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How to Become a Registered Nurse

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Smiling nurse with dimples

Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is one of the best ways to enter the healthcare field and set yourself up for a career filled with opportunities for growth. The list of specialties available to aspiring nurses is surprisingly long. It enables those who pursue it the opportunity to choose a specialty that appeals directly to their own particular passion. Being an RN is a highly challenging career with many important job responsibilities. For those who welcome and embrace those responsibilities, however, experience a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that they’ll carry the rest of their lives.

Registered nurses can be found in practically every field of medicine. They work in a wide variety of environments and care for all manner of patients. In this guide, we will examine the key milestones on the journey to becoming a registered nurse, including education requirements, certification, the various specialties available to them, job responsibilities, projected salaries, and job prospects, among other topics.

By becoming an RN, you open the door to a wide variety of rewarding career paths. With so many specialized disciplines available to registered nurses, you can easily tailor your education and career in a direction that best suits your interests and passions. To help bring your nursing dreams into clearer focus, click here to see our list of highest paying nursing jobs.

What is a Registered Nurse?

Why Should I Become a Registered Nurse?

A registered nurse is a licensed healthcare professional who assists physicians and other healthcare professionals in providing skilled care for patients. RNs have earned either an associates degree or a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited nursing school and, upon earning their degree, must successfully pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become officially licensed nurses.

Registered nurses work with doctors and healthcare practitioners to fulfill a wide range of patient care and administrative duties. They are also often called upon to supervise other nurses and aides as well. RNs commonly work in hospital or doctor office settings but can also be employed in other areas with the need for licensed nurses.

Registered Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Registered nurses are responsible for providing care, guidance, and health education to patients. Depending on the employer, they generally assist physicians and their staff during medical procedures, monitor the medical conditions of patients, and keep physicians abreast of meaningful changes to a patient’s condition. Registered nurses often supervise a team of licensed practical nurses, public nursing assistants, health unit clerks, medical assistants, home health aides, and others.

In addition to providing direct care to patients, an RN will also help educate patients and their families about the illness or injury they face. They provide essential wellness information and encourage positive, healthy living strategies to those who need it. Registered nurses also advocate for their patients who can play essential roles in crafting healthcare policies within their communities and the organizations for which they work.

Being a registered nurse can be a demanding and sometimes scary job. Registered nurses are required to maintain their poise and exercise both skill and judgment in emergency situations. Most importantly, registered nurses must also maintain their integrity and empathy at all times, even when patients – or a patient’s family – don’t behave as they should.

Registered Nurse Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of registered nurses include:

  • Observing and documenting a patient’s condition/behavior
  • Acquiring patient medical histories
  • Educating the patients about their condition and treatment plans
  • Performing examinations and diagnostic procedures
  • Reporting the patient’s condition to physician/nurse practitioner
  • Updating and maintaining medical records
  • Administering medications
  • Treating wounds
  • Directing and supervising licensed practical nurses, public nursing assistants, health unit clerks, home health aides, and medical assistants
  • Providing information to supervisors to help them determine optimized treatment plans

Medical student writing in a notebook

What Specialties Are Available To Registered Nurses?

Registered Nurses can find employment in a number of different work settings and can choose several specialties for specific training, including, but not limited to:

Where Do Registered Nurses Work?

Registered nurses can find steady, satisfying employment in a remarkably wide variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Schools
  • Care clinics
  • Hospices
  • Treatment centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Military bases
  • Senior living facilities
  • Patients’ homes
  • Air/land ambulance transportation companies

Registered Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Home Registered Nurse?

The elevated responsibilities and vital nature of registered nursing requires a significant level of education and training. The investment in time, education, dedication, and determination it takes to achieve certification as a registered nurse are significant but worthwhile.

In a broad sense, becoming a registered nurse requires you to earn a nursing degree from an accredited school and then pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Here are a few specifics about the three degree options and licensing required to become a registered nurse:

Associate Degree Program

The fastest path students take to becoming a registered nurse is earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). Typically, it takes two years to earn an associates degree. An ADN curriculum will include basic sciences, social sciences, nursing theory, and nursing practice.

Baccalaureate Degree Program

Many employers either prefer or require that RN candidates hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree (BSN). They also offer higher salary scales for RNs with a BSN degree than RNs with an ADN or other diploma. Additionally, BSN degree holders are more likely to be afforded greater opportunities for promotion, including to promotions into management and administration roles. If your nursing goals include achieving a specific nursing specialization and higher education, including Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctoral degrees, a BSN degree will be a necessity.

Close up of a woman in scrubs

RN to BSN Program

For those registered nurses who already hold an ADN and look to further their career opportunities, you should consider enrolling in our RN to BSN program. The program can be completed in as few as 20 months and will equip you with the credentials you need to seek higher paying management and administrative leadership positions.

The NCLEX-RN Exam

Once you’ve earned your nursing degree, the next step toward becoming a registered nurse is to apply for a license with your state’s board of nursing. Each state’s board of nursing has its own specific requirements for certification including the completion of necessary coursework at an accredited school. When those standards have been met, nurses must take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) to obtain a license and practice as a registered nurse in that state.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a registered nurse:

1. Choose Your Nursing Path

Once you decide to pursue a career as a registered nurse, you have an important decision to make: What sort of work environment appeals most to you? Is it a doctor’s office? A hospital? A school? Make sure you select a setting that genuinely inspires you to reach your full potential.

You’ll then want to decide on what sort of role you want to play as a registered nurse. Is there a certain patient-type you feel passionately about serving, such as infants, cancer patients, or expectant mothers? Are you inspired to lead and manage other nurses? Or perhaps is being part of a larger medical team better suited to your strengths? These answers will help guide you on your next step of the process.

2. Enroll in an Accredited Nursing Program

Now that you have decided on your path, the next step is to find a nursing school that aligns with your career goals. Study their nursing programs, identify the one that best suits your career direction, and complete an application. The application process is involved and will take time.

You will be asked to provide letters of recommendation, write essays, and more. You may also be required to take the TEAS test (Test of Essential Academic Skills). There will also be an important entrance interview that you must complete. The enrollment process is rigorous, but remember: a highly rewarding, life-long career is more than worth the effort.

3. Earn Your Nursing Degree and Complete Clinicals

Your nursing school curriculum will consist of courses in anatomy, biology,  chemistry, nutrition, psychology, and sociology, among others. Beyond classroom study, you’ll need hands-on experience gained by completing a series of nursing clinicals that will expose you to the day-to-day demands of being an RN in a healthcare setting.

4. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

The last step toward becoming a registered nurse is to take and pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) exam. An ADN or BSN degree is required for taking the NCLEX-RN. The test is challenging, consists of up to 265 questions covering all aspects of nursing, and takes up to six hours to complete, not including optional breaks at scheduled intervals. The exam itself will require a great deal of critical thinking and memorization.

Registered Nurse Salary

How Much Do Registered Nurses Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for registered nurses is just above $75,000, which works out to be just above $36 per hour. Annual salaries for registered nurses in the 90th percentile can reach as high as $116,000 or more.

Highest Paying Industries for Registered Nurses

According to the BLS, these are the industries where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for registered nurses:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Outpatient Care Centers $42.93 $89,300
Specialty Hospitals $39.86 $82,910
General Hospitals $39.27 $81,680
Psychiatric & Substance Abuse Hospitals $37.14 $77,250
Home Health Care Services $36.48 $75,870

Highest Paying States for Registered Nurses

According to the BLS, registered nurses earn the highest average wages in these states:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
California $57.96 $120,560
Hawaii $50.40 $104,830
Massachusetts $46.27 $96,250
Oregon $46.27 $96,230
Alaska $45.81 $95,270

Highest Paying Cities for Registered Nurses

According to the BLS, registered nurses earn the highest average annual wage in these cities:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Francisco, CA $71.73 $149,200
San Jose, CA $70.61 $146,870
Vallejo, CA $68.34 $142,140
Sacramento, CA $64.59 $134,350
Salinas, CA $63.54 $132,160
Santa Rosa, CA $60.02 $124,840
Modesto, CA $58.21 $121,090
Stockton, CA $55.70 $115,860
Los Angeles, CA $54.38 $113,120
Redding, CA $53.78 $111,860

Registered Nurse holding a chart

Registered Nurse Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Registered Nurses?

The BLS estimates that the overall employment for registered nurses will grow 7% by 2029, which is much faster than the average growth rate across all other jobs during the same time period (4%). As the population of America’s Baby Boomers ages, and as the need to educate and care for patients with chronic conditions increases, it is expected that the need for registered will be high for some time to come.

Start Your RN Career by Earning Your BSN or RN to BSN Diploma

Becoming a registered nurse can lead to competitive salaries, but it’s rewards go well beyond the money you’ll earn. If working with patients and families on a daily basis, along with a myriad of other clinical and organizational responsibilities, sounds like the kind of career challenge you’re looking for, becoming a Registered Nurse could be the career path you’ve been seeking.

If you’re ready to take the next step towards becoming a registered nurse, you can start by enrolling in the BSN program at Provo College. If you already hold an ADN, then you can earn your BSN degree online in as little as 20 months through our RN to BSN program.