Although the Florence Nightingale nurses-as-angels image is as strong as ever, the profession has moved on leaps and bounds. On the verge of becoming a graduate-only career, nursing is a rewarding job in the medical sector with huge potential for progress.
The pay may not always be ideal, but there's lots of room for moving up the career ladder in this job.
So, what will I actually be doing?
Registered nurses help everyone from newborns (and their mothers) to accident victims and the elderly, and in GP surgeries they are now a lot more involved. Nurses also work in schools, prisons, the armed forces, big companies as occupational health staff, and even on cruise ships – anywhere people might need care and advice.
Also, you can throw the sterotypes straight out of the window: the proprotion of male nurses has risen from about 1 per cent in 1950 to over 10 per cent last year, and this is only set to continue.
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The nitty gritty
As a staff nurse in a hospital, you’ll work as part of a team responsible for looking after all of the needs of patients in your care, ensuring that they’re as comfortable, clean and happy as possible. You’ll be taking blood, measuring blood pressure and heart rate, giving injections, and administering any medication prescribed by the doctors, as well as keeping patients’ relatives up-to-date.
You’ll need to build relationships with your patients and be observant enough to detect any changes in health; you will often be called upon to comfort people in pain or anguish, and you will at some point encounter grieving relatives. More senior nurses take on management roles, organising the work of healthcare assistants and other staff.
Money, money, money
Nurses are paid according to a complex NHS pay scale system. Once you have your degree and have successfully completed a probationary period to reach RGN (registered general nurse) or staff nurse staus. You’ll be on Band 5 of this scale, meaning a minimum salary of £21,000 (15 to 20 per cent more in London).
There are annual increments and within two or three years you should be gaining responsibility (a junior ward sister/team manager) earning £27,000 plus, rising to well over £30,000 on Band 7 for team leaders in hospitals.
Higher salaries are available for those who opt to climb the management ladder, all the way up to £80,000 plus for directors of nursing. Pay for nurses in the private sector varies but tends to keep fairly close the the NHS scales.
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The good points...
Nursing can be incredibly rewarding. Seeing patients returning to health and knowing that you contributed to their recovery is very satisfying. It's also a very well-respected profession that most people see as being a very worthwhile career. Although many people see nursing as a one dimensional role, there's actually huge scope for development and a lot of high-paid management positions further up the career ladder.
...and the bad
You will usually be required to work a shift rota, including night and weekend shifts, to provide 24-hour-care to patients and the image of over-worked nurses who aren't paid what they should be persists. More nurses are now working out in the community either as practice nurses in GP surgeries or as district nurses or health visitors – but you will find that admin tasks increase significantly with responsibility.
Then there's the sad abuse that some nurses experience on the job, particularly when working in casualty departments as the number of alcohol-related cases increases.
Is there study involved?
To work as an NHS nurse (or a private equivalent) you will need to be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). To get to that stage you will need either a degree or a diploma in nursing. Diplomas are being phased out from this year, and by September 2013 all new entrants will have to take a relevant degree.
The minimum entry standards for these courses are set by individual universities, and there will still be plenty of opportunities for people without academic qualifications but with experience working in clinical support roles to take a part-time course towards a registered nursing degree.
Nursing offers a wide range of specialised career paths – and it will pay to think about the route you want to pursue even before you enrol on a degree course. To work as a children’s nurse, neonatal nurse, district nurse, a health visitor or a mental health nurse, you’ll have to complete additional specialist practitioner training after you’ve achieve registered nurse status. Each of these specialisms offers the same range opportunities to move into management, teaching, research or consultancy roles.
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OK, I'm interested... But is it really the job for me?
Nursing is more of a calling than many other careers and you need to have a genuine passion for caring for people. This is a tough job where you'll face physical and emotional battles on a daily basis and you'll need to be prepared for almost anything.
No two days are ever the same as a nurse and you'll need to versatile and adaptable. The main focus of your role is ensuring that your patients get better - and accepting that sometimes it just isn't possible.