• Graduate nurses;
  • nursing degrees;
  • aspirations;
  • career trends;
  • gender

Aim.  To explore from a personal and historical perspective key career trends of UK graduate nurses qualifying between 1970 and 1989.

Background.  During the 1970s and 1980s, graduate nurses qualifying from UK academic institutions with nursing and degree qualifications were a controversial minority. Concerns about their practical ability and role resulted in considerable quantitative research about graduate nurse careers. Whilst such research identified key graduate nurse career trends, these trends have yet to be explored from a qualitative perspective.

Design.  This descriptive study used a phased approach: first, a literature review of earlier studies to identify key career trends of UK graduate nurses qualifying between 1970 and 1989, and second, an exploration of these trends from the perspective of six graduate nurses qualifying during this period using semi-structured interviews. Third, archival material was used to set career trends and interview data within their historical context.

Findings.  The literature indicated that most graduate nurses remained clinically based, especially in community and intensive care, with few in senior posts above charge nurse/health visitor level (G-grade). Analysis of interview data revealed four major themes significantly influencing graduate nurse careers: wanting to be clinical nurses, the effect of organizational structures and systems, being a woman, and careers by accident not design.

Conclusion.  Graduate nurses interviewed aspired to clinical posts, yet this was not what some in nursing expected of them during the 1970s and 1980s. The ability of these graduate nurses to fulfil personal career aspirations and develop their careers depended on many factors, not fully acknowledged in earlier studies. For example, organizational structures and systems often delayed fulfilment of career aspirations. Significantly, gender issues embedded within nursing adversely affected career progression of those interviewed, even in the 1990s. In particular, although nurses can combine work and family commitments, for those interviewed this was often at the expense of their career development.