Summary Background National and international evidence indicates that university students engage in employment whilst studying. Research has suggested that nursing students either enter training with previous care experience or tend to work part time in a health related area whilst undertaking higher education. The impact of this on the socialisation process remains unclear. Objectives Based on the symbolic interactionist framework, this paper reports on a theme from a large mixed methods study — the extent and implications of student nurses' work experience on learning and training. Design One qualitative stage from a sequential exploratory mixed methods design. Settings One higher education institution in the United Kingdom. Participants Forty-five pre-registration nursing students. Methods Thirty-two students took part in four focus groups and 13 took part in individual interviews. Results Findings revealed that 27 (60%) of students were in paid nursing related employment. This was reported to be advantageous by most participants with regards to enhancing confidence, skills and time spent in the clinical setting. However, it was also perceived by a small number of participants as being detrimental to subsequent learning resulting in role confusion, influencing placement behaviour, and preferences for future nursing practice. Student participants with no prior work experience believed this placed them at a disadvantage, negatively influencing their learning, ability to fit in, and adjustment on placement. Findings have suggested that student participants desire more recognition of the experience and skills they have gained from their employment. Conclusions Whilst care experience among the student nursing population is advocated, the results of this study show that it is perceived to impinged on their learning and educational journey. Policy makers, educationalists and health service providers need to be aware of the students who operate within the dual roles of student and health care worker so as to provide guidance and appropriate direction.