The Hard Truth About Being a Nurse
Updated May 23, 2023 • 6 min read
There's a hard truth that comes with being a nurse: It's one of the most important, yet exhausting, jobs you can have.
"No matter what floor you work on, nursing is taxing," said Alaina Ross, a registered nurse and nursing test prep tutor. "I come home exhausted after every shift. You're on your feet all day taking vitals, transferring patients, managing family member's expectations — the list goes on and on."
Whether you want to pursue a pre-nursing program to become an entry-level nurse or a master's degree in nursing to take on high-level roles, you're more than likely to feel the strain. According to Becker's Health Review, 31.5% of nurses who left their jobs in 2018 identified burnout as a reason for leaving.
It also takes a concerted effort to become a nurse. Nursing school is notoriously difficult. Students who pursue a bachelor of science in nursing or master of science in nursing will face an uphill battle while they manage their course load with clinical requirements.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse?
|Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)||4-12 weeks|
|Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)||12-18 months|
|Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)||2 years|
|Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)||4 years|
|Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)||2 years (post-graduate)|
|Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)||2 years (post-graduate)|
But despite the difficulty of nursing school and poor workplace outcomes, nurses remain the backbone of the American healthcare system. No hospital or healthcare facility can function without them.
A nurse's main role is to assist doctors and take care of patients. Nurses keep close tabs on patients by checking vitals, looking for signs that their health is getting better or worse, and recording their medical history.
Nurses were especially important during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic when they had to treat, care for, and triage influxes of infected patients. A report by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian found that more than 3,600 healthcare workers, including nurses, died during the pandemic due to having direct contact with the virus.
Although the work is tough and sometimes dangerous, Ross and many other nurses push through because of their passion for nursing.
"Yes, nursing school is hard, and working as a nurse is even more challenging, but I absolutely one hundred percent love my job," Ross said. "There is no better feeling than making a patient's day during a really trying time for them...it is one of the most fulfilling professions, in my opinion."
Still, you should be ready for the challenges associated with this line of work if you want to pursue it. We asked nurses to tell us about what they wish they knew before becoming one.
Prepare for a Heavy Workload
"I don't think I realized it was going to be as much of a balancing act as it was. What I mean by that is when you're in school, you just only know the didactic part. People know that there's going to be a lot of reading [and] a lot of studying, but in nursing you have to equal that with your clinicals where you're actually taking care of patients and still having to do all the studying and do all the working. It's quite a challenge at first until you get used to it."
–Saundra Boyd, RN, Caregiver Nurse Consultant and Founder of Caregivers Haven LLC
Nursing Can Affect Your Life Outside of Work
"We're taught to treat people as our family, to think of the person's family, to think of the person as a complete human, which we do because we care. I wish somebody warned me about how that was going to affect my life outside of work.
When I did bedside nursing, I was a really gloomy person outside of work. I would very frankly talk about death, because I saw it all the time. During COVID, I really saw it all of the time. And nobody tells you how, you have to really deal with your own mortality, which we all have to deal with at some point, but nobody tells you that that's going to happen at 24."
–Rebecca Abraham, RN, Certified Cannabis Nurse and Founder/President of Acute on Chronic LLC
COVID-19 Has Changed the Nursing Experience
"Nurses often are already doing too much work, which can endanger patient safety and burn out the nurse. This got worse during the pandemic. Nurses are making big personal sacrifices to help patients –– working without personal protective equipment, taking on too much work in extremely stressful and/or hazardous environments, and sometimes being taken advantage of.
This past year has been traumatizing for many healthcare workers. Nurses have died due to COVID, been traumatized, some retired, and some are leaving. I think if the past year was a test to see how well the US could preserve its healthcare workforce during a time of acute crisis, it failed. It will take time to recover from what happened."
–Sara Hunt, FNP, Writer and Teacher
Paperwork Is a Big Part of the Job
"I had no idea going into nursing school just how much paperwork was involved in the job. It honestly seems like half my day is charting and completing forms, leaving less time for actual patient care. Documentation of the same vitals over and over again can get so annoying."
–Alaina Ross, RN, Tutor and Contributor at Test Prep Insight
Choose Nursing for the Right Reasons
"Don't choose nursing because you 'love helping people.' Most people like helping people. What other reasons do you have? Because loving to help people isn't enough, and the nursing burnout rate is now higher than it's ever been. Don't say it won't happen to you because it will. Pick nursing for more than your commitment to altruism. Pick nursing because you love to learn, love challenges, flexibility, and have a strong stomach. Choose nursing because it offers job security but little appreciation.
Some patients and families you'll never forget. You will be with many in their dying moments. You will see life's beginnings and all the in-betweens. And somehow your life has been better lived because of it. So don't choose nursing because you enjoy helping people."
–Ashley Noboa, FNP at Children's Hospital at Montefiore
Be Aware of Your Limitations
"One piece of advice I wish I had been given before I started was to be aware of your own mental and emotional limitations. We are not robots, so when a patient dies, it's impossible not to grieve for them — but at the same time, we still have a job to do. We have to be able to detach ourselves emotionally in some part from our work, which is a skill that you don't learn at nursing school.
During the pandemic, I worked in a COVID Intensive Care Unit where many of our patients died. By this stage I had already found ways of caring for my mental health so I was able to cope and carry on, but I wish I had learned this earlier in my career."
–Olivia Herlihy, RN, Beauty Blogger at UK Beauty Room
Prioritize Hands-On Clinical Experiences
"After I got my nursing degree, I wish I would have had more hands-on clinical experience. My first year as a new-grad nurse in the hospital was very difficult in terms of prioritizing, time management, and patient care. I graduated at the top of my class and was overly confident with my clinical skills. Once I actually started working on my own as a bedside nurse, I quickly felt unqualified and unprepared...so my [suggestion] for those pursuing a nursing degree: Gain some experience as a technician or nurse's aid while you are in school."
–Nicholas McGowan, CCRN, Online Nursing Instructor at Critical Care Academy
Header Image Credit: Thomas Barwick, Andriy Onufriyenko | Getty Images
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