The survey of 2,000 people found nursing ranks with being a doctor or firefighter as one of the top three most respected professions.
The research, for the Here for Life campaign being promoted by the chief nursing officers of the UK and Ireland and the RCN Foundation, found that 89% of people admire nurses.
Almost a third (31%) said they would consider becoming one, while a quarter (26%) would think about becoming a midwife.
However, there was a lack of understanding of the range of things nurses do, with only 15% of people associating nurses with making decisions about diagnosis and treatment.
Just 5% knew they were involved in researching new treatments and therapies, only half (53%) knew some nurses can prescribe drugs and over a third (37%) are unaware that nurses lead other teams of professionals.
Three in 10 (29%) people also believed midwives only play a role during labour, even though they provide care and advice to families before, during and after labour.
It comes as a separate survey for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) found seven in 10 (70%) people think there are too few nurses to provide safe care to patients.
Professor Jane Cummings, chairwoman of the RCN Foundation, a charity which offers support and research grants, said: “It is extremely heartening to see the huge amount of respect and admiration the UK public has for its nurses and midwives.
“Nursing and midwifery are highly skilled and diverse careers that require a combination of professionalism, commitment, knowledge, competence and compassion.”