Registered Nurse job description: RN roles & responsibilities
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 5.6% growth in the field through 2032.
What do RNs do? (An experts take)
Registered nurses (RNs) play a crucial role in providing and coordinating patient care. They are responsible for assessing and monitoring patients, administering treatments and medications, educating individuals and the community about health conditions, and offering valuable advice and emotional support to patients and their families.
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. You could even work with patients virtually as a telehealth nurse.
“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:
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?
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.
Alternative careers for registered 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.
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.
(sometimes called Substance Abuse Nurses)
Where you’ll work: Substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, community health clinics, mental health clinics and psychiatric wards.
What you’ll do: Specialize in the treatment of patients with substance abuse disorders, as well as the connection between mental health and addiction.
Minimum degree required: ADN or BSN, though many employers prefer or require nurses to have at least a BSN.
Who it’s a good fit for: Addiction nurses should be highly empathetic and withhold judgment about their patients. They should have an interest in and be willing to learn about mental health and its inextricable link to addiction.
Job perks: Addiction nursing has the potential to be incredibly rewarding because you are helping people in immediate need. By helping patients recover and overcome their addictions, you are not only drastically improving their quality of life but perhaps saving it as well.
Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: Nurses who have worked in addiction settings for several years can get certified as a Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN) through the Addictions Nursing Certification Board (ANCB), as can Advanced Practice nurses through the CARN-AP. These certifications could make you a more competitive candidate and lead to a pay increase. They could also pave the way for a leadership position or a transition to more of a social work centered role.
Where you’ll work: Hospitals, medical offices, gastroenterology clinics and units and long-term care facilities.
What you’ll do: Work alongside gastroenterologists to treat patients with a variety of diseases, injuries, and other conditions related to the digestive system.
Minimum degree required: ADN or BSN, though many employers prefer or require nurses to have at least a BSN.
Who it’s a good fit for: Gastroenterology would be a good fit for nurses who are interested in how the digestive system affects other areas of our health and vice versa. Nurses who are also interested in nutrition may have a place in gastroenterology, since nutrition plays such a critical role in our digestive health.
Job perks: You get to help people recover or manage gastroenterology conditions which afflict many people. You get to have a direct impact in helping improve their quality of life.
Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: Getting certified as a Certified Gastroenterology Registered Nurse (CGRN) from the American Board for Certification of Gastroenterology Nurses (ABCGN) demonstrates your expertise and commitment to the field, and could lead to better jobs and higher pay.
Does the degree I earn make a difference?
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, more leadership roles and growth opportunities are open to nurses with 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.