learn.

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  • Im a third year student nurse and I am very excited but extremly afriad of going in to third year placements because of qualified staff dominating me as just a student. My experience of some staff nurses have been quite shocking in the way some HCA and students were treated in front of patients. I can never see my self as a harsh nurse. I think they forget that they were exactely in the same situation some time ago as we are today. I had been working in the NHS for 12 yrs prior to doing my nursing. As a Physicians Assistant I already had many years of experience of some staff nurses looking down at me as tho I was nothing, although my skills of venepunture cannulation basic obs and ECG were all at the same level as a nurse, probably more in my skills, that is where I gained their respect as a mutual collegue. I think we are all out there to help eachother along the way. We are learning all the time, although I alittle afraid of my last year, I hope I will gain the experience and forward my knowledge and skills to the next generation of nurses.
    J. Bharj

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  • @ Mary-Anne Thompson.

    Really? Do you know these people that you can comment on their need to be "treated with kid gloves and afforded continual respect in [their] new status"? I didn't read any comments demanding respect from mentors and qualified nurses or being treated with kid gloves. Maybe some of them were perhaps being a bit wimpy around the subject of bullying but then I suppose you've never been bullied in a workplace before. I haven't but I feel sympathy for those that have.

    Your opening comment made me laugh. "You student nurses are hilarious"? I suppose there are student nurses and then there are student nurses? You're a first-year student and the majority of people commenting are third-year students who have, judging by their comments, had bad experiences on one or more placements. It's almost expected, I'm a second-year student on my third placement and have been very lucky to have enjoyed all three of my placements but friends of mine on the course have not been so lucky and have had awful times thanks in part to having mentors who couldn't have cared less about being a mentor and a role model. But I shouldn't speak for them...

    The article is right and people going into nursing would do well to heed it. The difference in being a student nurse as opposed to studying many other courses is that you don't just have to be good academically, you need to excel at the practical side too though sadly the emphasis is sometimes more towards the academic side. This is a shame because I have met many a student nurse who has genuinely been perfect at the practical side of nursing but, sadly, just not good enough academically.

    The article is a good one and as I said, it would be worth for future or even current students to take notice of.

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  • I am due to start my adult nurse training later this month, and although I found the article positive and encouraging, I have to say that after readng some of these comments I am terrified of hospital placements! I really hope I don't have an awful experience with mentors, although I do accept there may be some placements I don't particularly 'like'

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  • Now that am a matter a wks from getting my NMC registration, its interesting to read all the comments. Respect is a two way street and it makes no difference if u are a student or a nurse with 30yrs experience. I have met students and nurses that believe that certain tasks are beneath them and so disrespect everyone. The frustrating part that I found was the fact that many of the mentors simply refused to accept my point of view and in some cases I did feel that "im a daft student" on the flip side, I also found mentors that were brilliant and eager to let me do things. It is like life (sorry thats a cliche). I have worked before this (not in care) but have found that nursing is a bitchy profession with the sole intent of trying to bring others down-the lack of professional development or support leads to this attitude. Hospitals are not healthy work environments- little wonder that so many are off sick-good sisters try to problem solve but a lot just shrug their shoulders and hope that the nurses go away. Nursing isnt for the faint hearted and please dont believe that everyone cares about your learning. Be determined and say when u dont understand, dont be used to change beds every day of your placement especially if u are in senior yrs (i know students that did this) - u need to know more than how to make a bed -do ur fair share- carry out the tasks that u can do- u might get a rejection at first but try again. There will be moments when u cry your eyes out and wonder "what they hell you are doing"-every student has - try to remember why u want this and act on this. Finally, when someone says "why do you want to be a nurse" dont say " so I can help people" -some embittered nurses might think that u are a but naive. Good luck student nurses -remember why u want this and dont lose ur focus

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  • I am currently in my first placement and am currently enjoying it. I am with two 2nd year students that do seem a bit lazy, they prefer to sit on their bums rather than help out. Maybe it is me being a bit eager to please or maybe because I am 10 yrs older than them and like things to be done?. My mentor is lovely and all the staff so far are great. I have a lot of respect for the nurses and the HCA's they have taught me so much already.
    For the person who is about to start their training, relax. I was told all these stories before I started and now I am on placement I couldn't wish to meet a more dedicated and friendly team.
    For Mary-Anne, I don't think that wanting a bit of respect from other team members isn't too much to ask. If there isn't any respect within a team whether it is nurses, HCA's or students then sooner or later the team will fall down then where will the ward be? There is also no excuse for bullying and it should never just be swept under the carpert or ignored, these bullies make peoples life hell so why put up with it??. I do agree that some people are a bit more touchy than others and maybe just need to ignore a certain part but if it is ruining their learning then isn't that defeating the object of the placement??

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  • I am at present undertaking my third year as a student in the mental health branch, I have had no concerns with any of my mentors or staff, even in adult branch, where i was fore warned that staff would not want to bother with me has i was only 'mental health', i can honestly say the people that stated this was wrong, I had a fantastic experience. I honestly believe that you should take all the experience of a placement area, that you can receive, the good and the bad, and surely the critism that we sometimes get is taken too personally by some people, I always find that when you reflect you realise this, I feel that we feel sometimes we are being critisied as individuals, this is not the case always it's our performance, and anything that makes us strive to do better can surely be a good thing.

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  • haneen Al-Assa

    I love every thing in nursing student life ,it beautiful, hard ,amazing experience .
    my opinion ,Establish goal to be a good ,skillful , knowledgeable humanistic nurse in the future ,is the base to success in this field .
    I wish everyone to meet his / her goal .

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  • I too have had bad experiences &, my confidence was knocked numerous times to the point of not even wanting to complete my degree, because of these experiences I don't like the hospital environment, & am considering community nursing. I found that completing a degree in nursing has put a big strain on me financially especially completing placement & and not being paid for it, thus taking me out of paid employment of which I really can't afford!

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  • I am a first year student nurse, just finshed her 2nd hospital placement. I have also seen 1st hand some of the attitudes mentioned above but I look at them and think to myself that i will never behave like that towards my fellow colleagues, wether they are students, Hca's or other members of the MDT.
    Although there may be a few of those not so professional nurses on the ward theres always one of those shining examples of a nurse to learn from and I strive to be one of those nurses when I eventually wear blue.
    As students we can make that change!

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  • Considering how much it is costing me to become a nurse (remember a degree is not supported financially in the same way diplomas were, and they were poorly supported) I think I have the right to expect to learn more than just making beds. I do need to learn that amongst many skills and am not being uppity or above my station, but a student nurse is not free labour and some wards do attempt to load what they don't want to do on to you or don't want to spend the time showing or explaining. Yes sometimes due to time pressures but also pure laziness. Do some have issues with 'degree' as opposed 'diploma'?
    Criticism can be useful and I have definitely developed as a person.
    HCA's are a student nurses best friend, treat them with the respect they deserve and they will help you with all the little tips and details those above have long forgotten about.
    I am sure I will be criticised for my view on bed making, I do make beds and will continue to do so...

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