How to Become a Nurse (Duties, Salary and Steps)

We’ve covered all you need to know about becoming a nurse.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

How to become a nurse: A male nurse with a patient

Nurses are the front line of most healthcare organizations. Consequently, nurses are very busy people. They have to multitask; handling patients, doctors, administration duties, and even perform various levels of primary care.

As a result, you’re never going to be bored as a nurse, and you will be revered as a critical part of any country’s healthcare infrastructure. Indeed, nursing is often considered as one of the most respected jobs out there. If this rewarding and exciting role sounds right up your street, then read on.

This article takes you through what a nurse does, the skills involved, and salary information. The article also covers what steps you need to undertake in order to get started in this profession.

What nurses do

Nurses can be based in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, dental practices, care homes, or the military. Wherever they are based, nurses are often the main point of contact for patients. They will treat patients, set up care plans and treatment procedures, and work with doctors and other healthcare professionals on more complex or long-term patient needs. Nurses also need to communicate with patients and relatives about what is going on and be acutely aware of changes to patient health and other medical emergencies. This is a very demanding and busy job, but it’s very rewarding as well.

Nurses have a broad range of responsibilities, from primary care (treating patients) to support work, such as counseling and administration tasks. More senior nurses might also be involved in the training of new nurses or agency workers.

Here are just a few responsibilities:

  • Planning and implementing general healthcare duties based on the requirements of doctors or other professionals.
  • Treating wounds and leading on basic primary care.
  • Observing patients and looking for changes in health.
  • Triaging patients and responding to emergencies.
  • Administering medicines.
  • Talking to (and comforting) patients, relatives, and other stakeholders.
  • Administration duties, such as maintaining and updating patient records.
  • Helping with tests and medical analysis.
  • Liaising with other healthcare professionals and care workers, such as social workers.
  • Organizing staff and assisting with agency workers where needed.

What the job is like

Being a nurse is demanding in many different ways. That said, nurses often find that the pressures and stresses of the role are outweighed by the rewarding and nurturing benefits of caring for people. The nursing profession is in high demand and understanding what the role entails will ensure that you can ready yourself for its ups and downs.

Work environment

Nurses will be predominantly based in healthcare settings, and these might be high risk or low risk.  Nevertheless, even high-risk environments will provide nurses with all the necessary personal protective equipment needed in order to stay safe at work. The long hours and need for urgent care, pressurized requests and the emotionally taxing nature of the work mean that nurses need to be exceptionally resilient people. The role is also very technical and requires making critical decisions under extreme pressure. Sometimes, shifts can be so long that they can merge together — for example, if there’s a critical incident that requires all hands on deck.

Nurses report strong camaraderie and a friendly, positive culture where they work. There is often a sense of nursing teams bonding strongly, and a feeling of being ‘in it together’. Whereas most patients and visitors will be accommodating, grateful, and accepting of what nurses do, there will be some who will be angry and abusive. Healthcare environments are well protected and secured to minimize risks associated with this minority behavior.

Work hours

Nursing commands very long hours. In some countries, where there are acute labor shortages, nurses might have to work six or seven days in a row — sometimes more than this. Shifts cover twenty-four-hour periods and will require rotations of working overnight, late, early hours and at weekends, often in twelve-hour shift timings.

In most territories, nursing overtime is generous and paid out well to compensate for the long hours. Night shift bonuses are often paid as well. Sometimes, nurses will be required to work ‘on call’, where they are working, but sleeping or resting in the healthcare building, with the expectation that they are woken up and begin work whenever something happens. Whatever the pattern of work, nurses are limited in how long they work in a given period, due to the need for rest breaks and being alert and able to perform when on duty.

Job satisfaction

Overall, nurses have high job satisfaction, but there are indications there is room to improve; a 2017 UK study concluded that just over half of surveyed nurses feel favorably towards their work. Since 2017, a lot has changed, and after COVID-19 took hold in 2020, nurses have struggled with longer hours, with reports of burnout and being unable to take leave. Nevertheless, job satisfaction levels remain high, and in the US, these levels are on the rise.

The general feeling is that nursing, despite its demands, is incredibly satisfying, and not just on a personal level in terms of looking after people that need care. In recent years, nurses have been trained and developed more than ever before, partly because of COVID, and partly because of staffing issues requiring greater flexibility. This is a role where you will never stop learning and growing.

Job market

Nursing is a role that is very much in demand. Whereas the number of nurses leaving the profession is falling, vacancies (in the UK, especially) are currently at a record high. There is an especially high need for qualified, experienced nurses, and these roles are difficult to fill. In many developed countries, aging populations are putting greater strain on healthcare, making the need for nurses even more acute.

The impacts of COVID and nurses set to retire will place greater strain on nursing numbers, and nurse vacancies all over the world are increasing. If there is any good news in this, it’s that there will always be plenty of opportunities to become a nurse and get trained to learn new things to support colleagues and other healthcare professionals.


Nursing salaries can vary considerably, given the many forms the role can take. For example, dental nurses might be paid differently to hospital nurses, and private nurses paid more than those in the public sector, such as the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). This section takes you through some of these variables.

Mean wage

Nurses in the US are paid higher than the average national wage of $56,310. According to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are the mean annual and hourly wages for nurses:

Mean annual wage

Mean hourly wage



Average wage by experience

Salaries for nurses can vary significantly according to seniority. Typically, top-level nurses are the most qualified, have specialisms or, conversely, have developed a variety of core skills. This table shows the differences in salary between entry- and top-level nurses.


Average annual wage

Entry level


Junior level


Mid level


Senior level


Top level


Mean wage by state

This table highlights the US states that pay the highest on average for nurses.


Mean annual wage











Average around the world

Below is a table outlining the average wage for nurses in five English-speaking countries, based on data compiled by PayScale. Outside of these countries, there are others which pay exceptionally high salaries for nurses.


Mean annual wage


£25,750 ($33,690)


AU$66,090 ($47,930)


C$70,810 ($55,730)

New Zealand

NZ$62,430 ($42,470)


€34,620 ($38,050)

Steps to become a nurse

It goes without saying that to become a nurse requires some intense training and qualifications, but it is also important to consider if you are the right fit for the role. This section takes you through the steps to become a nurse, and how to decide if this occupation is the one for you.

Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you

In their role as primary care professionals, nurses must draw upon a wide range of nursing skills and attributes ranging from soft skills to more technical abilities. Given the “mission critical” nature of the role, nurses must be highly trained in these areas and look for ways to nurture their capabilities over time.

The top skills and attributes for nurses to possess are:

  • Emotional intelligence skills
  • Empathy skills
  • Exceptionally clear communication skills (verbal, listening, writing)
  • Teamwork skills
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Conflict management skills
  • Reliability and dependability, as well as a strong work ethic
  • Flexibility and agility
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Numeracy skills

If your current skills and abilities are well aligned with the above list, then nursing could be a great career for you. If you are still not sure if it would be, then a good next step is to consider taking a career aptitude test. CareerHunter’s six-test assessment is one example. Designed by psychologists, these tests evaluate your skills and qualities, as well as your career aspirations. The assessment then generates a list of careers and training that would be a good fit for you.

If you’re at school, spend some time with your careers leader to understand more about your options, or even network with existing nurses via LinkedIn to get first-hand insights into the profession.

Step 2: Earn a degree

Once you have decided that nursing is the career for you, you will need to undertake a nursing degree, which is an important first step in your qualification route. There are also some alternatives to degree-level education, such as advanced diplomas, apprenticeships, or BTECs in the UK. The UK’s NHS provides a good list of healthcare courses, including nursing degrees, and there are plenty of study routes in the US as well.

Step 3: Get licensed

Becoming a licensed nurse (known as a registered nurse in the UK) is essential to enable you to practice. Becoming licensed follows completion of your education. Some educational institutions will assist you in becoming licensed as part of the degree process. In the UK, the registration process is conducted through the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). In the US, once you have completed your qualifications, you must register with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) and take a licensing exam with them, most probably the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). Once you have passed this, you are free to practice.

4. Choose a speciality

Pursuing a specialism can not only be more rewarding as you will be able to provide a more in-depth level of care for patients, but it can be more lucrative too, as you will be regarded as an expert in your field. The NHS offers nursing specialisms in four main areas — adult, children, learning disabilities or mental health, but there are a lot more than this to choose from. More nuanced specialisms could include training as a dental nurse, critical care nurse, orthopedic nurse, burns nurse or neonatal nurse, to name a few.

Step 5: Pursue advanced training

Once qualified, nurses can take their career to the next level through extra training in specialisms or taking on a post-graduate qualification. Becoming an Advanced Nurse Practitioner (ANP) in the UK allows you an extra level of autonomy and decision making, and can be the logical next step in a nursing career. ANP degrees are essential to take on this new challenge.

The US equivalent to the ANP is the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), who can take on more advanced roles in healthcare. To become an APRN, you will need a master’s or doctorate in nursing. Both advanced training avenues — as well as training in a specialism — are purely optional. Many nurses elect to carry on and build rewarding careers without going for ANP or APRN accreditation. It’s totally up to you.

Final thoughts

Being a nurse is one of the most rewarding jobs out there. You will frequently have to cope with emotional and challenging moments, but the payoff is all the good you are contributing to. Getting into this profession is easy in the sense that there will always be a demand for nurses (and you can become a nurse at any stage of your career), but also tricky due to the qualifications and skills needed to perform this job to the best of your ability.

Take time to understand if nursing is the role for you and begin training as soon as you can. Once you have qualified and become a nurse, you will begin to see the various avenues and specialisms awaiting you in this role and carve out a path based on what you want to achieve. Good luck!

Join the discussion! Are you interested in becoming a nurse? Do you have the required skills for the role? Let us know your next steps in the comments below! 


This is an updated version of an article originally published on 18 October 2017. Salary information compiled using the Bureau of Labor Statistics and PayScale, with conversions provided by XE.