Registered Nurse Job Description

nurses looking at laptop computer in meeting
nurses looking at laptop computer in meeting

While you might associate registered nurses with hospital work, the truth is that there are opportunities for RNs in a variety of workplaces. Depending on your specialty and interests, your work as an RN could take you beyond healthcare facilities and into schools, corporate environments, or even into the air as a flight nurse.

Healthcare is filled with surprising opportunities for RNs, according to Emma Leigh Geiser, an RN with 10 years of experience in nursing who is currently working as a coach and speaker in the nursing field.

“A career in nursing can be anything you want it to be,” says Geiser. “You can work ‘per diem,’ picking how often you want to work, or you can crush the glass ceiling and become a member of the C suite.”

Some nurses pursue advanced degrees to become nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, says Geiser. “Often, the direction you think your career will go changes when you see what opportunities truly exist in the healthcare system.”

Plus, the demand for RNs is steadily growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 9% growth in the field between 2020 and 2030.

What Duties Does an RN Have?

Registered nurses play a vital role on healthcare teams. No matter where you work, you’ll touch the lives of patients, but your duties can vary depending on your department and specialty. Even within a hospital, your duties can vary depending on your unit.

You might work in a fast-paced department like the ER, helping patients with serious injuries or illnesses, or in a mental health unit, helping patients manage conditions like anorexia or depression.

“The responsibilities of a nurse are different in each department and position,” says Gesier. “That’s what makes (the job) so versatile. Most often, the RN is the direct caretaker for patients in the hospital,” managing patients’ daily activities, medications, assessments, and scheduled procedures and operations. RNs work closely with fellow healthcare staff and physicians to ensure they know about and understand patient updates and care plans.

As an RN, your daily responsibilities are as varied as the field itself, but there are a few constants. In most RN roles, you’ll:

  • Monitor and record patient vital signs
  • Monitor and record patient progress
  • Create care plans for patients
  • Administer medications and treatments
  • Assist with procedures
  • Administer and monitor IV medications
  • Educate patients and answer their questions
  • Perform wound and skin care
  • Draw blood and collect lab work

Beyond the basics, where you work could make a huge difference in your role. For example, RNs who work in physicians’ offices also take on some administrative work, while RNs who work in the operating room might assist with surgical procedures.

What Types of Jobs Can I Get as an RN?

team of nurses on laptops in work session

Once you’ve been licensed as an RN, the door is open to a variety of nursing jobs, like pediatrics or hospice nursing. While nurses might start at the bedside, a little time, experience, and an interest in exploring new opportunities can quickly lead you to the job of your dreams.

“Most nursing positions require you to have some type of critical care or bedside experience,” explains Geiser. “Once you get a year or two of experience, there are multiple opportunities to move away from patient care positions. Many nurses even work remotely from home in triage, case management, and quality review.”

We’ve rounded up some common opportunities for RNs and broken them down so you know what to expect. From entry-level work to aspirational roles, check out some of the possibilities below.

Typical RN Career Paths and Workplaces

Pediatric Nurses

Where you’ll work: Pediatric units, neonatal units, pediatric intensive care units, pediatricians’ offices

What you’ll do: Perform all the tasks of medical surgical or critical care nurses in a pediatric population. Pediatrics can include patients from infancy to 21 years old, although many facilities limit the ages of children to between two and 16 years.  

Minimum degree required: You’ll need to be an RN with an ADN or higher.

Who it’s a good fit for: Pediatrics is a good field for RNs with calm temperaments who enjoy working with children and families.

Job perks: Pediatric nurses in hospitals often have the same schedule and overtime opportunities as other hospital-based nurses, while RNs who work for pediatricians can enjoy perks like weekends or holidays off.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: If you have a passion for pediatric nursing, you can earn your Master of Science in Nursing degree and work as a pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP). As a PNP, you can diagnose and treat patients, and you’ll have the education and training to perform a range of procedures.

Critical Care Nurses

Where you’ll work: Intensive care units, trauma units, medical flights

What you’ll do: Administer medication, monitor patients, dress and care for wounds, plan patient care, manage patient pain, and more

Minimum degree required: You’ll need to be an RN with at least a BSN for this role. In many cases you’ll also need a year of direct care experience.

Who it’s a good fit for: Critical care shifts are generally fast-paced, making critical care nursing a good fit for RNs who enjoy thinking on their feet.

Job perks: Critical care nurses will likely have the opportunity to pick up overtime shifts. You might also be able to work schedules that suit your lifestyle. For example, you might work four days a week instead of five by working 10-hour shifts, or you might work three days a week with two 16-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: With certification and more education, you can expand your opportunities as a critical care nurse. For example, with a Certified Flight Registered Nurse credential, you could work with critically ill or injured patients on life flights and other medical flights.

Operating Room Nurses

Where you’ll work: Surgical prep units, operation rooms, post-surgery recovery units

What you’ll do: Educate patients, prep patients for surgery, sanitize rooms and tools, administer IV medication, manage patient pain, advocate for patients, and more

Minimum degree required: You’ll need to be at least an ADN-level RN to work as an OR nurse.

Who it’s a good fit for: A role as an operating room nurse is best for RNs who enjoy teamwork and can advocate for their patients’ needs.

Job perks: Overtime, structured shifts and multiple learning opportunities are a few of the perks OR nurses enjoy.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: OR nurses can earn the Certified Perioperative Nurse certification, which can help boost your career and help you move up to leadership roles.

Medical Surgical Nurses

Where you’ll work: Specialized hospital medical surgical units

What you’ll do: Administer medication, plan care, monitor vital signs, manage patient pain, dress and care for wounds, update charts, and more

Minimum degree required: You’ll need an ADN and RN license to work in a medical surgical unit.

Who it’s a good fit for: People looking for variety will enjoy this role. Medical surgery units, often called med/surg units, are a great place to learn and gain experience. You’ll see a wide variety of post-procedure patients at different ages and with different health challenges.

Job perks:  In addition to standard perks like health insurance and 401Ks, you’ll often have the opportunity to work overtime and earn additional income.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification for med/surg nurses. Earning certification, or going back to school to earn your BSN, can allow you to advance to leadership roles in a unit.

Charge Nurses

Where you’ll work: Hospitals and long-term care facilities

What you’ll do: Oversee patient care, schedule procedures, manage urgent situations, plan patient care and education, oversee admissions and discharges, and more

Minimum degree required: You’ll need at least an ADN, but many charge nurses have a BSN.

Who it’s a good fit for: Since you’ll often be on the front lines of staff disputes and patient complaints, working as a charge nurse is a good fit for RNs with great communication skills.

Job perks: You might be able to make your own schedule as a charge nurse. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to make decisions in your unit.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: With more education, you could turn your experience as a charge nurse into a role in nursing management, such as a nursing director. As a director of nursing, you’d be responsible for an entire nursing department and would be part of the facilities administrative team. You’ll need at least a BSN to move into this role, although many positions will require a master’s degree.

Nurse Case Manager

Where you’ll work: Hospitals, long-term care facilities, health insurance companies

What you’ll do: Plan care, manage caseloads, advocate for patients, plan for discharge, screen admissions, and more

Minimum degree required: You might be able to find nurse case manager roles that only require an ADN, but you’ll likely need at least a few years of experience. Many case management roles will require a BSN.

Who it’s a good fit for: Case management is a strategic role. If you’re good at planning and details, you might make an excellent case manager.

Job perks: You’re more likely to work standard hours as a case manager than in many other nursing roles. Plus, you might be able to work from home. For example, many health insurance companies employ nurse case managers to help manage their enrollees’ health and answer questions. Since this work is done by phone and computer, it can often be done remotely.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: You can earn the Nursing Case Management Certification (RN-BC) to show your expertise and professional dedication. Certification can help you move into leadership in a case management department.

Quality Review Nurses
(sometimes called Utilization Review Nurses)

Where you’ll work: Insurance companies, hospitals, medical centers, doctors’ offices

What you’ll do: Review care plans and medical records, speak with patients about the quality of care they received, manage insurance reimbursement, ensure care plans are being followed, and more

Minimum degree required: You’ll need to be at least an ADN-level RN. Many positions will also require a credential such as the Certified Professional in Healthcare Risk Management (CPHRM). Earning a credential may require additional experience.

Who it’s a good fit for: Quality review nursing is a great fit for highly organized RNs with great communication skills.

Job perks: Just like case management, quality review nursing allows you the opportunity to work remotely, especially if you work for a health insurance company.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: With your experience in quality review, you could pursue an MSN with an emphasis in patient safety. With this degree, you could work in healthcare leadership, helping to set safety and care standards that improve patient outcomes and experience.

Public Health Nurses

Where you’ll work: Community centers, schools, government centers, public health offices

What you’ll do: Educate groups and populations, create health initiatives, plan and facilitate public health screenings, and more

Minimum degree required: Most public health nurses have at least a BSN, and some hold an MSN.

Who it’s a good fit for: Public health nursing requires research and long-term planning. You might also need to speak to large groups on health issues. If you want to make changes in your community, public health nursing might be the role for you.

Job perks: You’ll likely work a regular 9-to-5 workday, although some public health nurses will work evenings and weekends. You’ll also get to travel throughout your community and visit different locations.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: If you decide to earn an MSN in public health nursing, you can take on even more leadership roles. MSN-level public health nurses can help create public health policies, such as smoking cessation campaigns, to help improve community health.

Does the Degree I Earn Make a Difference?

nurse and doctor talking in hospital hallway

As an RN, you need either a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Both the degree you hold and your specific role can impact your day-to-day work, career growth, and salary as an RN. For example, although you can be licensed as an RN with an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree, there are more leadership roles and growth opportunities open to nurses who hold a BSN.

If you’re already practicing as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), there are a couple paths available if you’re looking to become an RN. The LPN-to-ADN program will build upon your existing LPN education through an associate’s, while the LPN-to-BSN program will earn you a bachelor’s. Completion of either will qualify you to take the NCLEX, the national RN licensing exam.

Some people come to nursing after working in a related healthcare field. The paramedic-to-RN pathway is a popular one for people who enjoy the medical aspects of a paramedic role but are looking for the varied opportunities a nursing career can provide.

No matter your designation, nearly all nurses—including RNs—need a certain level of continuing education courses to keep their license current. Though not all states have these requirements, your employer might require continuing education to maintain a specialty certification.

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

emma geiser

With professional insight from:

Emma Geiser, RN

Nurse and Money Coach