Young African-American nurse in a clinic

How to Become a Registered Nurse

Examine the duties, responsibilities, requirements, certifications, job outlook, and salaries for Registered Nurses.

Young African-American nurse in a clinic

The field of Registered Nursing is one of the broadest, most diverse areas of employment in the healthcare industry. With countless specialties to choose from, aspiring nurses can pursue different areas of healthcare based on their interests. In addition, depending on their chosen specialization, nurses can work with a particular patient group or a broader cross-segment of the population. For these reasons and many others, a career in nursing is uniquely rewarding on multiple levels.

Every nursing career path is unique, from job responsibilities, work environments, and patient groups, to schooling and certification requirements. In this post, we will take a broad look at the varied field of registered nursing and examine a few specialization options available to RNs. We will also explore the life of a Registered Nurse, what it takes to become one, and whether a career in this multifaceted field is right for you.

In almost every field of medicine, you’ll find Registered Nurses, including pediatrics, gerontology, ophthalmology, oncology, podiatry, and more. There is also nuclear medicine, family medicine, anesthesiology, public health, physical rehab, and more. Experiences among RNs run the gamut from hands-on patient care to specialized equipment usage, records keeping, and more.

Registered nursing can be a highly rewarding career choice for the right person who is passionate about the field of medicine and who can combine that passion with dedication, caring, and proficiency. And although the pay can vary from one practice (or specialty) to another, registered nursing can be a well-paid profession.

(Click here to see our full list of the highest-paying nursing jobs in the US.)

Continue reading our RN career guide to explore the role of the Registered Nurse.

Registered Nursing Defined

What Is a Registered Nurse?

A Registered Nurse (RN) is a licensed healthcare professional who provides skilled patient care and has obtained either an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Regardless of your academic path, all Registered Nurses must earn their degree through an accredited nursing school and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become officially licensed nurses.

Registered Nurses have several obligations, and their duties can vary based on their employer or chosen medical practice. Earlier in their careers, however, nurses fulfill many administrative tasks and patient-care responsibilities.

Registered Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Nursing jobs can significantly differ in autonomy and responsibilities based on the type of job or workplace. For example, some Registered Nurses work in hospitals or other in-patient settings, caring for patients 24 hours a day. In contrast, others consult or treat patients in a more limited capacity, like in a clinic, school, or assisted living facility. In community healthcare settings, Registered Nurses are usually the first point of contact with patients and may even provide healthcare themselves.

RNs provide direct medical care to their patients while educating them (and their families) about their illnesses or injuries. They also promote wellness and positive health strategies for people. Finally, they can serve as patient advocates or even support crafting healthcare policies within their respective communities and hospitals. The broad range of activities and healthcare responsibilities that fall on nurses make it an appealing career choice for people of all backgrounds and experiences.

The primary role of a Registered Nurse is to meet the patient’s needs—physical, mental, and emotional—and sometimes those of patients’ families as well. Nursing is a multifaceted job with many responsibilities, from neonatal care to end-of-life palliative care, from hands-on patient involvement to record-keeping and filing.

Beyond meeting patients’ needs, the role of the Registered Nurse requires juggling multiple responsibilities, including assessment and evaluation of health, providing nursing interventions, coordinating care, and document handling. And while the work can be gratifying, it also has the potential to carry a high level of stress and responsibility.

Nurse bandaging the leg of patient

The Day-to-Day Responsibilities of a Registered Nurse

As previously mentioned, Registered Nurses can work in various settings and often have training in a specific focus area. Some of the most popular areas of focus include:

  • Trauma and critical care
  • Pediatric nursing
  • Gerontological nursing
  • Oncology nursing
  • Midwifery
  • Psychiatric nursing
  • Neonatal nursing
  • Family nursing

Many Registered Nurses choose to further their education and become Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs). APRNs hold at least a master’s degree in nursing. Some examples of APRNs are:

  • Nurse Practitioners. Nurse Practitioners (NPs) provide primary, acute, and specialty health services to a variety of patients and in a variety of different settings. NPs can diagnose and treat health conditions and are allowed to write prescriptions. (Click here to learn how to become a General Nurse Practitioner)
  • Nurse Midwives. Nurse-midwives provide prenatal and postnatal care and manage deliveries in normal pregnancies. (Click here to learn how to become a Nurse Midwife)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA). Graduates of an accredited program in anesthesiology. CRNAs conduct pre-operative visits and assessments, administer general anesthetics for surgery, and evaluate the postoperative status of clients. (Click here to learn how to become a Nurse Anesthetist)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS). A Clinical Nurse Specialist is an Advanced Practice RN who provides direct care, educates clients, researches, and manages care. They are experts in a specialized area of practice.

Where Do Registered Nurses Work?

The work settings for Registered Nurses are as varied as the field of medicine itself. RN can work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, treatment centers, hospices, schools, senior living facilities, or in a patient’s home.

Although a nurse’s duties and responsibilities will vary from one practice (or workplace setting) to another, all RNs usually provide physical and psychological support for their patients and their families.

Registered Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to be a Registered Nurse?

Becoming a Registered Nurse requires a significant level of education and training. It requires time, dedication, and determination, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

To become a Registered Nurse, you must earn a nursing degree and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). These steps will grant you the legal authority to practice as a nursing professional.

There are two primary routes to eligibility for an RN license: an associate degree or a baccalaureate program.

Associate Degree Program

An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is the most common route to becoming a Registered Nurse. An associate degree in nursing can take up to two years to complete, with coursework including basic sciences, social sciences, nursing theory, and nursing practice.

African-American medical student in a hallway

Bachelor Degree Program

Recommendations from various nursing organizations for baccalaureate-level education for professional practice have resulted in an increased number of BSN programs. Some employers offer higher salaries* to nurses with a BSN degree than those with an ADN or diploma. In addition, the BSN qualification provides a more significant opportunity for promotion, including nursing management and administration positions. A BSN degree is an essential requirement for many nursing specializations and higher education, including the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctoral degree.

The Nursing License

Upon earning a nursing degree, aspiring nurses must apply for their license with their state’s board of nursing.

Nurses must 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. Each state board of nursing has its requirements. In addition, each board makes sure that the necessary coursework has been completed at an accredited institution.

Steps to Becoming a Registered Nurse

1. Decide on your nursing path

An excellent start is by considering the type of work environment you prefer—hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, or other medical settings. What will inspire you the most?

Next, you’ll want to consider the role you want to play. Do you want to be part of a more extensive medical staff? Do you want to manage other nurses? Are you passionate about serving a specific patient group, like the elderly, young children, or expectant mothers?

2. Enroll in nursing school

After choosing your path, you’ll need to find a nursing school that aligns with your goals and enrolls in one of their programs.

Start by researching different nursing programs and completing an application—you’ll need to obtain letters of recommendation, write essays, and more. You may also need to take the TEAS test and prepare for your entrance interview.

It’s not an easy path, and there are a lot of requirements to get started, but it can be the beginning of a gratifying career.

3. Complete coursework and clinical

Your nursing school curriculum will include chemistry, biology, anatomy, nutrition, and much more. In addition, you’ll also need to complete a series of nursing clinics to gain hands-on experience and discover what it’s like to work as an RN in a healthcare setting.

4. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam

The NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) is required for any aspiring nurse. An ADN or BSN degree will qualify you to sit for the NCLEX-RN. You must pass the NCLEX-RN to become a licensed Registered Nurse. The test contains 75 to 265 questions on all areas of nursing. In addition to the subject matter, critical thinking and memorization are crucial for success when taking this exam.

Registered Nursing Certification Options

Hospitals look for candidates with the most up-to-date and advanced certifications. Such certifications show that you’ve attained expert knowledge in those specific fields. In addition, having specific certifications has resulted in higher patient satisfaction rates and lower error rates. The most popular certification options include oncology, pediatrics, and family nursing.

Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN)

OCN is the credential for Registered Nurses without a graduate degree but at least 1,000 hours of adult oncology nursing practice during the prior 30 months and at least ten continuing education hours in nursing or an oncology elective taken during the preceding 36 months.

Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN)

To earn a Certified Pediatric Nurse credential, applicants must hold an associate’, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Nurses also need 1,800 pediatric clinical hours completed within the last two years or 3,000 hours of pediatric experience in the past five years. Of those 3,000 hours of experience, nurses need to show that they have completed 1,000 hours within the past two years.

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNC-BC)

The Family Nurse Practitioner certification demonstrates a nurse’s competency in diagnosing illness, evaluating patient needs, and administering care. Applicants with a master’s, postgraduate, or doctoral degree in nursing from an accredited college and 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours can apply. The certification lasts five years, as long as nurses meet renewal requirements and maintain their license to practice.

Medical professional typing on a laptop

Registered Nurse’s Salary

How Much Do Registered Nurses Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary* for Registered Nurses was about $83,000 in 2021, with the highest 10% earning up to $120,000 or more.

The average hourly wage for Registered Nurses was about $40 per hour, with the highest 10% earning up to $58 per hour or more.

Highest Paying Industries for Registered Nurses

According to the BLS, some of the highest paying industries for Registered Nurses include:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Nonscheduled Air Transportation $54.15 $112,630
Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing $50.61 $105,270
Merchant Wholesalers, Nondurable Goods $48.67 $101,240
Federal Executive Branch (OEWS Designation) $46.93 $97,600
Office Administrative Services $46.46 $96,630

Highest Paying States for Registered Nurses

According to the BLS, some of the highest paying states for Registered Nurses include:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
California $59.62 $124,000
Hawaii $51.22 $106,530
Oregon $47.42 $98,630
District of Columbia $47.38 $98,540
Alaska $46.74 $97,230

Highest Paying Cities for Registered Nurses

According to the BLS, some of the highest paying cities for Registered Nurses include:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Jose, CA $74.63 $155,230
San Francisco, CA $72.90 $151,640
Vallejo, CA $70.37 $146,360
Santa Rosa, CA $68.00 $141,440
Napa, CA $67.15 $139,680
Santa Cruz, CA $67.11 $139,590
Sacramento, CA $65.14 $135,490
Salinas, CA $62.75 $130,520
Modesto, CA $61.41 $127,730
Hanford, CA $60.00 $124.790

Job Outlook for Registered Nurses

The salary* and job outlook of an RN continues to grow. The BLS reports that the employment of Registered Nurses will increase by 9% from 2020 to 2030.

Much of this growth will result from increased demand for healthcare services and preventative care for the aging population.

Medical professional wearing a pink ribbon

What Makes a Great RN?

If you’ve read this far and feel like registered nursing is suitable for you, you might still be wondering about the personal qualities that make a good RN. If it’s right for you, you are someone who demonstrates the following attributes:

1. Empathy

Empathy for their patient’s pain and suffering is perhaps the most important quality of a good RN. Providing compassion and comfort builds patient trust, calms anxieties, and increases patient satisfaction.

2. Strong communication skills

Good communication is fundamental and vital to nursing. It involves effective speaking, listening, and writing. With the complex information they deal with, this is no easy task. Nevertheless, the best nurses expertly use written and verbal skills to provide optimal patient care, often acting as healthcare translators in explaining complicated topics to patients and their families.

3. Persuasiveness

Following on the heels of communication skills, a nurse must also be able to impart difficult information to their patients while persuading them to adopt healthier lifestyle choices and behaviors. The ability to show others a different, fact-based way of thinking comes in handy throughout the healthcare industry, from patient education to making cases for treatment.

4. Problem-solving skills

Nurses rarely know what they are walking into daily. Emergencies, complicated cases, and mystery illnesses make each day unique. A nurse uses problem-solving skills for duties ranging from parsing out symptoms to relatively simple things like scheduling.

5. Attention to detail

Proper patient care is about the details. Nothing can be left to chance, from reviewing and updating medical histories, recording vital signs, and monitoring ongoing conditions, to drug interactions and individual patients’ needs.

6. A love of learning

Aside from the coursework and nurse training, new learning happens virtually daily for RNs. In an ever-changing medical environment, no two days are ever alike. Natural curiosity and a love of learning are indispensable traits for successful nurses.

7. Caring for people

The nursing field is all about caring for people. Good nurses love people. It is a demanding career that requires a passion for science and an even greater degree of kindness and compassion for patients and their families. The best nurses can maintain motivation through their sincere desire to help people.

A Registered Nursing Career

Are you ready to start your career as a Registered Nurse?

Students smiling at their instructor

Registered Nurses are deeply involved in just about every area of healthcare. Nursing can offer competitive salaries, but its rewards go well beyond financial compensation. Although job satisfaction can be extremely high, it can also be an emotionally strenuous job for some people.

If working with patients and families daily, along with a myriad of other clinical and organizational responsibilities, sounds like the career challenge you’re looking for, becoming a Registered Nurse could be the career path you’ve been seeking.

Contact us at Eagle Gate College today if you’re ready to rise to the challenge and begin your career journey by earning your BSN degree.