Nursing studies

Survival guide for new nursing students: four things you’ll want to get right

The steps you can take to give yourself the best chance of success

Find out what you can do to give yourself the best chance of success as you embark on your nursing degree

Taking the first steps of your nursing career can feel like a daunting prospect, with myriad new challenges on the horizon. Here’s what you need to know in four key areas.

Maintaining your well-being, finding support and networks

Identify support networks

Alex Richardson, who has just finished his mental health nursing course at Canterbury University, says you can’t have enough support as a nursing student. ‘You can gain it from your faculty, your student representative, your fellow students, your family and your friends. It’s what makes a student thrive,’ he says.

If you need help, he suggests

Find out what you can do to give yourself the best chance of success as you embark on your nursing degree

Picture: Neil Webb

Taking the first steps of your nursing career can feel like a daunting prospect, with myriad new challenges on the horizon. Here’s what you need to know in four key areas.

Maintaining your well-being, finding support and networks

Identify support networks

Alex Richardson, who has just finished his mental health nursing course at Canterbury University, says you can’t have enough support as a nursing student. ‘You can gain it from your faculty, your student representative, your fellow students, your family and your friends. It’s what makes a student thrive,’ he says.

If you need help, he suggests contacting your student rep or ambassador. ‘I was fortunate enough to be the student rep for the three years of my studying. A lot of people said it was very beneficial to be able to raise concerns and have someone voice them to the relevant people,’ he says.

Picture: Neil Webb

Join nursing communities – in real life and on social media

Find communities of nurses, both new and more experienced, advises Natalie Elliott who was team leader for @WeStudentNurses until this summer. ‘People outside nursing don’t get why you can’t go on nights out with them, or are constantly tired. So being part of this community gives you other people that understand your journey,’ she says.

‘If you’re struggling, send out a flare. There’s nothing more admirable than asking for help, rather than trying to pretend you’re doing okay’

Rachel Wood, RCN professional lead for nursing students

Other advantages of networking include breaking down the barriers between students and staff. ‘We need to know we’ve got people on our side, who aren’t just other nursing students,’ says Ms Elliott, who is about to finish her degree in adult nursing at Glasgow Caledonian University. It can also boost confidence. ‘You can disagree online as long as you’re doing it respectfully. Then when you’re at university or in the clinical area, it makes it easier to challenge,’ she says. But remember to take a break from social media too. ‘It can become addictive,’ she adds.

Making real-world connections is also important, says RCN professional lead for nursing students Rachel Wood. Joining the RCN gives students the opportunity to attend meetings of their local branch. ‘It’s a chance to meet nurses who are established and experienced,’ she says. ‘It can help you step beyond the parameters of your current challenges and see a bigger, more objective view. You might also meet those who you’ll be working with on your clinical placements.’

The RCN has a wealth of resources on well-being, self-care and resilience, including Stress and You: a guide for nursing staff. ‘It’s really important to look after your own needs, before you can take care of the needs of others,’ says Ms Wood.


Improving your study skills

Picture: Neil Webb

Understand your learning pace and style

Adult nursing student Fiona Fitch admits she found studying hard at first. ‘As a mature student it had been a while since I’d opened a textbook, so adapting to university life and study was exceptionally challenging,’ she says. ‘There were times when the volume of new learning seemed unsurmountable.’

Learning at her own pace was important. ‘It’s not a competition and it’s not helpful to compare yourself to others,’ says Ms Fitch, who has just finished her third year at the University of Suffolk. The best advice she was given was to study little but often. ‘Trying to absorb large chunks of learning over long periods was impossible for me,’ she says.

Online study and dealing with distractions

Increasingly, learning is online, rather than face-to-face. University College London’s (UCL) top tips for remote learning include listening to online lectures as you would a normal lecture. ‘If watching a recording, try to watch these at normal speed. Hitting the pause button too often may allow you to get distracted easily,’ UCL guidance states. It also suggests loading an app on to to your phone or tablet that stops you logging into social media while studying.

‘Enjoy your training – at the blink of an eye, it’s complete and you’re ready to transition to newly qualified nurse’

Vanessa Anthony, recent nursing graduate

For those experiencing difficulties, Ms Wood advises speaking to their personal tutor in the first instance. RCN student ambassadors and student union reps can also signpost to sources of support. ‘If you’re struggling, send out a flare,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing more admirable than asking for help, rather than trying to pretend you’re doing okay. And always try to remember why you went into nursing in the first place. Write down the moments that matter, so you can go back to them, when everything feels overwhelming.’


Preparing for your first clinical placement

Picture: Neil Webb

What to do beforehand

Plan your commute, says Vanessa Anthony, who has just finished her adult nursing degree at Greenwich University. ‘Maybe do a dry run, so you don’t have trouble finding the place,’ she suggests. ‘You can then gauge how much travel time to allow, as well as how early you need to get up.’

She recommends visiting the placement area beforehand and, if possible, meeting the team you’ll be working with in advance. ‘It can settle any anxiety you may have and help to break the ice,’ says Ms Anthony. Fiona Fitch agrees: ‘It was helpful on so many levels. You were able to meet faces, know where to go on your first day and pick up any useful material, such as a student induction pack and patient information leaflets to inform your preparations. All this helped reduce first day nerves.’

From a practical perspective, it’s good to find out who you should report to on the day, who your assessor or supervisor will be, where the changing and refreshment facilities are, and what shifts you’ll be expected to work, bearing in mind these may be shorter on community placements. Pocket-size notebooks are handy for note-taking, says Ms Anthony who also recommends using address book for alphabetical notes when learning medications.

Seek advice from nursing students who’ve ‘been there’

Ms Fitch suggests meeting fellow nursing students who are further on in their studies. ‘We were given this opportunity and it was student-driven, with lecturing staff leaving the room,’ she says. ‘It enabled honest and open dialogue without fear of reprimand. They could remember exactly the nerves we were experiencing and were able to provide tips of where to go if we needed support. We could ask questions freely.’

‘You’ll discover new things about yourself you may not have recognised before’

Vanessa Anthony

While you may wish to settle in at your own pace, remember that clinical areas can be very busy, says Ms Anthony. ‘From this, you learn to adapt,’ she advises. Befriend any other students you may meet on your placements and make the most of every opportunity. ‘Even if it’s not for you, you can gain valuable experience,’ says Ms Anthony. ‘Most of all, enjoy your training. At the blink of an eye, it’s complete and you’re ready to transition to newly qualified nurse.’


Gaining leadership skills

Picture: Neil Webb

It’s never too early to develop your potential as a leader

Leadership can start from the beginning, and you don’t need to wait until you’re qualified, says the RCN’s Rachel Wood. ‘Leadership tends to happen when someone finds something they’re passionate about,’ she says.

‘You need to make sure you learn how to channel that passion into something positive.’ Speak out if you have concerns, but make sure you treat others with dignity and respect, she advises.

Role models can be helpful, says Ms Wood, but choose carefully and be prepared to adapt. ‘Be open to evidence,’ she says. ‘If you’ve seen someone as a role model but then you find their practice isn’t up to your expectations, you need a willingness to change. It’s an informal relationship – and that’s why it’s so important to look beyond your immediate peer group.’

The RCN’s professional forums may provide inspiration. ‘They include expert practitioners, who are committed to bringing along the nurses of the future,’ Ms Wood says.

Learning from others is key, says Ms Anthony. ‘Whether peers, lecturers, the multidisciplinary team, or patients, you discover new things about yourself you may not have recognised before, including your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. You can’t complete your nursing degree on your own – it takes a village to train you.’


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