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Being a first-year student nurse: the expectations vs. the realities


Let’s face it, we hear a lot of bad press surrounding the nursing profession these days.

Emma Wilkes

From government cuts resulting in over-worked, underpaid and generally disgruntled nursing staff to patient complaints about the lack of personal care they received during their time in hospital.

There are also increasing instances of student nurses feeling unhappy on their course or clinical placement - either because of unwelcoming staff, or because they feel like they aren’t learning as they should be from the practical components of their course.

Despite this, the number of students actually choosing to undertake a degree in nursing, and successfully graduating, is on the rise. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2013-14 there was a 12% increase in full-time, first-degree nursing students in the UK.

“There are also increasing instances of student nurses feeling unhappy on their course or clinical placement”

So, what is it that attracts new students to the profession?

We spoke to Emma Wilkes - a first-year mature student at the University of Manchester who started a degree in children’s nursing back in September - to gauge what attracted her to study nursing, especially after having already graduated from university with a degree in mathematics.


Why choose nursing?

“I chose to return to university and do a nursing degree as I’ve always enjoyed caring for people and couldn’t imagine myself doing a job where I wasn’t making a difference to people’s lives every day” says Emma. “I particularly chose children’s nursing because I love children, especially babies, and I think it’s incredible how they deal with health problems and how resilient they are”.

“I think it’s incredible how [babies and children] deal with health problems and how resilient they are”


What does the course cover and where do you see it taking you?

The child nursing course at the University of Manchester takes place over three years. This includes theoretical work and examinations as well as a placement in a working hospital environment. “I’ve just started my first placement which is very exciting but obviously a little nerve-wracking”, says Emma.

Unlike many university courses where degree-relevant jobs after graduation can be few and far between, student nurses are usually looking for the training and qualifications that will take them on to become a nurse in whichever specialism they’ve trained for.

“I hope to leave my degree equipped to deal with the multitude of medical problems we see today, and to work in an evidence-based healthcare environment. I would particularly like to work with younger children and babies, perhaps on a neonatal ward”.


How much is expected of you in terms of workload? Do you enjoy it?

Since the government announcement back in 2009 that by 2013 all nurses should be educated to a degree-level, student nurses are noticing the increase in workload and pressure.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency claim that 1 in 10 nursing students do not complete their degree for a number of reasons ranging from lack of finances, a demanding workload and even emotional difficulties with the training involved.

“1 in 10 nursing students do not complete their degree”

In her first few months, Emma really noticed the heavy workload and increased demands on her time: “I went into nursing knowing it was going to be hard work, but I don’t think I realised how much work there would be as well as how difficult it would be. I really enjoy all the work, I just wish there was more time to go over everything”.

But for Emma, the challenge of learning plays a huge part in her enjoyment of the course: “I particularly enjoy the essay-based topics; these were the ones I thought I’d struggle with but actually I enjoy the chance to discuss different topics and look at the industry from different points of view, like looking from a professional, ethical and legal standpoint”.


Do you feel confident your course will prepare you for work in the industry after you graduate?

With so much to learn over just three or four years, it’s crucial that your course manages to cover enough to prepare you for work in the healthcare industry.

This includes learning the important practical aspects like patient care as well as theoretical information such as learning about the human body and the medical issues you’ll be dealing with.

“I think a lot of people underestimate how much nurses have to learn”, says Emma. “The studying gives you more in-depth knowledge and the practice backs it up. I can’t imagine training to be a nurse without studying both angles”.

“I think a lot of people underestimate how much nurses have to learn”

But, does she think she’ll learn enough to prepare for the hard realities of a career as a nurse? “I really believe my course will prepare me fully. I think it’s great that the course is 50% practice and 50% university work, as you get to learn so much more than you would if you were just focussing on one of the aspects”.


Does your course put any focus on preparing you for the potential issues in your future line of work, such as the problems the NHS will face over the next few years?

The landscape of the health service in the UK is unrecognisable from what it once was. Many hospitals are understaffed and as a result nurses can’t always focus on the most important aspects of their job, such as caring for patients.

“The landscape of the health service in the UK is unrecognisable from what it once was”

Is this something Emma has been prepared for in her training?

“My course has put a lot of emphasis on the past problems in nursing and we are constantly being encouraged to ask ourselves what we would have done and how, as nurses, we can make sure it never happens again”.

So, in spite of the bad press in terms of numbers, it seems that new student nurses are just as keen as ever to break into one of the oldest and most popular professions in the UK. With two years of her course remaining it looks like Emma has a lot of hard work ahead of her, from assignments and exams to working long, demanding hours at various clinical placements.

Yet she won’t be discouraged from her end goal: “nursing is a privilege, and I feel truly lucky every day to be given the opportunity to train to be a children’s nurse”.

Claire Morris writes for Harveys of Oldham, specialists in supplying workwear to the healthcare industry, including both the NHS and private sectors.




Readers' comments (3)

  • Well done Emma, interesting article. The realities of being a student nurse can be daunting. When times get tough take a break to refocus on the reason why you wanted to become a nurse in the first place. It works for me.

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  • Excellent article whose link I shall recommend when I next come up against one of the frequent comments threads in the national press with so much uninformed destructive criticism of degree nurse training where all that many members of public seem interested in is attention to the details of care whilst neglecting to accept the vital importance of an academic based training.

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  • I definitely agree with this, I am due to qualify in six weeks and I have found the last three years particularly difficult due to complicated issues with staffing in placements, as well as my own life to try and juggle! I think the financial implications of being on a nursing course need to be discussed and better support for the students financially I think will improve the percentage of people that are able to stay on the course. This is my second go at getting my nursing qualification, initially starting on a diploma I found that financially it wasn't viable for me to live and train. The long placement hours do not really allow for time to work alongside the course without impinging on the grades. I have only been able to come back into the profession due to taking a couple of years out to gain the capital needed to top up the bursary so I can afford to eat, even then it was a struggle!

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