20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new light and understanding to the role of a nurse, however, there are always things people wish they knew before they started. Nursing school can’t prepare you for everything. In this article, we’ll explore 20 insights most nurses wish they knew before starting so that you can decide if it’s right for you.

20 things to know before becoming a nurse a picture of a nurse caring for a young patient

Have you been thinking about becoming a nurse? It’s become a popular career choice, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys showed that, despite the challenges introduced by the pandemic, nursing school admissions surged by almost 6% in 2020. But, what’s important to know before making this big step? 

This article will discuss important insights to know before you become a nurse. 

20 things to know before becoming a nurse

Nurses often say, “I wish someone had told me this before I became a nurse!” So, here’s a list of beneficial insights to know so that if you decide nursing is the right path for you, you will have answers to many important questions.

1. How long does it takes to become a nurse?

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of nursing students learning about the spinal cord.

While it doesn’t take nearly as long to become a nurse as it does to become a physician, it is still a significant chunk of time. It takes most people about four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. More years are added for advanced degrees like a nurse practitioner or clinical nurse educator, for example. 

While this may sound typical for a bachelor’s degree, this may be a second or third career for you. Or you may have children or other family members to support. Many factors can really impact how much time you can devote to school. So it’s important to note that it may take four years or longer. 

2. The heavy workload of nurses

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nurse and lots of folders

Workload generally means two things in regards to nursing: 

1. The number of patients or patient care days 

2. The number of patients that the individual nurse is caring for 

Another essential aspect of workload is staffing. Staffing generally means the number of nurses working on a particular unit per patient care dayx or hours. For example, the more nurses there are, the higher the patient care hours are. This process can be complex and usually consists of other factors, including budget and available staffing numbers. 

On average, in the United States, nurses face higher workloads than ever, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are four reasons why this is happening: 

  1. Increased demand for nurses
  2. Inadequate supply of nurses 
  3. Reduced staffing and increased overtime (usually due to budgetary reasons) 
  4. Reduced length of patient stay (usually due to either budgetary reasons or patient safety concerns) 

Most nurses are noticing an increase in patient ratios. This is the number of patients that the individual nurse is caring for. This varies by unit and the nurse’s experience. However, the highest recommended ratio for non-critically ill patients is no more than five patients per nurse. 

The average ratio in the U.S. since May 2022 has been as high as eight patients per nurse, which is a drastic increase. This has dramatically impacted nurses workloads and increased stress and burnout. 

So, before you decide to be a nurse, it’s vital to keep these insights in mind because it’s not an easy job. To avoid burnout, be sure to manage your stress responsibly by addressing your mental health and creating time for self-care, leisure, and rest. . 

3. How your life outside nursing is affected 

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a mom in scrubs with her daughter on a bike

It may seem very cool that you only have to work three days a week, and you may think you’ll have plenty of time to do everything else during your four days off. But working as a nurse heavily affects your days off as well. 

Most nurses report feeling exhausted after work and on their days off. They felt they did not have the energy needed to do things like run errands or socialize. This reaction tends to affect night shift nurses more. 

62% of nurses have reported their desire to leave the nursing profession because of how it affects their lives. That is a staggering statistic! They report not having time for their friends and family, and not having time or energy to exercise, take care of themselves, or do anything other than work and sleep. 

So, before you decide you want to be a nurse, think about your life and how you live it now. It’s essential to think about the priorities in your life and where you are willing to adjust. 

4. How COVID-19 has changed nursing 

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nursing student prepping ppe

COVID-19 has illuminated many challenges within our healthcare system and the nursing experience. Covid saw nurses dealing with much higher patient ratios. These patients were often more complex and sicker than their average patients. Currently this trend continues and is likely to continue further. 

The effects COVID-19 on the nursing experience  isn’t all negative, though. One positive change is a newfound awareness of nursing safety, or lack thereof, in our healthcare system, like the lack of personal protective equipment during a pandemic. They are continuously overworked. It is important to examine and establish safety measures as often as possible. Nurses work in difficult situations with unpredictable patients or family members. They work with dangerous tools like sharp needles and toxic medications like chemotherapy. 

While there hasn’t been much change, awareness is the first step. The awareness that COVID-19 has brought regarding a nurses’ role and their safety has opened the door to future changes in nursing that were previously hidden. 

Another positive insight is that nurses have started to discover ways to work away from the bedside. This includes management positions, entrepreneurism, telehealth and more. On the other side of this, some nurses feel rejuvenated and excited  to return to work at the bedside. Many nurses feel a sense of reward and fulfillment f aiding the sick during difficult times – which can help to resolve their burnout. 

A final positive insight is that nurses finally get the recognition they deserve. They have been named the heroes of the pandemic for their hard work. Organizations have begun offering discounts and free memberships to nurses in an effort to help offset the work they do every day. Nurses are finally being recognized and thanked globally for their hard work. This acknowledgment certainly boosts morale and promotes nurse well-being. 

All these aspects are important to keep in mind when deciding to become a nurse. 

5. There’s a lot of paperwork (charting) 

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of nursing students documenting paperworkSince the introduction of the electronic health record, nurses have spent a lot of their time charting. In nursing, there’s a saying: “if you didn’t chart it, it didn’t happen.” This puts a lot of pressure on nurses to be incredibly accurate and thorough with their paperwork while also trying to care for their patients. 

Surveys have shown that nurses spend about three of their 12 hours at work charting. This is 25% of their time! This may not seem like a lot, but considering the other tasks you are responsible for as a nurse, do you really have three extra hours to spend charting?

This is important because you’ll spend a fourth of your time charting and completing paperwork. 

6. The reason WHY you want to be a nurse 

20 Things to Know a picture of a nurse smiling at a child


This is a simple one. You have to know WHY you want to be a nurse, and you have to be clear and sure that this is the career you want for yourself. When you’re exhausted and overworked, remembering your why will save you. 



7. Consider your limitations and mental health

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nurses laughing at work

In general, nursing is demanding physically and mentally. Before starting this job, you have to assess yourself, so you don’t burnout quickly. Recently, turnover rates have been high. Nurses have been complaining of higher stress levels, less control over their schedules, and more instances of exhaustion. 

Nurses express physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion regularly. So, if you’re experiencing this already, take a moment and reflect on yourself and how you’ll respond to more stress right now. 



8. Nursing involved critical thinking and lots of it 

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nurse and an IV and shotNursing is not easy. It’s not just passing meds and carrying out orders. You do a lot of assessments, critical thinking, and care planning as a nurse, which many people don’t know before starting. These skills are crucial while caring for multiple patients who all require different tasks. You also have to learn to prioritize because you can’t do everything at once. 

Some people are not strong critical thinkers – which is not a bad thing at all! So, if this is you and you don’t enjoy thinking critically, it is best to think about how that may affect you as a nurse. You need to make sure you feel compatible with your work. 

9. Nursing is very competitive

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of nurses in class listening Some areas of nursing are more challenging to get into than others. There are usually specialty areas such as pediatrics, oncology, hospice, orthopedics, and neonatal, to name a few. As a new nurse, getting into your dream unit may be difficult. 

For example, new graduate positions are much more uncommon on pediatric units than on adult medical-surgical units. This inherently makes it more competitive. These units also don’t like to hire those with experience outside the specialty. This can be very frustrating and make a big difference in your job satisfaction. 

Working as a labor and delivery nurse is completely different from working in an adult medical-surgical unit. If you have a passion for labor and delivery, it is likely that you would  not enjoy working on another unit. However, finding a labor and delivery job may be almost impossible, initially. 

So, as a nursing student, try to focus your clinical experiences in the setting in which you are most passionateYou do NOT need to work in med-surg as a new grad; in fact, it may pigeonhole you there forever. 

10. Witnessing patient suffering is hard 

20 Things to Know a picture of a nurses consoling each otherThis is another one that may seem obvious. It is difficult to distance yourself from patients who are suffering. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses have seen more suffering and death than ever. This is a type of primary trauma that needs to be addressed responsibly. 

 Up to 96% of all nurses report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while up to 21% meet the full criteria for diagnosis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of suffering patients increased dramatically. Those who witness this suffering, especially a patient death, have shown a four-fold increase in risk for the development of PTSD. 

This is an important thing to think about before becoming a nurse. Are you already suffering from PTSD? Have you had a traumatic experience in the hospital setting? This may make things much harder for you. Therefore it is wise to keep this in mind because you must do what’s best for you and your mental health. 

11. The schedule looks great on paper 

20 Things to Know a picture of a nurse adjusting the schedule Nurses generally work three 12-hour shifts per week, giving them four full days off every week. This can allow nurses to have freedom over their schedules in a way other professions do not. However, you may have to work night shifts, weekends, and holidays while others don’t, which can be especially hard when you have a family. 

These 12-hour shifts have a lot of upside but just as many downsides. Nurses generally have fewer absent or sick days since they get more days off. When given an option, those who choose to work 12-hour shifts report having a higher morale and greater job satisfaction.   than others. 

However, those who take 12 hour shifts consistently have more mental health issues, fatigue, and physical issues like pain and sleeping issues. Researchers believe that nurses who work 12-hour shifts consistently do not and cannot remain as alert as they need to be while caring for patients. So, like everything in life, it’s vital to take these shifts in moderation. 

12. Nurses do more than medical care

 Being a nurse is being so many things for your patient, including: 

  • Advocate 
  • Counselor 
  • Educator 
  • Delegator
  • Supervisor 
  • Researcher 

… and more! 

During a single 12-hour shift, nurses will perform their medical duties such as:

  • Patient assessment
  • Physical exams
  • Diagnostic tests
  • Collecting health histories
  • Administering medications
  • Performing procedures or wound care
  • Interpreting patient laboratory findings. 

But, they will also do things like providing education to the patient and their family regarding their care, supervise an assistant or student nurse, or  conduct their own research or performance improvement projects. 

There are many duties you’ll have as a nurse, and it is critical thatYoucommunicate clearly with your patients. You have to be relatable, personable, knowledgable, with the ability to build rapport with your coworkers, patients, and their families. 

When you’re deciding whether or not you want to become a nurse, think about how you feel working with others regularly and consider how to improve your communication skills

13. Time management is a nurses most important skill

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of nurses managing time

Being disciplined with your time is essential to being a successful nurse. You will have many tasks to perform in 12 hours for a multitude of patients. It will be up to you to decide what to do, when to do it, and how long to spend on each task. Having this skill will enable you to treat your patients  more effectively and efficiently. Those who succeed with time management feel more in control, have a better self-image, experience decreased stress levels, and feel more organized. 

However, not everyone has strong time management skills, and that’s okay. Up to 80% of people say they have trouble managing their time.Time management is essential. So, ask yourself, how are you with time management?  Be sure remember, there are ways to improve your time management

14. You will make mistakes (it’s okay, we all do!) 

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nurse who made a mistake

A medical error is a preventable adverse effect of medical care, whether or not it is evident or harmful to the patient. These medical errors can include: 

  • Improper transfusions
  • Misdiagnosis
  • Under and overtreatment
  • Surgical injuries and wrong-site surgery
  • Restraint-related injuries
  • Suicides 
  • Death
  • Falls
  • Burns
  • Pressure ulcers
  • Mistaken patient identities
  • Medication error (which is the most common)  

Seven million people are affected by a medication error every year in the U.S., killing up to 100,000. It’s now the third leading cause of death. 

There are only about four million nurses in the U.S. at the current moment. Almost every nurse will have to make a mistake to reach the number of seven million people affected – some may commit more than one. 

As a nurse, you will make a mistake. It may be minor or severe, but it will happen at some point. This can be difficult to deal with, which is why it is important to consider before starting your career. 

15. Bullying and abuse from coworkers and patients do happen

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nurse who is being bullied 

The saying “nurses eat their young” is, unfortunately, fairly accurate. Up to 60% of nurses stated that they experienced bullying, especially as new hires, with 26% describing that bullying as severe. This is a disappointing statistic, considering the other difficulties that they face daily. 

Bullying can encompass many different things, from exclusion to full-on verbal death threats, and there is no exception for nurses. Most new hires described their bullying as either exclusion or verbal, often putting them in a situation that they found humiliating. These nurses are much more likely to quit within the first few years. 

While we’re aware of this problem, not much has been done to solve it. This can be because healthcare has been strained already, especially since the start of the pandemic. It is likely that management doesn’t have the time, money, or resources to address the bullying. Sometimes it’s easier for them to handle their turnover rates than address why. 

Being aware of this ahead of time can help you decide if a specific unit or area is the right place to work. This can also be an essential topic to cover during an interview to see what people say about the unit’s culture. 

16. Nursing is physically hard 

20 Things to Know a picture of a tired nurse

Working as a nurse is physically demanding. You are not sitting at a computer all day – you’re likely running around, lifting, moving, or cleaning patients (and more). While this can be ideal for a lot of people who can’t sit still, it can also be very hard on your body, especially over time. Up to 95% of nurses say their work has negatively impacted their physical health. This can be due to effects on their sleep, mental health, exhaustion levels, and even injuries. 

Every year, three million nurses face what is called “workplace hazards” that often result in physical injury. Lifting patients without the assistance of another nurse because of inadequate staffing is the number one cause of injury to nurses. However, nurses have also been attacked by patients, punctured themselves with needles, or been contaminated by harmful medications. 

Before you start working as a nurse, think about how your body may respond. If you already struggle with chronic pain or a chronic injury, it may be more difficult for you to work as a nurse. 

17. Nurses always feel underpaid 

20 Things Prospective Nurses Need to Know a picture of a nurse who calculating their payThe average yearly salary for nurses in the U.S. is about $82,000, with the average yearly salary in the U.S. being about $50,000. So, while nurses are paid above the average, pay is always a touchy subject for nurses and hospital administration. Most nurses feel underappreciated and underpaid, especially as travel nursing becomes more popular and offers more pay. 

Generally, nurses feel underpaid because of the hard work they do. Nurses are worked until they are mentally and physically exhausted. Yet, some are still living paycheck to paycheck. With the rising healthcare costs in the U.S., this is unlikely to change soon. So, can you afford to live on this salary? That’s an important question to ask yourself before starting your journey as a nurse.  

18. There are many opportunities for growth

Nurses are finally starting to work everywhere, not just in healthcare. As a registered nurse may also work outside the healthcare organizations themselves. Nurses are starting to work in education, creating their own businesses, and more. There are many different types of jobs that nurses can hold outside the hospital setting, including: 

  • Writer
  • Coach 
  • Home care professional
  • Case manager
  • Legal consultant 
  • Educator
  • Public health
  • School nurse
  • Informatics
  • Research
  • Medical sales representative 
  • Forensics 
  • Sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE nurse) 
  • Hospice
  • Dialysis
  • Midwife 
  • Phone triage  

… and many more! 

As you can tell, there are many areas you can find work as a nurse, but it is important to note that there are also a lot of opportunities for growth inside the hospital. Degrees such as a nurse educator, clinical nurse specialist, and nurse practitioner can help further your career at the bedside. Now more than ever, there are so many opportunities to explore. 

19. Your coworkers truly feel like family 

20 Things to Know a picture of nurses celebrating a patient

Research has shown that friendships between nurses can reduce stressful situations. A 2016 study published in PLOS ONE found that the friendships between nurses positively impacted their stress levels. 

Together, nurses share the physical and emotional burden of being responsible for their patients’ well-being. When patients’ conditions improve, they celebrate together. When a patient takes a bad turn or dies, they mourn together. 

No one understands what you’ve been through as a nurse better than another nurse. This can be a powerful bonding experience for you and your coworkers (when bullying isn’t present). All these experiences lead to unbreakable bonds, which are invaluable and cherished relationships. 

20. You’ll feel a sense of purpose every day 

20 Things to Know a picture of nurses celebrating a patient

Most people want to make a difference in their lives, and they want to do something that positively impacts others. Nurses do this every day in everything they do. When asked, nurses have stated that they feel powerful in their role because of their purpose. Feeling this way about your job has been shown to increase job satisfaction, boost morale, and prevent things like turnover and burnout. 


Ready to become a nurse? 

Nursing is a rewarding and challenging career that has gained new light during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are still surprises when you start (that this article hopefully cleared up for you)! If you’re interested in getting started, check out Aspen University’s nursing programs today!



Aspen U Guest author Alison ShelyAlison Shely, DNP, FNP-C is a nurse practitioner, nurse coach, yoga teacher, and nurse writer who specializes in articles, blogging, and copy. She has been in nursing since 2014, working in intensive care, women’s health, and primary care as a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner. Her specialty topics include mental health, health and wellness, yoga philosophy and practice, and community health. She also serves as a mental health coach primarily to other nurses and healthcare workers concerning healthy lifestyles and mental health.

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