Careers

Learn About Being a Registered Nurse (RN)

What does a registered nurse do?

A registered nurse is a health care professional who assists doctors and other medical professionals with their patient care duties. They also manage and maintain medical records. Other tasks a registered nurse may perform include:

  • Conducting physical examinations to evaluate patient health issues
  • Directly administering care to injured, sick, disabled or recovering patients
  • Creating and enforcing nursing care plans
  • Educating patients regarding their medical conditions and the treatment plan they need to follow
  • Supervising other medical professionals, such as other licensed nurses, nursing aides and assistants
  • Ensuring a hygienic and hazard-free working environment
  • Providing patients and their families with emotional support
  • Running and analyzing certain medical tests
  • Helping doctors during medical procedures
  • Promoting healthy habits for patients and their families

Average salary

Most registered nurses work in full-time positions in hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, nursing care facilities or home healthcare services. Salaries for registered nurses depend on several factors, such as work experience, role, employer, type of nursing career and geographical location.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $33.79 per hour
  • Some salaries range from $11.75 to $66.80 per hour.

Registered nurse requirements

A successful nurse needs certain education, experience, training and advanced skills:

Education

The first step toward becoming a registered nurse is graduating high school. As opposed to a licensed practical nurse (LPN), who has fewer professional duties and who requires only graduating a one-year program before taking the examination, a registered nurse requires multiple years of theoretical and practical education before taking the examination. After high school graduation, there are several ways in which you can train to pass the National Council Licensure Examination required to become a registered nurse:

Diploma in nursing

This provides the basic theoretical and practical knowledge required to become an entry-level nurse. The typical nursing diploma program is offered at community colleges or vocational schools. It lasts two or three years and teaches aspiring nurses the basics in patient care, pharmacology, psychology and public health.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

This is often preferred by employers over a diploma, the main difference being that it requires a certain number of clinical hours before graduation, with the number varying between schools. Aside from teaching fundamental nursing concepts, such as anatomy, pharmacology, microbiology and maternal care, an associate’s program also includes general education classes like history, psychology and English literature.

After graduating and passing the National Council Licensure Examination, a student can either immediately work as a registered nurse or further their nursing education. Aside from its required clinical hours and more in-depth studies, an ADN is also preferred over a diploma because it is a great foundation for further studies in nursing.

Bachelor of Science (BSN) Degree in Nursing

This takes four years of full-time enrollment or just two years to complete for registered nurses with an associate degree. Many healthcare organizations prefer to hire nurses with BSN degrees, and they are also more likely to be promoted or hold positions with greater responsibility throughout their careers. As with associate’s degree graduates, a BSN graduate can work as a registered nurse after passing the National Council Licensure Examination.

Master of Science (MSN) Degree in Nursing

Most entry-level nursing positions require only an associate’s degree or a Bachelor of Science degree, but certain specialized nursing fields require a Master of Science Degree in Nursing. Specializations include fields like mental health, anesthesiology, pediatrics and acute care.

Registered nurses with an associate’s degree typically require three to four years to complete a Master of Science degree, while those who already have a Bachelor of Science degree require two to three years. Getting a Master of Science degree typically requires at least 500 hours of clinical nursing experience.

Training

All nursing programs require theoretical education with supervised clinical experience. A significant part of the training required to become a registered nurse involves gaining clinical experience under supervision by working in hospitals, public health departments and nursing homes. 

Even after becoming a certified registered nurse, the only way to stay updated on the latest nursing practices and patient care standards is by regularly attending conferences and workshops. These gatherings are typically hosted either by hospitals or by convention centers and are an effective way for nurses to gain more insight on various job-related aspects and to network with fellow professionals.

Certifications

While a nursing license is required, there are other certifications nurses can pursue to specialize or increase their employability:

NCLEX-RN Examination

After completing a degree program, the legal requirement in all 50 United States is that a future registered nurse passes the National Council Licensure Examination. The purpose of the exam is to test a nurse’s grasp of the fundamental principles of nursing and to certify that they meet the standards required for the profession.

The test consists of a series of potential medical challenges that are typical for working nurses, measuring a nurse’s knowledge as well as their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

This certification enables nurses to administer anesthesia to patients for surgery. Taking the exam for the CRNA certificate requires a Master of Science Degree in Nursing, a valid registered nurse license and one year of experience working in critical care. The exam tests the applicants’ knowledge of issues such as basic sciences and equipment as well as all the principles of anesthesia.

Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN)

To qualify for earning a certified pediatric nurse credential, a registered nurse must have at least an Associate Degree in Nursing, as well as 1,800 hours of pediatric experience within the last two years and 3,000 hours in the past five years. The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board checks if applicants meet the minimum requirements and holds the exam, which consists of 175 multiple-choice questions and an introductory section.

Skills

A registered nurse needs a variety of hard and soft skills to successfully perform this role. The most important skills include:

Ability to work under pressure

Many nurses work in high-pressure and fast-paced environments, with patients in difficult medical situations. A registered nurse must be able to successfully perform their duties in such an environment, as any decision can have a major influence on a patient’s health.

Communication

Registered nurses need to constantly communicate with the rest of the medical staff, as well as interact with the patients and their families. They need to correctly process and pass on the information and speak with patients in fragile emotional conditions. A nurse must also be able to explain complex medical concepts in easy-to-understand terms.

Empathy

Registered nurses have to be compassionate and respond empathetically to their patients’ needs and medical issues. Their role often includes empathizing with patients and their relatives in difficult moments.

Patience

Most nursing roles involve interacting with patients who are emotionally distressed, ill-tempered, nervous about certain medical procedures or resistant to certain treatments. A nurse must be patient so they can manage such emotional issues and make sure patients follow prescribed treatments.

Critical thinking

Registered nurses need to know how to use their theoretical knowledge and apply it in real-life situations. This often involves critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as they need to assess a patient’s symptoms and observe any changes in their condition.

Attention to detail

Working with life-and-death situations on a daily basis requires strong attention to detail, as any decision or change regarding patient care can be crucial to the patient’s recovery.

Physical fitness

Most registered nurses spend the majority of working hours on their feet and the move. They also may need to move heavy equipment and help physically-impaired patients move around.

Organization

Nurses are often responsible for organizing their patients’ treatment plans and managing their needs and risk factors. This involves strong organization skills to ensure they give the right treatment to all patients and correctly prioritize them according to their condition.

Registered nurse work environment

Registered nurses typically work in health care facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, critical care units, outpatient facilities, schools or the military. Although the work environment can vary depending on the facility, most nurses work on their feet for the majority of their working hours. 

They can also be exposed to dangerous substances and infectious diseases. Because a significant number of patients require 24-hour care, nurses who work in hospital settings often work in rotating shifts and with constant overtime. Because patient care is a permanent requirement, most nurses need to be on call, available on weekends, nights and holidays.

How to become a registered nurse

Here are the steps you can take to become a registered nurse:

1. Earn a high school diploma

Any further specialization and certification as a registered nurse requires a high school diploma or equivalency, such as a GED certificate. 

2. Complete an accredited registered nurse program

After high school graduation, the next step to getting the required practical and theoretical training for a nursing position is by getting a nursing diploma, nursing associate degree or a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing.

Although any of the three will qualify the graduate for the next step, which is the NCLEX-RN examination, many employers prefer to hire future nurses with associate’s degrees over those with only a diploma, while a Bachelor of Science degree offers better odds of getting a nursing job than an associate’s degree.

3. Pass the NCLEX-RN examination

The National Council Licensure Examination exam is mandatory in every state, as well as in the District of Columbia. It typically consists of 119 questions and applicants are given six hours to complete it. 

4. Get a state license

Aside from the NCLEX-RN exam, certain states may have further requirements, such as background checks, so check the requirements in your area.

5. Update your resume

After earning your nursing license, apply to open positions with a resume that lists your highest level of education, certifications, relevant work experience and skills. Tailor a cover letter to each position by using keywords from the job description.

Registered nurse job description example

The pediatric department of the Vandelay Clinic is in need of a registered nurse. The successful candidate needs to have a strong passion for working with children, as well as relevant experience in youth communication. The job’s main responsibilities include communicating with doctors regarding the needs of the patients, as well as reassuring parents that their children are well taken care of. We offer a professional working environment with a team that works together for the good of our patients. 

The right candidate will have the following qualifications:

  • An ADN or BSN degree
  • At least 2 years of nursing experience
  • At least 1 year of experience in working with children or teenagers
  • NCLEX-RN certification

Related careers

If you want to pursue a career as a registered nurse, you may also be interested in one of these related careers: