Nursing has undergone a sea change in the last 30 years. The pay is improving, and it's a graduate profession

Move over computer science and electrical engineering - nursing is now one of the most popular degrees in the country. And nurses are no longer merely doctors' assistants - they are professional carers in their own right.

Nursing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. The skills required might be the same - primarily, the ability to care for patients - but today's nurses can prescribe medicine and run their own clinics. And while many regard nurses as overworked, underpaid and of low social status, a recent survey for Nursing Standard magazine found that 94 per cent of those in the job are proud of their work, while half would recommend nursing as a career.

Nurses can be found in the obvious places - hospitals and GPs' surgeries - but there are also opportunities in the voluntary sector, the pharmaceutical industry, schools, the prison service and even on cruise ships. There are four main branches - adult, children's, mental health and learning disability - but there is far more scope for specialisation now than in the past.

There are a huge number and a large variety of jobs available in adult nursing, and after qualifying many take extra courses in areas such as women's health. A job as a children's nurse could mean working in a baby-care unit or in adolescent services, with scope for specialising in child protection or a particular condition. A career caring for patients with learning disabilities entails significant time on-site in supported accommodation facilities, while those in the mental health sector co-ordinate patient care with GPs, psychiatrists and social workers.

Nursing has also become more popular with graduates, though less so in England than in the rest of the UK. All diploma and degree students are eligible for NHS funding to cover tuition fees, while extra money is available in the form of a means-tested bursary. Those with degrees in health or biological sciences can qualify as nurses by taking a two-year postgraduate diploma.

"The job has changed beyond all recognition," says one retired nurse who qualified in 1962, when most nursing students didn't even have O-levels. "In my day we were regarded as a doctor's handmaid. You spent two years training to become a state-enrolled nurse and then you were stuck, you couldn't get promoted and you couldn't get into management. But a nurse is a manager from the day they step into uniform - they are managing people's lives."

So what do you need to become a nurse, apart from the relevant qualifications? According to the Royal College of Nursing, nurses must be non-judgmental, good communicators and have the ability to listen, empathise and provide support. Applicants must be resilient, because the job is both physically and emotionally demanding, and anyone interested must first have a police check and fill out a medical questionnaire.

While 90 per cent of nurses are women, more men are signing up, particularly for posts in the mental health sector. The number of mature students enrolling on nursing courses is also rising, with some trainees not starting at college until they are in their forties.

The Department of Health has just launched its annual advertising campaign in an attempt to fill vacancies and get ex-NHS staff back to work. It promises better education, better training, better support and better conditions. The shortage of candidates is such that there are currently 25,000 NHS nursing vacancies in the UK.

Initiatives such as Agenda for Change will see new pay schemes introduced in October, with the basic wage for a newly qualified nurse set at £17,500 outside London and more in the capital. Further up the scale, a nurse consultant - an advanced nurse rather than a medical practitioner - can now expect to earn £46,500. Full-time staff work 37.5 hours a week, but there will be more part-time contracts on offer and retirement structures will be flexible. And for those with children, the NHS is building 150 on-site nurseries that will offer subsidised places to staff.

Shift work (usually one week of nights followed by five weeks of days) remains unpopular, but many believe there has never been a more exciting time to become a nurse. "Nursing is far more varied than it used to be," says Stuart Skyte of the Nursing and Midwifery Council. "As a career it is secure, and you are very much in demand." The graduate careers website may rate adult nursing low on the sexiness scale when compared with IT consultancy, but who needs sexiness when you're helping to save lives?