Registered Nursing: Career Overview

You’ll need to be a special kind of person to become a registered nurse. See if you have the traits and skills needed for the job.

woman nurse checking patient vital statistics

You’ll need to be a special kind of person to become a registered nurse. See if you have the traits and skills needed for the job.

As one of the most versatile roles in the nursing industry, registered nurses (RNs) are highly in demand. Working as an RN can be incredibly rewarding and impactful, as well as a great stepping stone if decide you want to advance your career.

What can you expect on the job and how can you get started? Read on for answers to all these questions and more about becoming a registered nurse.

What Is a Registered Nurse (RN)?

Typically found in hospitals, medical offices, and clinics, a registered nurse assists doctors and other nurses in providing critical care to patients.

What registered nurses do

The exact duties of an RN will vary depending on where they work. However, you can typically expect to have responsibilities such as:

  • Running and analyzing diagnostics tests
  • Dressing wounds and incisions
  • Reviewing and determining treatment plans
  • Helping doctors during surgery
  • Guiding patients in healthy habits
  • Providing emotional support to patients and families

RN vs. LPN: What’s the difference?

LPNs report to RNs and perform more entry-level duties such as taking vital signs, assisting with tests, administering medication, filling out medical records, and helping patients with daily activities like eating and getting dressed.

While LPNs aren’t required to hold a college degree, education in a state-approved program is necessary. These typically take between 12 and 18 months. Following successful completion of the program, LPNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to earn their credentials.

Types of RNs

There are many different types of registered nurses. These can roles can be broken down by specialty, workplace, additional certification, or duties such as education and administration.

While this list is by no means comprehensive, common nursing specialties include:

  • Acute care
  • Cardiovascular
  • Family nursing
  • Geriatric
  • Infectious disease
  • Neonatal
  • Oncology
  • Parent-child
  • Perinatal
  • Psychiatric
  • Rehabilitation
  • Women’s health

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)

These nurses hold RN licenses and have gone on to gain at least a master’s degree in a chosen specialty. APRNs include nurse practitionersnurse midwivesnurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists.

Leaders and administrators

Nurses under the umbrella of leaders and administrators include nurse educatorsnurse case managersnurse informaticists, and top-level roles like chief nursing officers and directors of nursing.

Non-traditional nurses

While most nurses work in hospitals, clinics, and offices, some RNs have careers that take them out of the traditional settings and into the community. These include:

How Much Money Do RNs Make?

dollar sign icons representing salary data

The salary of an RN can vary greatly depending on their specialty, level of education and experience, additional certification, and workplace location. That said, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites the average pay to be $75,510 per year. The average for those working in nursing home facilities skews lower, at $67,370 per year, while nurses working in surgical hospitals earn an annual average of $77,730.

Salaries are also dependent on where in the U.S. you live. Top-paying locations include California, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and Oregon, while the lowest paying states are South Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa, and Arkansas.

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How to Become a Registered Nurse

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Becoming a registered nurse begins with the right education. Currently, you need at least a 2-year Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), though medical facilities are increasingly requiring a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends that 80% of the nursing workforce hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) by 2020.

If you plan to advance your career and become a nurse educator or APRN, you’ll need to earn a master’s in your chosen specialty. Other leaders and administrators may not require that level of degree, though continuing education and certification is likely necessary.

National Council License Exam (NCLEX)

Following graduation from an approved-program, all U.S.-based RNs must take and pass the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The test is used to determine whether you’re prepared for entry-level nursing and includes a minimum of 75 questions. You’ll answer up to 265 questions if you’ve haven’t reached a passing score after the first round.

Questions on the test cover topics such as basic care and comfort, prevention and detection of disease, coping and adaptation, and pharmacological therapies. You can find sample tests online or in books, you can or take an NCLEX prep course through various schools and companies.

State licensure

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX exam, you can apply for an RN licensure in the state where you want to work. Each state has its own requirements, fees, and length of time that it takes to obtain a license, so you’ll need to do a little bit of research.

Another option to consider is the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC)This initiative allows nurses to get a multi-state license and practice in any state that’s a member of the alliance. As of 2018, there are roughly 30 states that have enacted NLC legislation, with several others pending implementation. The NLC is a particularly good option for RNs who think they may want to pursue a career in travel nursing.

Nursing School Admission Requirements

Each nursing program will have its own set of unique requirements, however there are several prerequisites you can expect.

Is there a GPA requirement?

You’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED in order to apply for a nursing program. Some schools will accept students with a GPA of 2.5, while others require a 3.0 or higher. As you’d expect, the most in-demand schools require the highest GPAs.

Do I need to take the SAT/ACT?

Each school will have its own minimum score requirements for the SAT or ACT. Where you live in the U.S. plays a part in which test you’re more likely to take. The SAT continues to be the most popular on the East and West coasts, especially in the northeast. The ACT is more popular in the Midwest, where many states require the exam as part of their statewide assessments.

What type of accreditation should a nursing school have?

There are two main accreditation organizations that you should look for when choosing a school. They are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). If you go on to earn an advanced degree, look for schools that are also accredited by organizations specific to the specialization.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Nursing Degree?

The time it takes to earn a nursing degree depends on the program you choose. An ADN will likely take 2 years to complete, while a Bachelor of Science in Nursing typically takes 4.

If you already hold an ADN and want to pursue a bachelor’s, you may be able to enroll in an accelerated program that lets you earn your BSN in 1–1 ½ years.

To further advance your education, consider pursuing your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). With a bachelor’s, you can specialize in a chosen area in about 2 additional years. A doctorate, the highest level of education, takes most students a total of 8 years to complete.

Nursing School Curriculum

As with length, the courses you take will depend on the program you choose.

What classes will I take?

Entry-level classes include anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, and psychology. If you advance your education, you’ll dive deeper into subjects like emergency care, nursing research, and population-based practice. MSN programs will likely tackle topics like advanced biochemistry, pharmacology, and theory and practice in your chosen specialty.

How many course credits are required?

There’s no nationwide requirement for course credits. The number of credits taken will be dictated by the state and the individual school. That said, a typical BSN course consists of around 120 credits, with two-thirds focused on nursing classes and one-third on general education.

Popular concentrations

If you choose to earn an advanced degree, there’s a seemingly endless number of concentrations you can pursue. Of these, some of the most popular include gerontology, midwifery, neonatal, and psychiatry.

Hybrid MSN programs are also becoming increasingly popular. These combine nursing practice with classes in education, administration, or technology. These are particularly useful if you’re looking to pursue a career such as a nurse informaticist, nurse manager, or nurse educator.

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Can I Get an Online Nursing Degree?

There’s no doubt that nursing is a hands-on profession, but you can still find programs that can partially be taken online.


Hybrid programs are those that combine online learning with clinical experience. These typically involve taking classroom courses on the internet and then putting your nursing skills to use out in the local community. These are often an ideal option for working RNs who are looking to advance their degrees, allowing them to fit in online coursework when it’s convenient for them.


Of course, there are still programs that are taken 100% in person. These involve both classroom and clinical experience. These are often best for those who are just starting out in the field of nursing. If you’re a working RN looking to advance your education, you may be able to find classroom programs held at night and on the weekends.

Accelerated BSN

If you already hold an Associate Degree in Nursing and want to pursue a BSN, you may be able to do so in a shorter time than a typical bachelor’s. Often, you can find programs that let you transfer you associate’s credits and earn a BSN in 1–2 years.

RN Career Prospects

As the baby boomer population both retires out of the workforce and increases the need for age-related healthcare, the demand for RNs is only going to grow.

Demand and job outlook

According to the BLSjob opportunities for nurses are expected to grow by 15% through 2026—a rate that’s more than twice as much as the national average for all occupations.

Where can RNs work?

RNs can work in a variety of locations, including hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, home healthcare services, and outpatient clinics. But you can also find them in a number of other locations as well, such as schools, churches, government offices, community centers, and more.

Career advancement

If you want to advance your career, you can do so through continuing education. RNs who wish to become APRNs can pursue a master’s with their choice of specialization.

Even if you don’t have a master’s, you can still advance your career through certification. This involves passing an exam to prove your competency in particular area. Certifications can be found through organizations such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the National Certification Corporation.

What’s more, options for certifications are nearly endless. Common specialties including ambulatory care, cardiac vascular nursing, gerontology, home health nursing, informatics, medical-surgical nursing, nurse case management, and pediatric nursing.

Professional organizations

Joining a professional nursing organization can also have a positive impact on your career as it connects you to others in the field. These organizations also provide continuing education, certification opportunities, and chances to attend conferences and events.

While organizations like the American Nurses Association and the National League for Nursing have a broad focus, there are more than 100 nursing organizations in the U.S. You can find an association that centers around nearly any patient population, healthcare setting, disease process, or advanced practice.

Financial Aid & Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses

You may be able to qualify for financial aid through loans, scholarships, work-study, and grants. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine how much they estimate you can pay and how much assistance—either through loans or grants—they’ll offer to give. Private loans can also be found through banks and many other institutions. Our page on financial aid for nursing school covers these options in detail.

Scholarships are another great choice when you’re looking to fund your education. There are many different scholarships available for nursing students of all kinds. Some are open to most potential students, while others are designed specifically for those with certain specialties, cultural identities, medical situations, and more. You can find a ton of information on our nursing scholarships page.

While you don’t have to pay back a scholarship or grant, keep in mind that you’ll be expected to pay back any loan you receive, plus interest. Depending on the type of loan, you may or may not have to begin paying it back while you’re still in school.

There are options for loan forgiveness, however. Depending on your unique situation, you may be eligible to be relieved of part or all of your loan. In some cases, tuition reimbursement through your employer may also be possible. Many large hospitals and medical centers have programs in place to help an employee begin a nursing program or advance their degree.

Ready to Get Started?

A career as a registered nurse begins with the right education. If you’re ready to embark on this fulfilling profession, use the Find Schools button to research programs in your area and online.

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