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How to become an adult nurse

To become an adult nurse in the NHS, you'll need to complete a pre-registration degree programme accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

What is an adult nurse?

In the NHS an adult nurse has the specialist knowledge and skills to provide care to adults from the age of 18 onwards. Adult nurses use a wide range of skills to influence, deliver, plan and assess a person’s care and treatment. They play a vital role in empowering patients to make informed decisions about their care and wellbeing. 

Starting your career as an adult nurse

Choosing subjects at school

The entry requirements for a degree in adult nursing can vary across universities and colleges. Useful subjects include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Psychology
  • English
  • Maths

Speak to your guidance teacher or careers adviser about subjects offered at your school.

Work placements and volunteering

You may find it helpful to get some healthcare experience by doing a work placement or volunteering. You will get training, increase your knowledge, and learn new skills. This could help you when applying to college, university, or a new job with NHSScotland. Contact your local health board to find out about the work placements or volunteering opportunities available to you.  

Education and training pathway

There are many different routes to becoming a registered adult nurse. Find out the best way for you below.

Pre-registration undergraduate adult nursing degree 

Apply for an adult nursing degree if you have the relevant qualifications, regardless of age. You could be a school pupil, college student, career changer, or an adult learner. Degree programmes take 3 years full-time.

You'll gain a nursing degree from an NMC-accredited university. When you graduate, you'll become a qualified nurse eligible to register with the NMC. As a newly qualified nurse, you can then apply for adult nursing roles in the NHS. 

There are 10 universities in Scotland that offer undergraduate programmes in adult nursing, approved by the NMC:

  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Robert Gordon University
  • University of Dundee
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Stirling
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
  • University of the West of Scotland 

Search for pre-registration undergraduate nursing degree programmes on My World of Work.

Scottish Wider Access Programme

The Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) is for adult learners who have been out of education for 3 years or more. 

The SWAP pathway offers a supportive route that you can take to re-enter education and pursue a career in nursing. The one-year course will help to bridge gaps in your education. 

Completing this pathway will prepare you for entry into a SWAP partnered university undergraduate nursing degree programme. Tuition fees and a bursary may be available. 

Find out more about SWAP.

Higher National Certificate in Healthcare Practice 

You can apply for a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Healthcare Practice if you are an existing healthcare support worker or you do not have the necessary qualifications for direct entry into an undergraduate nursing programme. This pathway is a stepping stone towards a nursing degree.

Successful completion of the HNC programme may allow direct entry into the second year of an undergraduate nursing programme. It could accelerate your progress towards becoming a registered nurse within NHSScotland.

Taking one year to complete, many colleges in Scotland provide the HNC Healthcare Practice qualification. 

Colleges that offer the course include:

  • Edinburgh College
  • Forth Valley College
  • Glasgow Clyde College
  • North East Scotland College

Search for college courses on My World of Work.

Open University

The Open University offers options to support the career development of nursing support workers.

Certificate of Higher Education in Healthcare Practice

If you're a nursing support worker, the CertHE in Healthcare Practice at SCQF level 7 will help you develop your knowledge and understanding and learn the practical and professional skills to:

  • become an assistant practitioner
  • progress to an undergraduate adult nursing degree programme

This nationally recognised qualification includes online study and supervised practice in your workplace.

Find out more about the CertHE in Healthcare Practice with the Open University.

Undergraduate adult nursing degree programme

The Open University offers a 4-year part-time undergraduate adult nursing degree programme at SCQF level 10. You'll combine working in your existing nursing support worker or assistant practitioner role with online study. The distance learning approach includes local placements to provide hands-on experience and training.

The Scottish Government covers all tuition fees.

Find out more about Open University nursing degrees.

Pre-registration postgraduate adult nursing degree 

To be eligible for the post-graduate pathway, you'll need an undergraduate degree in any subject. The course takes 3 years to complete. 

During this full-time course, you will split your time between on-campus learning and placements in hospitals and community settings.

There are 3 universities in Scotland that offer a pre-registration post-graduate programme in adult nursing:

  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • University of Edinburgh

Search for pre-registration postgraduate nursing degree programmes on My World of Work.

Return to nursing practice pathway

If you were previously registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the return to practice pathway is right for you. You’ll need an NMC statement of entry confirming your previous registration. 

You'll also need to meet the NMC's practice hours requirements before you start your readmission application.  

If you're unable to meet the practice hours requirement, you can complete one of the following to update your knowledge and skills: 

  • A return to practice course combines theoretical and practical application to update your nursing skills. It covers a full range of topics so that you'll be up-to-date with healthcare standards and protocols. Depending on practice hours and pace of study, it takes 14 to 26 weeks.
  • The Test of Competence will evaluate your knowledge and skills against NMC standards. 

Find out more about readmission requirements.

Student nurse

Paramedic, Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary

The Paramedic, Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary (PNMSB) scheme is managed by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) on behalf of the Scottish Government. 

It includes a non-repayable bursary of £10,000 that’s not income assessed. 

You must meet the eligibility criteria: 

  • you ordinarily reside in Scotland
  • your course leads to a degree or diploma of higher education in Scotland

Other bursaries or grants may be available depending on your circumstances.

Find out more about SASS funding for nursing students.

Get to know the role

An adult registered nurse is a key member of the healthcare team. They deliver direct care and support to people and their families. As an adult nurse you'll be a decision maker for complex clinical decisions in a healthcare environment.

You'll be responsible for peoples physical, clinical and emotional needs. Working as an adult nurse is a rewarding career. Having people put their trust in you when they are at their most vulnerable is a huge privilege.

Adult nursing is a varied profession with many different specialities. Depending on your role, you could:

  • develop knowledge and expertise to specialise in a specific body system or condition
  • work in areas that focus on general medical or surgical interventions
  • work within emergency, high dependency or critical care
  • focus on community nursing, health visiting or palliative care
  • work within a care home environment
  • undertake a role with a focus on education
  • undertake a role with a focus on research

Adult nurses have a vital role in helping people understand information about their diagnoses, treatment, and health. 

As an adult nurse, you're a highly skilled professional who has responsibility for the decisions you make within your role.

Your main tasks could include: 

  • work with a person and their carers to understand and support what matters to them
  • contribute to decisions regarding an individual’s care and treatment
  • plan implement and evaluate care and treatment
  • communicate with the wider healthcare team
  • carry out physical examinations and clinical assessments 
  • maintain accurate health records 
  • administer and assess the effect of medications including injections 
  • respond quickly to emergencies
  • advocate for people in your care and others that support them
  • support the development of pre-registration student nurses and other learners in practice
  • assess and identify wider nutritional, physical, personal care and emotional needs

As well as being caring, empathetic and compassionate, adult nurses develop and use the following skills:

  • communication
  • critical thinking
  • problem-solving
  • teamworking
  • leadership
  • professionalism
  • interpersonal skills

As an adult registered nurse, you will need to be able to review clinical information and make decisions about care. 

Adult nurses usually work in a team with other health and social care professionals. They often work in public facing roles, and with other professions, including: 

  • doctors
  • healthcare support workers
  • pharmacists
  • healthcare scientists
  • physiotherapists
  • social workers
  • carers

As an adult registered nurse the NHS, you could work in:

  • hospitals
  • GP surgeries
  • health centres
  • people’s homes
  • prisons
  • NHS 24
  • clinics

Adult registered nurses can also work in the care sector, independent healthcare sector, education, industry, and the military. 

Registering with the NMC

When you become qualified, you must register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to practise as an adult nurse. The NMC are the independent regulator for all registered nurses and midwives in the UK. 

This video from the NMC explains what makes you a registered professional.

Learning and development

Once registered as an adult nurse, there are ongoing requirements for education and skills development. You’ll have opportunities to further develop in your career. 

In your first year as a newly qualified nurse, you’ll get extra support and guidance through the Flying Start NHS programme.

Career progression

In the NHS, you may choose to be a staff nurse throughout your nursing career, keeping up to date through continuing professional development. Taking extra courses and workplace learning could lead to progression through the career pathway to senior, advanced, or consultant level. 

When you have qualified and gained experience as a registered adult nurse, there are lots of specialisms to choose from, including: 

  • district nursing
  • general practice nursing
  • rehabilitation nursing
  • older people’s nursing
  • accident and emergency nursing
  • intensive care nursing
  • theatre nursing
  • cancer and palliative care nursing
  • community staff nursing
  • occupational health nursing
  • public health
  • clinical research  


Revalidation is a process that all nurses need to follow to maintain their registration with the NMC every 3 years.

It is an ongoing process throughout your career as a nurse and aims to:

  • promote good practice
  • maintain and strengthen public confidence in the profession

Find out more about revalidation on the NMC website.

Professional bodies

When you become a qualified adult nurse, you must register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to work in the NHS. You can also join the Royal College of Nursing.

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