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In at the deep end? How to handle the change from student to nurse


The change from student nurse to nurse can be troublesome—but there’s a lot you can learn from RNs to make the change easier. Nurses talk to Nursing Times about the expectations, responsibilities, and why it was all worth it

To rephrase a famous quote, change is simply troublesome—and the change from student nurse to nurse is no exception.

Whether you are thinking about this change from a comfortable distance or are currently muddling through it, your feelings of stress, nervousness or excitement are normal.

Thrown in at the deep end

 Lousie Brandman, who has been an RN for over a year and a half and is working at Homerton hospital, compared the change from student nurse to RN to being “thrown in at the deep end.”

This feeling of being overwhelmed by the suddenness of the change in responsibility may be unavoidable. Even if you do not feel qualified, a phone call for the staff nurse may have to be answered by you.

What most surprised Hannah Peters, an RN for a year who is working at North Manchester General Hospital, about the change was “how evident my lack of experience was for dealing with challenging situations. I had previous experience as a student and as a support worker however this did not feel enough.”

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For some nurses, however, the change from student to RN was welcome.

Nicola Croft, an RN for seven months who works in an acute surgical department in north England, enjoyed the increased sense of responsibility. “Once you’re in blue,” she explained, “Co-workers, patients and doctors all treat you differently. My opinion now counts; my views on care, my recollection of an event is listened to.”

While she is excited that her professional opinion now receives attention, she also finds this frightening. “It’s a little daunting, as you need to be confident in what you are saying,” she said.

Let the learning continue

It is important to realise that putting away your student nursing uniform does not mean you’re no longer a student.

The change from student nurse to nurse may seem very quick, but it is actually a longer and more gradual process than you may be think—certainly not as immediate as the change in clothing may suggest.

So, if you suddenly find yourself in the deep end, remind yourself that it is really a process: a transition.

While you may feel ready to be independent, remember that you still have a lot to learn. You don’t have to be perfect on the first day.

Louise said that the most common beginner’s mistake she sees in new registered nurses is the belief that learning ends.

Hannah observed a similar mistake: new nurses often forget that nursing is a career and think that they know everything now that they have graduated. “Don’t rush to be a superstar nurse or you might mistakenly think that you are able to do more than you can,” she said.

Nicola emphasised the importance of taking advantage of your transitional time to become a better nurse. “Listen to the nurses who already work where you are starting. No question is stupid or not worthy of being asked. If you don’t ask you will feel you can’t do your job as effectively or as confidently,” she said.

Just keep swimming

 Besides the emphasis on remembering to keep learning, Louise, Hannah, and Nicola had some good advice to help keep you from flailing in deep water.

  • Look for a job at a previous placement, where you already have experience and knowledge.
  • Take time for yourself—like visiting friends or going on a holiday—to relax.
  • It is ok to be overwhelmed with your responsibility or frustrated when something goes wrong. These emotions are normal so don’t beat yourself up for having them. Talk about your feelings if you need to.
  • Soak up everything you can from your preceptorship.
  • Don’t worry. You’ve made it this far—you have what it takes. It will get easier.


When you find yourself putting on your nursing uniform and answering to “Nurse!” remember what these nurses had to say:

Do the best you can, but remember that you don’t have to be a “superstar nurse” from your very first day. Stay a student even when the student uniform is in the cupboard.

And, it will be hard, but it is worth it to do the job you love.

“The best reward from being a nurse is when the patient or family tell you that they have seen an improvement,” Hannah says. “It’s worth getting up at stupid o’clock in the mornings.” 

“Having actual colleagues, developing friendships, getting the chance to settle in and wearing the uniform you have worked so long and so hard for (although sometimes you’d quite like your student one back) made the challenges worth the effort,” said Nicola.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I qualified in February and am just about to leave for my first ever shift as a qualified nurse in an Interventional Radiology department. Terrified! Luckily I get to wear scrubs so nobody will know who I am, ha ha!

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  • We were frequently in charge of day and night shifts throughout our third year on general wards but not on specialist wards so when I took up a position on a combined general medical and surgical ward the transition made no difference.

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