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Career options in nursing

Nurses work in every sort of health setting from accident and emergency to working in patients’ homes, with people of all ages and backgrounds.

Brought to you by NHS Careers

If you want to work in an environment that’s interesting, rewarding and challenging, a career in nursing will give you plenty of scope to do exactly that. Nurses form the largest group of staff in the NHS and are a crucial part of the healthcare team.

If you’ve got an interest in caring for people, you’ll find a role that suits you in nursing. Some nurses begin their career by working their way up from support roles, which require no set qualifications, and go on to train for a registered nursing degree or diploma, which qualifies them to work as a nurse. Others apply straight to university to undertake their studies.

Whatever route you take, you’ll need to gain a degree or diploma in nursing, during which the NHS will support you. For instance, your tuition fees will usually be paid and you will be eligible for a bursary.

Once you are part of the NHS, you’ll benefit from flexible working arrangements, excellent benefits and a wealth of opportunities to help you fulfil your ambitions and progress up the career ladder. There are few professions that offer so much in terms of job satisfaction and support, while giving you the chance to enhance people’s lives during their times of need.

Career options

Here you will find information about some of the many types of nursing that exist within the NHS. To work as a nurse in the NHS, you must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), which means you’ll need a degree or diploma in nursing.

However, there are many ways in which you can become a registered nurse. For instance, you can work your way up from being a healthcare assistant (which may not require any qualifications), and progress to apply for a place on a degree or diploma course, or you can begin your professional study after gaining your A levels. Depending on experience and training there are plenty of opportunities for you to rise up the ranks to manage teams, run wards and even reach consultant level, if desired.

On this page:

  • Adult nurses
  • Mental health nurses
  • Children’s nurses
  • Learning disability nurses
  • District nurses
  • Neonatal nursing
  • Health visitors
  • Practice nurses
  • Prison nurses
  • School nurses
  • Healthcare assistants
  • Other opportunities for nurses

Adult nurses

Adult nurses work with old and young adults with diverse health conditions, both chronic and acute. They juggle numerous priorities and use caring, counselling, managing, teaching and all aspects of interpersonal skills to improve the quality of patients’ lives, sometimes in difficult situations. Work may be based in hospital wards, clinics or, increasingly, community settings and you may do shift work to provide 24-hour care.

Mental health nurses

As many as one in three people has a mental health problem at some point in their life, regardless of their age or background. Conditions range from personality and psychological disorders to neuroses and psychoses. Nurses who choose to specialise in the mental health branch of nursing - a complex and demanding area - work with GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, and others, to help care for patients with mental illnesses. Increasingly, care is given in the community, with mental health nurses visiting patients and their families at home, in residential centres, in prisons or in specialist clinics or units. You may do shift work to provide 24-hour care. This is a valuable role that provides much reward and satisfaction.

Children’s nurses

This branch of nursing involves working with children of all ages who are suffering from many conditions. Children’s nurses deal with a range of situations, including babies born with heart complications, teenagers who have sustained broken limbs, and child protection issues. Health problems can affect a child’s development and it’s vital to work with the child’s family or carers to ensure that he or she does not suffer additionally from the stress of being ill or in hospital. Children’s nursing takes place in hospitals, day care centres, child health clinics and in the child’s home. Like other branches of nursing, care is becoming more community-based. You may do shift work to provide 24-hour care.

Learning disability nurses

People with learning disabilities often have a wide range of physical and mental health conditions. Learning disability nurses work in partnership with them and family carers, to provide specialist healthcare. Their main aim is to support the well-being and social inclusion of people with a learning disability by improving or maintaining their physical and mental health; by reducing barriers; and supporting the person to pursue a fulfilling life. For example, teaching someone the skills to find work can be significant in helping them to lead a more independent, healthy life where they can relate to others on equal terms. Learning disabilities nursing is provided in settings such as adult education, residential and community centres, as well as in patients’ homes, workplaces and schools. You could specialise in such areas as education, sensory disability or the management of services. Learning disability nurses work as part of a team alongside GPs, psychologists, therapists, teachers and social workers. If you work in a residential setting, you may do shifts to provide 24-hour care.

District nurses

District nurses visit people of all ages, often in their own homes, GP surgeries or a residential home. Many patients are elderly, others may have disabilities, be recovering after a hospital stay, or have a terminal illness. You may do shift work to provide 24-hour care. You’ll need to qualify and work as a registered nurse and then complete a degree-level specialist practitioner programme, which usually lasts at least one academic year, before you can become a district nurse. Funding or sponsorship may be available from your employing trust. This is a rewarding role as you can work one-to-one with patients on an ongoing basis, which enables you to develop a trusting relationship while you improve their quality of life.

Neonatal nursing

Neonatal nurses work with newborn babies who are born sick or prematurely. Often, premature newborns have respiratory problems, which can be life threatening if they are not treated promptly and monitored. Also, ill babies need to be fed in a specialised way in a highly controlled environment that is kept warm. You may do shift work to provide 24-hour care. Neonatal nursing training programmes are part of continuing professional development and are normally studied as modules by registered adult and children’s nurses and midwives. As with other types of nursing, there are opportunities to progress to management, research and education, as well as nurse consultancy.

Health visitors

Health visitors are registered nurses or midwives who have done further training to work as vital members of the primary healthcare team, covering a specific geographical area. They work with a network of organisations concerned with health and can be based in settings as diverse as people’s homes, schools, GP surgeries, shelters for the homeless and medical centres. This is a role that will appeal to those who enjoy one to-one nursing and want to work with autonomy while remaining part of a healthcare team. You’ll have opportunities to progress to manage a team of health visitors or work in other management roles in the NHS. You’ll need to qualify and have worked as a registered nurse or midwife before completing a degree-level training programme, which usually lasts a minimum of one year, full-time, before you can become a health visitor. You may receive financial support from your employer although this can depend on what course you take and where you live.

Practice nurses

Practice nurses work in GP surgeries as part of a primary care team that is likely to include doctors, nurses, dietitians and pharmacists. In smaller practices, you may be the sole nurse, whereas in larger surgeries, you may share duties with practice nurse colleagues. You may be required to work one or two evenings a week. As the range of healthcare services provided in the community increases, the role of the practice nurse is likely to expand. For example, you might get involved in prison nursing, which may mean doing shifts to provide 24-hour care. To become a practice nurse, you need to qualify and have gained experience as a registered nurse. Local employers organise training. This role offers much scope and variety for those who have highly developed communication skills, enjoy working flexibly and are organised. Depending on your experience, you could be organising and running clinics, which will demand attention to detail, initiative and plenty of confidence. You’ll be employed by GP practices and may be able to work part-time. As a practice nurse, you will be able to apply for senior positions such as nurse practitioner, where you can manage your own caseload.

Prison nurses

Prison nurses are registered nurses based in prison. They are either employed by the prison service or, increasingly, by the NHS. Many prisoners suffer from substance abuse or have a mental health problem, making nursing in this environment challenging. By improving mental and physical health, the care provided by prison nurses may help to lower re-offending rates, and therefore have a positive impact on prisoners, their families and the wider public. A background in mental health nursing may help. You may have opportunities to move between the NHS and the prison service through job share, job swap and secondment schemes, and, as in other types of nursing, you can undertake further training and apply for management roles. As a prison nurse, you may do shift work to provide 24-hour care.

School nurses

School nurses are usually employed by a primary care trust, local health authority, community trust or by individual schools. You will need to be an experienced registered nurse before you can apply to work as a school nurse. Experience of working with children, in child protection or health promotion will be beneficial.

Healthcare Assistants (sometimes known as nursing auxiliaries or support workers) are not qualified nurses. You might like to find out more about these vital team members.

Healthcare assistants

Work with nurses, midwives and other healthcare professionals, helping with care and looking after patients’ comfort and well-being.

Other opportunities for nurses

There are also opportunities for nurses to work in other areas including: