The Complete Guide To Becoming A General Nurse

Published on: 31 Aug 2023

Complete Guide: General Nurse

If you like to make connections with people and are drawn to helping and supporting them, you may want to consider a career as an adult nurse. However, you may be uncertain about what the role entails. This article aims to provide you with insight into general nursing and answer the most common questions you may have.


The role

General nurses – sometimes known as adult nurses – provide care and treatment for people aged over 18 who are physically unwell either through illness or injury. They work individually or as part of a team in hospitals or in community settings such as people’s homes, health centres or nursing homes.  

Their job involves making assessments about people’s care needs and then planning and delivering that care – or overseeing its delivery. As well as working directly with patients, nurses can also have roles in academia, research, public health, health and social care commissioning, and within the Department of Health and Social Care.  

General nurses work in hospitals, GP surgeries, clinics, nursing and residential homes, occupational health services, voluntary organisations, the pharmaceutical industry, and the military.


A typical week

As adult care nurses work across different teams and in a variety of settings, there really is no way of describing a typical week. However two words that would probably sum up a typical day would be “busy”and “diverse.”.

Working hours vary too, with some working office hours, while others work in shifts covering the 24-hour period. For example, one nurse might work regular hours in a surgical day unit, caring for patients before and after they have an operation, and another in the same hospital could work night shifts on a medical ward, caring for patients with chronic health problems.

Equally a general nurse could be home based or working within a community team and on-call during the evenings to visit patients in their homes when required.

The way nurses work will depend on their area of practice, the care demands of the patients they are responsible for and their specific experience, as well as the skills and the make-up of the multidisciplinary team who work alongside them.

Such teams can include a variety of health professionals, such as doctors, physiotherapists, social workers and occupational therapists, as well as nursing associates and students.

Some typical responsibilities include:

  • Carrying out patient assessments to identify any risks to their health

  • Monitoring vital signs, such as blood pressure, pulse and temperature, etc 

  • Administering medication and monitoring for side effects

  • Writing care plans (structured courses of action/treatment) 

  • Helping patients (and families) understand more about their condition and how to manage it

  • Leading teams with service and quality improvement initiatives

  • Documenting care delivery accurately

  • Referring patients to other professionals and services

  • Teaching and supervising students

  • Contributing to local and national policy.


The route to becoming a general nurse

You need to have a nursing degree to work as a registered nurse in the UK. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the degree programmes last three years, while some universities in Scotland run four-year courses. If a candidate already has a degree in another subject, it is possible to do a condensed training course of two years. 

When choosing a course, there are four branches to choose from: adult nursing, children’s nursing, mental health nursing or learning disability nursing

Each combines theoretical study with practical learning, either in a simulated environment or in a real care setting, such as a hospital. Some universities offer blended programmes, where the theoretical part of the course is online, making it easier to combine study with personal commitments. 

When you successfully complete your course, it is necessary to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the UK regulator, to be able to practice legally.

What qualifications do you need to train as a nurse?

Entry requirements vary as they are set by each university but, in general, applicants need to demonstrate evidence of literacy and numeracy and typically, universities ask for five GCSEs including English, maths and a science (usually biology or human biology), plus two A-levels or equivalent. 

In Scotland, one of the following qualifications is required, as recognised by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA): 

  • 3-5 Highers plus 2 standard grades/National 5s – including English and maths 

  • Completion of a relevant HNC/HND including English plus maths at Standard Grade/ National 5 level 

  • Completion of an appropriate Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP). Access to Nursing and SWAP programmes have been specifically developed for adults who have no or few qualifications and have been out of education for some time.

Applicants will also be asked to complete a health questionnaire and identify any special needs related to a disability as well as declare any past criminal convictions.


What financial support is available to help during nurse training?

Like other undergraduate courses, student nurses have to pay tuition fees. They are able to access some financial support, however, but support packages vary across the UK. 

England: students who meet eligibility requirements can apply for a student loan via the Student Loans Company to pay for course fees and towards their maintenance (and childcare) costs.

Students can also apply for financial support while on clinical placements. The Learning Support Fund (LSF) pays up to £5,000 per student per academic year, to cover additional travel and accommodation costs during clinical placements. It can also provide a £2,000 child dependents allowance per year (for student parents) and an exceptional hardship fund of up to £3,000 per student per academic year.

Wales: students can take advantage of an NHS bursary if they study at a Welsh university and commit to working in Wales for two years after they complete their training. The bursary can provide non-repayable support for living and tuition fees as well as a reduced rate student loan.

They apply for this via Student Award Services. Students who cannot commit to working in Wales for two years, can still access a student support package from Student Finance Wales.

Scotland: nursing students can apply for a bursary to cover their living at tuition fees at the Student Awards Agency Scotland.

Northern Ireland: nursing students can apply for full tuition fee support and an annual bursary  via a student finance portal.


Can you take an apprenticeship route to becoming a nurse?

It is possible to train to become a nurse while working by taking the apprenticeship route. First, it is necessary to train to become a nursing associate – a role positioned somewhere between a healthcare assistant and a registered nurse. 

Becoming a nursing associate involves undertaking academic learning one day a week at a college or university plus work-based learning the rest of the week across a range of settings, both hospital based and in the community. The programme usually takes two years and the qualification is equivalent to a foundation degree or a diploma. 

Once qualified as a nursing associate, it is possible to do further training and “top up” to gain a degree in nursing – this is known as a shortened nursing degree or registered nurse degree apprenticeship (RNDA). The theoretical teaching and study is offered by universities that teach nursing courses. 

Taking this route will require a further 18 months to two years as graduates must attain the same academic level as graduates of the standard undergraduate degree and meet the standards set by the nursing regulator – the Nursing and Midwifery Council. 

This flexible route into nursing is attractive for some people because it doesn’t demand full-time study at university and students can get paid while learning. 


Sub specialties/locations

Students are exposed to many different fields of practice during general nursing training and, once qualified, can choose to specialise and take further exams to advance their career.

There are many specialist areas of practice to choose from, including cancer care, women's health, accident and emergency, critical care, practice nursing, health visiting or school nursing. The Royal College of Nursing recognises 86 specialist areas of practice, from accident and emergency to cancer care and diabetes management.

It is also possible to develop a career in clinical, research, education and management roles. 

Experienced nurses find fulfilling careers in positions of responsibility, often running nurse-led clinics, or taking leadership roles within organisations at executive level. 


Fully qualified general nurses start on salaries of £28,407 rising to £34,581 on Band 5 of the Agenda for Change pay rates for a 37.5 hour week (2023/2024 pay scales). Hours tend to be shift patterns, including evenings, weekends and bank holidays or on-call shifts.

More experienced nurses will work at Band 6 or 7 with salaries ranging from £35,392 to £50,056.

More senior or leadership positions, such as nurse consultant, will see salaries start on Band 8a ranging from £50,952 to- £57,349. 

For nurses working in London, salary weighting can add an additional 5-20% onto basic Agenda for Change salary rates.

Some nurses hold senior positions within health and social care organisations with salaries between £80,000 and £200,000. 

For those taking the apprenticeship route, nurse associates are paid at Band 3 while in training (up to £24,336) and at Band 4 (up £27,596) once they are trained.

For more information on nursing salaries within the NHS, please review Guide To NHS Pay (Agenda for Change) 2023/2024.


Career opportunities

Nursing is the UK’s most employable type of degree, according to the NHS – 94% of students have a job within six months of finishing their course.

While nurses can work in a range of sectors, public and private, the NHS remains the largest employer in the UK. In England, one in 10 registered nursing posts were unfilled in March 2023 , equating to 40,096 nursing vacancies, so there is plenty of work available.

So keen are employers to recruit good nurses, some student nurses find that they are offered jobs while in clinical placements, in advance of completing their training. 


Further information and resources