As a second-year student nurse, I've managed to survive year one of three. It's been, well, interesting. I've seen more naked bodies than I ever thought I would. I've sat in on an autopsy as the mysteries of death are explained. I've celebrated with patients as they receive good news and cried with their families as they struggle to come to terms with bad news.
Being a student nurse is a badge of honour. People look to you for hope and they admire and respect your skills. Sounds great, right? Well, have a read of my nine tips to see if it's the right path for you.
1. It's really, really difficult
A good start, right? Well, it's true. Whether it's boning up on anatomy, sinking your teeth into how to calculate a drip rate denominator, or getting to grips with all things evidence-based, becoming a student nurse requires every neurone to be firing constantly.
It drains you emotionally just as much as it does physically and it takes over your life. When you watch the telly you'll criticise terrible CPR skills. When you're out and about you'll be looking for AEDs. When you're asleep you'll dream of your patients.
2. Some mentors are just useless
Notice I say "some" here. Not all nurses are willing to have a student follow them around, and some can really make placements hard work. However, there are some who are really wonderful.
No matter what type of mentor you end up with, always be proactive and keen. Have an idea of what you want to accomplish on your shift.
3. Healthcare assistants are angels and devils
You'll meet some incredible teams while you're on the wards. Some nurse auxiliaries know more than nurses and can teach you a wealth of skills. Skills like putting on a surgical stocking with a plastic bag or the best way to use slide sheets without knackering your back.
However, remember that in a few years you'll be organising tasks for the healthcare assistants and so you need to make sure you complete your tasks while on placement. It's fine to help them out a little if you must, but don't forget you're learning to manage too. Say no when you need to.
4. You'll see the hideous beast that is NHS staff shortages
I'll say this once and for all: as a student nurse, you are supernumerary. You don't count. You are an extra. You're not there to replace Sandra who's called in sick or Jim who's been told to work in a different ward today. You are not being paid.
If you started in September, it's likely you're the one doing the paying. Always remember you aren't there to fill in staff shortages. That's the senior team's job. Say no if you're being used as a care assistant for the day. Or ask to be paid. That usually works.
Experiencing student nursing in the UK and the US
University of Nebraska Medical Center: learning in the lab and on the ward
Finding my family at a small medical school
Tokyo’s tiny medical school defied my expectations
5. Be prepared to have little to no social life
In a week's time, I'm working a plethora of night shifts. Which means for a week or so I won't be interacting with my nearest and dearest. This is really tough because time with family and friends is refreshing in between hectic shifts. This is all part of the course though. We need to work nights, weekends and bank holidays. Don't think that you will end up as a 9-5 nurse because those shifts are few and far between.
6. Budget all your cash
Whether it's packing yourself lunch, drinking instant coffee or walking instead of taking taxis, save as much as you can while you're on the course. Many of us know the bursary doesn't go so far (mine doesn't even cover a third of my rent) and the newly introduced students loans for nurses aren't any better. Get into good spending habits for when you qualify, as it's likely your wage will be pretty low too.
7. Get involved in the profession
OK, it's been all doom and gloom so far with terrible mentors, awful shifts, hard work and no cash – why am I doing this again? One thing I can't stress enough is to join a union. There may well be some radical changes in store for nursing and you want to stay in the know.
Be up to date with nursing news and use your union. They can provide help when no one else can, and can support you more than you'll realise. And don't forget the value of social media and blogging too. Use it wisely to network and reflect back on your own progress.
8. Remember how far you've come
Each day on placement will bring new challenges and new achievements. Some days you'll feel so proud of yourself. And some days your confidence will take a real knocking.
But look back to your first placement and you'll be able to see how far you've come. From a trembling bundle of nerves to a leader, championing your patients, organising their care and telling doctors what you need.
9. Learn from everyone
Your lecturers might seem like dinosaurs as they struggle with PowerPoint slides, but they often have decades of experience behind them. That consultant might seem aloof, but she's willing to teach you the basics. That dietician would love to have you spend a day with him, and so would pretty much everyone you meet.
Use their experience. Who cares if they're not your mentor? And more importantly who cares if they're not a nurse? They've got more experience than you, you'd be silly to pass on the opportunity to learn from them.
So those are my tips. Life as a student nurse is a mix of highs and lows. But you can do it if you remain realistic, keen and you don't underestimate yourself. You are worthy of having that badge and that tunic. And it will be the best feeling ever as you step from student to staff nurse.
Read more: What can you do with a nursing degree?