Career advice

RAF nursing – no ordinary job

Nurses who join the RAF can expect an exceptional career pathway with varied and exciting roles.

Nurses who join the RAF can expect an exceptional career pathway with varied and exciting roles

A typical day can include clinical work, training and sport.
Picture: MOD/Crown Copyright

When you are considering your options in nursing, delivering care in the military may not be an obvious choice. But for Squadron Leader Ian Swain, a nursing officer working at Royal Air Force College Cranwell, his job in the RAF has turned out to be ‘varied, challenging, and exciting’.

Having trained as a nurse in the NHS, Sqn Ldr Swain joined the RAF Nursing Service 20 years ago. He is one of nearly 500 nurses employed by the RAF.

Nurses aspiring to an RAF career have the choice of a range roles. The nursing officer role is focused on clinical nursing with a managerial component, while the registered nurse career is purely focused on clinical nursing. 

Typical day

The RAF also trains nursing students at Birmingham City University. After joining the RAF and completing basic training, students are ‘posted’ to university as a salaried member of staff for their nursing degree, before taking on a registered nursing role. Separately, people who are interested but don’t want to commit fully to the RAF can join an RAF Reserve Unit, which means they keep their day job and take part in training during weekends.

Sqn Ldr Swain specialises in intensive care, and works with patients in NHS hospitals that host military units. A typical working day can feature not just clinical work but military training, sometimes sport and activities such as rock climbing. He also provides nursing care to British servicemen and women overseas, and when required collects and transfers patients back to the UK for ongoing treatment and care.

He relishes being part of a large professional organisation with interesting work in varied environments. ‘I’m not only working in hospitals, but in the back of planes, in helicopters and from time to time on board ships. Sometimes I’m working in a field hospital, or I could be doing a training exercise in the desert. For me, that variety is what makes working as an RAF nurse so exciting,’ he says.

Level of fitness

He dispels the stereotype that nurses in the Defence Medical Services have to be exceptionally physically fit. ‘While all personnel do need a certain level of fitness to complete basic training, which involves such activities as defence studies, drill and weapons handling, physical training is a small component of this,’ he says. ‘We’re not trying to produce athletes, we’re trying to train nurses,’ he stresses.

Nurses should consider a career in the RAF because ‘the whole career pathway is designed to encourage and reward excellence. You are treated as a professional, trained like a professional, and the integrity of being part of the armed forces flows through,’ he says.

Sqn Ldr Swain urges more nurses to consider the military. ‘My colleagues and I have been given opportunities that you simply wouldn’t have in regular nursing jobs,’ he says. ‘It’s no ordinary job’

Job Fairs in 2017

To find out about the opportunities offered by the RAF, nurses and students can visit its stand at the RCN Bulletin Jobs Fair in Glasgow in June, or contact the RAF Nursing Services Recruitment Team and ask to attend a ‘find out more’ presentation.

For more information about the RCN Bulletin Jobs Fair, including the seminar programme and a full list of exhibitors at the event, visit the jobs fair website here.

  • 8-9 June – Glasgow
  • 5-6 September – Liverpool
  • 3-4 October – London


Kathy Oxtoby is a freelance health writer

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