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What is a Registered Nurse?

Are you considering a career as a registered nurse? If you have an interest in healthcare and enjoy working with others, offering advice, and providing emotional support, this may be an ideal vocational choice. For students and working professionals alike, entering the healthcare field has many benefits. Employment for registered nurses is expected to grow significantly in the coming years and the average salary is very competitive.

Registered nurses are primarily responsible for providing and coordinating patient care. These professionals also educate patients and the general public about various health conditions. They also offer support to the family members of the people they are treating.

Registered nurses are frequently part of a team, working closely with physicians and other healthcare providers. The specific duties they perform often depend on the type of facility they are employed by and the kind of patients they are responsible for. Those in advanced positions may also supervise licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, and home health aides.

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Steps to Becoming an RN

Becoming a registered nurse RN will take time and hard work. As with most professions, you will need to acquire the necessary education before you can qualify for employment. Many major employers require candidates have, at minimum, an undergraduate degree. It is possible, however, to find entry-level work with an associate degree or nursing program diploma. Those interested in becoming a clinical nurse specialist will need a master’s or doctoral degree. All registered nurses must also have a nursing license.

  • Step 1: Complete the Necessary Education Requirements

  • Step 2: Research State Licensure Regulations

  • Step 3: Take and Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)

  • Step 4: Earn Additional Certifications, as Needed

  • Step 5: Find Professional Employment and Join a Professional Organization


Step 1: Complete the Necessary Educational Requirements

To become a registered nurse RN, you will need to complete the necessary educational requirements. There are three primary educational paths you can choose from. You can earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Because many employees, especially large hospitals, require candidates to possess an undergraduate degree, this is considered the most straightforward way to enter the field.

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Most students enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program. These undergraduate programs usually consist of 120 hours of basic healthcare and liberal arts coursework. In addition to classes on anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, and nutrition, students should expect to study physical sciences, social sciences, communication, leadership, and critical thinking. Supervised clinical experiences are also necessary. Those attending school full-time can complete these requirements in four years, while online programs can take between five and eight years to finish. Graduates generally qualify for staff nursing positions, as well as work in administration, research, consulting, and teaching.

Individuals interested in becoming a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) will need to earn a graduate degree in nursing. Achieving a higher level of education often entitles professionals to more employment opportunities, advancement options, and better pay.

Step 2: Research State Licensure Regulations

All states, as well as the District of Columbia and the United States territories, require registered nurses to have a nursing license. National standards include graduating from an approved nursing program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Other factors, such as passing a criminal background check, can differ. Because specific requirements do vary by state, it is important that you research this thoroughly before pursing employment. You can find specific information about your state’s board of nursing on the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website.

Step 3: Take and Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)

As part of your licensing requirements, you will be expected to take the pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

You must complete a two-step registration process:

  • Apply for licensure through the nursing regulatory body (NRB) where you intend to work. In most cases, this will be the state in which you reside. Submitting the application materials outlined by your state’s board of nursing will make you eligible to take the NCLEX. When approved, you will receive an Authorization to Test (ATT).
  • Register for the NCLEX with Pearson VUE online or over the phone. You will need a nursing program code, which may be provided by your educational institution or found online. The base exam cost is $200, but additional expenses and fees may apply depending on your specific circumstances.

It is recommended that you spend time familiarizing yourself with the NCLEX format and test plan. You should also locate your test site early, as slots tend to fill up quickly.

Unofficial test scores may be available as soon as two days after you take the exam. This service is only available to certain NRBs, however, and costs $7.95. Official results will be provided to you by your NRB approximately six weeks after your exam date. A total of 88.29% of candidates who took the NCLEX for the first time in 2018 passed; there was a 91.57% pass rate for individuals with an undergraduate degree versus a 85.11% pass rate for individuals with an associate degree.

Step 4: Earn Additional Certifications, as Needed

In addition to becoming licensed, registered nurses can choose to earn additional certifications through professional associations. Many choose to do this in order to specialize in a specific area, like ambulatory care, gerontology, and pediatrics. Pursuing additional certifications can be extremely beneficial, as it demonstrates a commitment to a high standard of healthcare practice and can lead to additional pay.

While the decision to seek additional certifications is generally voluntary, it is important to note that some positions may have certification requirements. It is not uncommon, for example, for an employer to require registered nurses to be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support (BLS), and advanced cardiac life support (ACLS).

Step 5: Find Professional Employment and Join a Professional Organization

Once you have completed all of your education requirements and have received your nursing license, you can begin looking for professional employment as a registered nurse RN. While a diploma or associate degree may qualify you for some entry-level jobs, there are more employment options for undergraduate and graduate degree holders. In general, successfully completing higher levels of education in the healthcare field translates to more advancement opportunities and larger salaries.

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Students, new professionals, and seasoned professionals should all strongly consider joining one or more professional healthcare organizations. These are available to individuals at every career level and offer a wide variety of benefits to members, including exclusive access to resources, discounts, training, certification programs, and networking. In addition to the many state nursing associations, there are numerous national organizations and societies available:

  • American Nurses Association (ANA)
  • Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association (HPNA)
  • American College of Nurse Practitioners (ACNP)
  • National Nurse in Business Association (NNBA)
  • American Medical Association (AMA)
  • Society for Nurses in Advance Practice (SNAP)
  • National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (NALPN)

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

The primary responsibility of a registered nurse RN is to provide and coordinate care for their assigned patients. They often function as educators, as well, providing both patients and the public with important information about various health conditions. These professionals are also charged with providing advice and emotional support to patients and their visiting family members.

Daily tasks often depend on their specific job title, as well as the size and scope of the facility they work for. While the specific job requirements vary drastically, common responsibilities include:

  • Assessing the condition of patients
  • Recording the medical histories and symptoms of patients
  • Observing and recording patient information
  • Administering medicines and treatments to patients
  • Establishing care plans for patients
  • Contributing new information to existing patient treatment plans
  • Consulting and collaborating with other healthcare professionals
  • Operating and monitoring various medical equipment
  • Helping perform diagnostic tests
  • Analyzing diagnostic test results
  • Teaching patients and their families about illness and injury management
  • Explaining what to do after treatment

Most registered nurses work on a team with other healthcare professionals. Work settings can vary, but may include hospitals, physicians’ offices, patient homes, and outpatient care facilities. Schedules and hours also differ significantly from job to job. Those who work at schools or healthcare centers with regular business hours often work far fewer less than those who work in hospitals and nursing care facilities. Employers who offer continuous patient care often require registered nurses to work nights, weekends, and holidays.

Skills to Acquire

A career as a registered nurse RN is not easy. These professionals spend a significant amount of time walking, bending, stretching, and standing. They also regularly interact with others who have infectious diseases and often handle potentially harmful and hazardous substances. Work schedules are potentially demanding and some situations may be emotionally taxing. As a result, registered nurses must develop and hone several very important skills.

The most successful professionals possess the following traits:

  • Critical-thinking skills necessary to assess changes in the health of their patients
  • Communication skills necessary to effectively relay information to patients
  • Compassion necessary to be caring and empathetic while caring for patients
  • Attention to detail necessary to manage patient treatment plans and medications
  • Emotional stability necessary to manage personal reactions to difficult situations and cope with human suffering, emergencies, and other stresses
  • Physical stamina necessary to perform various physical tasks on a regular basis
  • Organizational skills necessary to work with and organize care for multiple patients at the same time

Alternative Paths

As previously mentioned, there are several educational pathways that can lead to a career as a registered nurse RN. If you feel earning an undergraduate degree will take too long, you can choose to enroll in either an associate degree program or an approved nursing program. Most of these cover basic healthcare topics and include courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, and psychology. You will still be expected to participate in supervised clinical experiences but, in most cases, programs like these require only two to three years to complete.

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While an undergraduate degree is often preferred by employers, all three options will qualify candidates for entry-level positions as a staff nurse.

It is important to realize that nursing diploma programs are somewhat hard to find. These are generally offered by hospitals and medical centers and rarely provide clinical experiences in non-hospital settings. Many who opt to earn an associate degree or diploma choose to go back to school to earn their undergraduate degree later; some employers do offer tuition reimbursement to help with this expense. Additionally, these educational alternatives do not impact licensure requirements. All registered nurses must be licensed to practice.

Registered Nurse Career and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual wage for registered nurses in 2017 was $70,000. PayScale, on the other hand, reports an average salary of $63,600. Both of these figures are well above the median annual wage of $37,690 reported for all occupations. Entry-level registered nurses can expect to make around $55,000 annually, while those with 20 or more years of experience can earn as much as $71,000 a year. The highest 10% of professionals in the field earned more than $104,100. It is important to realize that location can greatly impact salary potential; the top paying states for this occupation include California, Hawaii, the District of Columba, Massachusetts, and Oregon.

Where Might You Work?


Registered nurses can work in almost any facility that offers healthcare services. Because there are many different branches of healthcare, these professionals can find themselves employed by a wide variety of companies and organizations.

That said, the industries that hire registered nurses most often are:

  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
  • Offices of Physicians
  • Home Healthcare Services
  • Nursing Care Facilities
  • Outpatient Care Centers
  • Specialty Hospitals
  • Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals
  • Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturers

While most registered nurses work in general medical and surgical hospitals, the highest paying industry for this position is pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing. It is important to note that the states with the highest employment level in this occupation are California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Potential Career Paths

There are many employment opportunities available to individuals interested in a career as a registered nurse RN.

You can choose from a wide variety of specialties, including:

  • Addiction Nurses
  • Cardiovascular Nurses
  • Critical Care Nurses
  • Genetics Nurses
  • Neonatology Nurses
  • Nephrology Nurses
  • Public Health Nurses
  • Rehabilitation Nurses
  • Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs)
  • Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP)

Addiction Nurses:
Addiction nurses are responsible for caring or patients who need help overcoming one or more addictions. Some of these professionals are familiar with addictions of all kinds, while others specialize in addressing a specific one. These professionals often work with patients addicted to alcohol, drugs, and other substances.

Cardiovascular Nurses:
Cardiovascular nurses are responsible for caring for patients who have been diagnosed with heart disease. They may also work with patients who are preparing for or have recently had heart surgery. These professionals often work in hospitals and other healthcare organizations.

Critical Care Nurses:
Critical care nurses often work in intensive-care units in hospitals. They are responsible for providing care to patients who have serious, complex, and acute illnesses and injuries. These professionals must be able to monitor their patients very closely.

Genetics Nurses:
Genetics nurses are responsible for providing a variety of services to patients who have genetic disorders. They often participate in the screening, counseling, and treatment processes. While these professionals work with a wide variety of conditions, one relatively common example is cystic fibrosis.

Neonatology Nurses:
Neonatology nurses are responsible for taking care of newborn babies. They often monitor the health of infants, report potentially important changes to doctors, and respond to emergency situations. These professionals may also provide advice and emotional support to parents.

Nephrology Nurses:
Nephrology nurses are responsible for caring for patients who have kidney-related issues. They are specially trained to deal with problems related to and stemming from diabetes, high blood pressure, and substance abuse.

Public Health Nurses:
Public health nurses are responsible for promoting public health. They often work to educate people about potential warning signs and symptoms of certain diseases or on managing various chronic health conditions. These professionals often plan and manage health screenings, immunization clinics, blood drives, or other community outreach programs.

Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioners (ARNPs):
Advanced registered nurse practitioners (ARNPs) can perform tasks beyond those of a normal registered nurse. They often conduct complete physicals, provide treatment, and counsel patients. These professionals may also prescribe therapy and medication with physician approval.

Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs):
Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) are a type of ARNP. They are responsible for providing direct patient care in a specific area, such as pediatrics or psychiatric-mental health. These professionals often work with other nurses and staff to improve the overall quality of care provided to patients.

Registered Nurse Salaries

Occupations Entry Level Salary Range Mid-Career Salary Range Late Career Salary Range
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist $143,000 $160,000 $179,000
Certified Nurse Midwife $91,000 $101,000 $110,000
Home Health Nurse $49,000 $64,000 $80,000
Nurse Practitioner $91,000 $102,000 $111,000
Psychiatric Nurse $49,000 $67,000 $92,000
Public Health Nurse $45,000 $60,000 $92,000
Registered Nurse $45,000 $66,000 $92,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

Overall, the outlook for registered nurses working in the United States is very promising. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects there will be a 15% increase in job availability for individuals in this field between 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than the national average for other professions. There are several key factors impacting this projected growth.

One major reason so much growth is anticipated is the increased demand for healthcare services from an aging population. Older individuals require more care, especially those diagnosed with chronic conditions like arthritis, dementia, diabetes, and obesity. To accommodate the need for compassionate care and education, healthcare facilities will need to hire additional nurses.

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It is also likely there will be an increase in the number of individuals being admitted to long-term care and outpatient care centers, as well as a greater need for professionals who offer home healthcare services. A significant portion of projected growth for this position is expected to be in these facilities.

While there are likely to be many job opportunities for individuals interested in becoming registered nurses, it is important to realize that the number of nurses entering the labor market has spiked in recent years. This may cause some competition for jobs in certain areas. To adjust for this, some registered nurses move to other states where the field is not as saturated. Others opt to earn their BSN, which makes them more competitive and often leads to better job prospects.

Advancing From Here

The majority of registered nurses are initially hired as staff nurses at hospitals. There are several ways to prepare for advancement from these positions, including gaining on-the-job experience, performing assigned tasks well, and furthering education. These actions can lead to employment opportunities at other facilities, as well as the addition of more responsibility. Management positions generally include assistant clinical nurse manager, charge nurse, and head nurse.

For those already in a nursing beginning management role, further advancement may require earning a graduate degree in nursing or healthcare administration. This often qualifies candidates for work as assistant directors of nursing, directors of nursing, vice presidents of nursing, or chief nursing officers.

Professionals interested in becoming advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) will also need a master’s degree or, in some cases, a doctoral degree. APRNs are can provide primary and specialty care. Examples include nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where do nurses work?

Nurses work in outpatient clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, healthcare service, hospice, and anywhere else medical professionals are needed.

How much do nurses make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurses make around $75,000 per year.

What is the job outlook for nursing careers?

Nursing jobs are expected to grow by 9% by 2030 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What does an oncology nurse do?

An oncology nurse works with patients that have cancer or have a high chance of developing cancer. An oncology nurse is responsible for providing direct patient care, helping to educate patients, administering treatments, organizing assessments, and communicating patient care with all other providers.

How do you keep an active registered nurse license?

Every state will have their own set of rules when it comes to maintaining an active registered nurse license. Most states require at least some form of continued education and/ or a specific number of hours working in the industry per year.

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