Best Programs: Nursing

A nursing shortage means plenty of jobs are available for students who want to play a key role in health care
By Lisa Kadane
McMaster -CAP_2596_Nursing_SMI_Patient

March 10, 2024

Nurses are the backbone of the health-care system. That was made abundantly clear during the pandemic, when they emerged from the hospital shadows to become health-care heroes. They cared for COVID-19 patients despite the personal health risks and a lack of protective gear and resources, especially early on. But despite nurses’ pivotal roles in delivering front-line care, we don’t have enough of them.

According to Statistics Canada, during the first quarter of 2023, the number of vacant jobs for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses went up by 5,475; a 24 per cent increase from the same quarter in the previous year. The nursing shortage predates COVID-19, but the pandemic exacerbated the problem as nurses left the field, either due to burnout or to retire. 

Daily news reports during the pandemic showed the strength and resolve of nurses, boosted the career’s status, and inspired a new generation to help people in a tangible way. News coverage also showed that it takes a lot to be a nurse—not just in terms of mental fortitude and empathy, but in practical skills, like good judgment and problem-solving. Rather than scaring future RNs away, there has been a surge in applications to nursing programs, with the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre recording an 11.8 per cent increase in applicants for nursing spots in the fall of 2023, compared with the fall of 2020. 

Spots in Canada’s nursing programs are limited, though, and competitive. Applicants typically need at least a 3.0 GPA, in addition to meeting certain grade levels in tough high school courses like biology, chemistry and math.

Those students who get accepted will enter a profession that’s become much more flexible and varied. Modern nurses work in many different health-care settings—from hospitals to care homes—and there are opportunities to specialize in areas such as pediatrics, mental health and oncology, or to take on more responsibility (after additional schooling) as a nurse practitioner. Educational consultants now coach nursing students to really think about what kind of nurse they want to be, and what type of environment they see themselves working in. At the same time, new areas are opening up in the field. For example, students may be interested in exploring the immediate and long-term health effects related to climate change, such as extreme heat and smoke inhalation from wildfires.

Another key takeaway from the pandemic is that nursing can take a mental toll. Nursing programs have taken the cue, and are adapting to arm future health-care workers with tools to stay resilient and mentally healthy in a job that can be extremely stressful.The stress may start early, so students researching nursing schools should factor in what kind of student supports are available, such as health services and counselling support on campus.

Another key consideration: how much clinical experience the program offers and whether placements could be located close to the university (Kingston General Hospital is adjacent to the Queen’s University campus, for example). Something else to consider is whether the program is accelerated or has advanced standing, since those tend to have fewer clinical practice courses overall.

Perhaps equally as important is the school’s teaching philosophy. Health care is constantly evolving and nurses need to be prepared to be lifelong learners. Nursing programs that foster a spirit of curiosity in students will help them thrive over the course of their career.

Standout Nursing Programs

Queen’s University

(Photo courtesy of Queen’s University)

Queen’s University’s four-year, full-time bachelor of nursing science program (B.N.Sc.) is lauded for its experiential learning and student life experience. It’s also known for its students’ high pass rate on the NCLEX-RN exam, the test to become a registered nurse in Canada, says Joy Xu, an academic coach with Youthfully, who specializes in advising students interested in the health-care field. In second year, students complete rotating clinical and community placements in a variety of nursing settings, with opportunities in third year for hands-on experience in mental health, maternity, pediatrics and medical/surgical areas.

University of Alberta

University of Alberta-A.I.-Energy-7
(Photo courtesy of the University of Alberta)

Students in the four-year bachelor of science in nursing (B.Sc.N.) program at the University of Alberta begin their degree at an affiliate school such as Red Deer Polytechnic, Keyano College in Fort McMurray, or Northwestern Polytechnic in Grande Prairie, and complete the degree in Edmonton or remain on the smaller campus. This flexibility is important for students who might not otherwise have access to the big university campuses, says Melinda Giampietro, an educational consultant and founder of Options Solutions. The U of A also offers a bilingual B.Sc.N. program for studying nursing in English and French.

McGill University

McGill University-Nursing students participate in a simulation lab
(Photo courtesy of McGill University)

Using a “strengths-based” approach to learning, McGill University’s Ingram School of Nursing aims to humanize health care by teaching students in its three- or four-year bachelor of science in nursing (B.Sc.N.) program that patients are real people who can take an active role in their own recovery, rather than just clipboard cases that require fixing. McGill is also one of the few nursing programs where first-year students have clinical studies in the community; this gives them hands-on experience from the get-go, and they learn right away if they’ve made the right career choice. 

Okanagan Campus

University of British Columbia

University of British Columbia- 50977643906_892331bdc0_o
(Photo courtesy of the University of British Columbia)

The University of British Columbia’s nursing program offered at its Okanagan campus in Kelowna offers one of the province’s few direct-entry four-year bachelor of science in nursing (B.Sc.N.) programs, which makes it ideal for students who know right out of high school that nursing is the path for them. Students get the benefit of a degree from a large, well-known institution and state-of-the art labs and simulation technology, all while studying on a smaller campus with close ties to the health-care community.

McMaster University

McMaster -CAP_2596_Nursing_SMI_Patient
(Photo courtesy of McMaster University)

The four-year bachelor of science in nursing program at McMaster has clinical placements that start in second year and increase in length and intensity, ending with 36 hours a week for the final six weeks of the program. This hands-on experience fits with McMaster’s model of student-driven learning, where nursing students are encouraged to collaborate with colleagues to come up with solutions during simulation scenarios, a practice that teaches future nurses to think on their feet and problem solve under pressure.