This article describes the findings of a phenomenographic research approach used to understand the experiences of competence of new nurse graduates. The aim of phenomenography is to describe the qualitatively different ways in which people understand a phenomenon. Six new graduates, who had been employed in two paediatric metropolitan hospitals in Australia, participated in the research. The graduates were interviewed and asked to describe and draw their understanding of competence. The interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. Interview transcripts were analysed according to accepted phenomenographic methods of analysis. The graduates described eight conceptions of competence: competence as safe practice; competence as limited independence; competence as utilization of resources; competence as management of time and workload; competence as ethical practice; competence as performance of clinical skills; competence as knowledge; and competence as evolving. The final outcome of identification of conceptions led to the development of an outcome space (a diagrammatic representation of the logical relations between conceptions). The outcome space depicted a three-level hierarchical relationship between the eight conceptions of competence experienced within a global framework of safety. The findings contribute to nursing knowledge by describing the meaning of competence from the perspective of the new nurse graduate. The need for support and assistance by employers of new graduates is confirmed from the findings. New nurse graduate experiences of competence provide suggestions for improving undergraduate education programmes as well as clarification of entry-level competency standards.