Registered nurses (RNs) benefit from strong job growth and high average salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs earn over $71,000 a year, on average, and enjoy a 12% projected job growth rate through 2028. This page introduces how to become a registered nurse, including degree and certification options.
Essential Career Information
- CCU Nurse
- Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Community Health Nurse
- Coronary Care Unit Nurse
- Emergency Room RN
- Endoscopy Registered Nurse
- Hospice Registered Nurse
- Obstetrical Nurse
- Oncology Registered Nurse
- PACU Nurse
- Pediatric Registered Nurse
- Post-Anesthesia Care Unit Nurse
- Psychiatric Nurse
- Registered Nurse
- Triage Registered Nurse
What is an RN?
RNs provide patient care, coordinate with doctors, and educate patients about health conditions. Their duties include assessing patients' conditions, observing and recording information on symptoms, performing diagnostic tests, and administering treatments.
Across the country, over 3 million RNs work in hospitals, doctors' offices, residential care facilities, and other healthcare settings. Nurses often work irregular hours, including nights and weekends, to provide patient care. Some RNs also work on call. Nurses in doctors' offices and schools may work regular business hours. The average RN salary exceeds $71,000 per year, and the top 10% of earners make more than $106,000 per year, on average.
RNs need a license to practice, which includes meeting education requirements. Prospective nurses can pursue an associate degree in nursing, a diploma in nursing, or a bachelor of science in nursing. During a nursing program, students complete classes in anatomy, physiology, evidence-based practice, and patient care. Programs also incorporate clinical internships or practicums to give students hands-on experience with patients.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of nurses get paid the most?
Advanced practice RNs (APRNs), including nurse anesthetists and nurse practitioners (NPs), earn the highest nursing salaries. RNs in certain specialties, like critical care and pediatrics, also earn higher-than-average nursing salaries.
What types of nursing specialties are there?
RNs work in every specialty within medicine. Nurses can specialize in areas like oncology, acute care, and urgent care nursing.
How do you become a nurse?
Nurses need at least an associate degree or diploma to earn an RN license; however, many employers prefer to hire RNs with a bachelor's degree in nursing.
What Does an RN Do?
RNs coordinate with physicians and healthcare professionals to care for patients. They take patient histories, administer treatments, and operate medical equipment. Depending on their specialty, nurses may work in hospitals, caring for surgical or injured patients, or in doctors' offices, offering primary care services. Nurses may work with patients of all ages, from premature newborns in neonatal intensive care units to elderly patients in hospice care.
RN job duties vary depending on the specialty. Oncology nurses work with cancer patients, while cardiac care unit nurses care for patients receiving treatment for heart conditions. Pediatric nurses treat children in hospitals and doctors' offices, while emergency room nurses treat patients with a variety of urgent conditions and injuries. Within emergency rooms, triage nurses are often the first providers to meet with patients, assessing their needs and recommending medical treatments.
Some nursing specialties do not involve direct contact with patients. For example, RNs who work as nurse educators train other nurses rather than treat patients. RNs can also work as hospital administrators, public health advisors, and healthcare consultants. These roles often require an active RN license.
Nurses draw on critical thinking skills to assess changes in a patient's status and rely on organizational skills to treat multiple patients at a time. RNs also need strong communication skills to provide medical information to patients and communicate with physicians. Additionally, nurses must bring empathy and compassion to their jobs.
Nurse Practitioner vs. RN
Nurse practitioners hold greater responsibilities and earn higher salaries than RNs. Nurse practitioners are APRNs and need at least a master's degree from an accredited nursing school to practice. During graduate training, nurse practitioners take advanced coursework and complete clinical hours. Nurse practitioners can act as primary care providers in many states, diagnosing conditions and prescribing medication.
APRNs earn among the highest salaries in nursing, with an average salary of over $113,000 per year, on average. Other APRNs include nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives. Many nursing programs offer specialized RN-to-NP programs for nurses seeking career advancement.
LPN vs. RN
Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) work under the supervision of RNs. LPNs provide basic medical care, including checking patients' vital signs and maintaining patient records. LPNs generally need to complete a one-year certificate or diploma and pass the NCLEX-PN exam to earn a state license to practice. Since they have fewer responsibilities, LPNs make lower salaries than RNs. LPNs can become RNs by completing an LPN-to-RN or an LPN-to-BSN program.
- The Best Online Pre-Nursing Programs
- The 50 Best Online Bachelor's in Nursing Programs
- The 50 Best Online RN to BSN Programs
How to Become an RN
RNs must complete an accredited associate degree or bachelor's degree in nursing to earn a license to practice. While some employers hire RNs with an associate degree, many prefer to hire RNs with a bachelor's degree. Nursing programs feature core coursework in patient care, anatomy, physiology, and nursing practice. Nursing students can specialize their skills through coursework in areas like obstetrics, pediatrics, and psychiatry.
During clinical rotations, nursing students gain experience in various fields, which helps them transition from nursing school into the workforce. Nurses also gain on-the-job training from experienced nurse supervisors and nurse educators.
After completing a nursing degree, prospective RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for a license in the state where they plan to practice. While every state sets its own licensure requirements, all states require an accredited nursing degree or diploma. Prospective nurses should look for programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.
Associate Degree Programs
An associate degree in nursing (ADN) prepares graduates for entry-level RN roles. Accredited ADN programs meet the requirements for an RN license and provide foundational training in evidence-based care. Students take classes on topics like human anatomy, human growth and development, and nursing principles. Students also complete clinical hours to gain hands-on experience with patients.
An ADN generally takes two years for full-time students to complete. Nurses with an associate degree can advance their careers by pursuing a bachelor's degree.
Bachelor's Degree Programs
A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) prepares RNs for competitive nursing jobs. Employers increasingly seek nurses with at least a bachelor's degree. Several nursing jobs, including administrative and teaching roles, require a BSN.
During a BSN program, nursing students take classes on topics like health assessment, clinical nursing, and evidence-based care. Students can specialize their skills through coursework in areas like pediatrics, oncology, or gerontology. Students also complete clinical requirements to build hands-on experience with patients.
Incoming students without a nursing background can earn a BSN in four years. Current RNs can enter an RN-to-BSN program to complete their bachelor's degree in two years or less. Some accelerated RN-to-BSN programs offer a one-year route to the degree.
Professional Licensure and Certification
RNs must earn a professional license to practice. Each state sets its own licensure requirements, but licensees typically need an accredited nursing degree or diploma, a minimum number of clinical hours, and passing scores on the NCLEX-RN exam. RNs must regularly renew their license by meeting competency requirements.
In addition to licensure, RNs can pursue specialty certifications that demonstrate their skills, such as certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, basic life support, or advanced cardiac life support. Nurses can also earn credentials in various specialties, such as certified pediatric nurse, certified radiology nurse, or certified emergency nurse.