Students on work-based professional programmes experience a range of challenges in their learning and are often required to move between roles to balance their personal, work and study lives. This small-scale qualitative action research considers factors that help and hinder distance learning nursing students in establishing their student role identity. It reveals that students value recognition by work colleagues of their formal learner status and benefit from the peer support of other students within face-to-face and on-line tutorials. The paper draws out the risk-laden nature of embarking on professional education programmes as an experienced but unqualified practitioner. It argues that the support structures within both sponsoring employer organizations and higher education institutions, necessary to underpin successful learning, need to be flexible and student-centred. Encouraging the development of study skills and good academic ‘habits’, as a form of psychological stroking, is central to building learner confidence.