How to Become a Registered Nurse: Salary, Job Description, Outlook

Nurse holding a tabletRegistered nurses (RNs) assess patient health problems and needs, provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, maintain medical records and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.

RNs practice in all healthcare settings: hospitals, nursing homes, medical offices, ambulatory care centers, community health centers, schools, and retail clinics. Some nurses move frequently, traveling in the United States and throughout the world to help care for patients in places where there are not enough healthcare workers.

RNs are required to have a nursing license in all 50 states.

Table of Contents
How to Become a Registered Nurse
Registered Nurse Job Description
Career Options
Registered Nurse Certification
Professional Organizations

Nurse Salary and Employment Data

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Source: BLS Wage Data by Area and Occupation. * or ** indicate insignificant or unavailable data.

Minimum Education Required Associate degree
Board Examinations needed NCLEX-RN
Average Annual Salary $66,220
# of Jobs (2012) 2,712,000
Job Outlook (2012 to 2022) 19% growth

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to become a Registered Nurse

There are several paths an aspiring RN can take to prepare for licensure.

  • Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year program offered at colleges and universities. In cases of an existing bachelor’s degree, some schools allow entry in a special program to obtain a BSN in 12 to 18 months.
  • Associate Degrees in Nursing (ADN)is a two-year degree through a community college focusing on technical skills. An advantage of this degree is the ability to enter the nursing profession quickly. To do more advanced work, a BSN is required.
  • Associate Degrees in Nursing (ADN)is a two-year degree through a community college focusing on technical skills. An advantage of this degree is the ability to enter the nursing profession quickly. To do more advanced work, a BSN is required.
  • Diploma in Nursing is a two-year degree available through hospital-based schools of nursing.
  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) to RN is a way to start working in the field of nursing as an LPN while studying to be an RN. LPN-to-RN programs typically require one year to complete plus any additional time a student might need in order to take the required prerequisite courses, such as anatomy and physiology, science, math and English. All LPN-to-RN program applicants must take the TEAS, or Test of Essential Academic Skills.

Generally, licensed graduates of any of the three types of education programs (bachelor’s, associate, or diploma) qualify for entry-level positions as a staff nurse. However, some employers may require a bachelor’s degree.

RNs with a BSN are likely to have better employment opportunities and higher pay in their nursing careers. As a result, many registered nurses with an ADN or diploma choose to go back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree through an RN-to-BSN program.

Currently about 38 percent of RNs have a BSN, 39 percent have an associate degree, 13 percent have a diploma, and 9 percent have a graduate degree as the highest level of education.

Source: Health Resources and Services Administration

Job description

Registered nurses typically do the following:

  • Record patients’ medical histories and symptoms
  • Administer patients’ medicines and treatments
  • Set up plans for patients’ care or contribute to existing plans
  • Observe patients and record observations
  • Consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals
  • Operate and monitor medical equipment
  • Help perform diagnostic tests and analyze results
  • Teach patients and their families how to manage illnesses or injuries
  • Explain what to do at home after treatment

RNs are able to work independently and take supervisory or management positions. Certain nursing procedures require an RN certification in most states; these include starting and monitoring IV medications and administering blood transfusions.

An effective RN is a critical thinker and problem solver who enjoys working with people. There are many times on the job that RNs will have to make quick decisions that will greatly impact someone’s life. You need to be confident in your abilities. Organizational skills and detail orientation are also essential attributes. Nursing shifts are physically demanding and stressful. RNs need to have physical stamina and emotional stability.

Career options

RNs typically enter the profession as staff nurses. As their experience improves, their education continues, and if their performance is good, they can gain more responsibility and may be promoted.

Specialties that are common in nursing include neonatology, geriatrics, cardiovascular nurses, respiratory nurses, critical care nurses, rehabilitation nurses, nephrology nurses and neurological nurses. When nursing students work toward earning more credits in a particular field, they can often add a specialization to their degree. On the other hand, some nurses only discover the niche that is right for them by working with that particular unit in a hospital.

RNs who don’t work directly with patients may work as educators, researchers, healthcare administrators, public policy advisors and medical writers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for RNs are expected to grow at a rate of 19% from 2012 to 2022, which is above the national average. There are a number of factors contributing to this increased need.

Demand for healthcare services will increase because of the aging population, since older people typically have more medical problems than younger people. Nurses also will be needed to educate and care for patients with various chronic conditions, such as arthritis, dementia, diabetes, and obesity. In addition, the number of individuals who have access to healthcare services will increase, as a result of federal health insurance reform. More nurses will be needed to care for these patients.

The financial pressure on hospitals to discharge patients as soon as possible may result in more people admitted to long-term care facilities, outpatient care centers, and greater need for home healthcare. Job growth is expected in facilities that provide long-term rehabilitation for stroke and head injury patients, as well as facilities that treat people with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, because many older people prefer to be treated at home or in residential care facilities, registered nurses will be in demand in those settings.

Growth is also expected to be faster than average in outpatient care centers where patients do not stay overnight, such as those that provide same-day chemotherapy, rehabilitation, and surgery. In addition, an increased number of procedures, as well as more sophisticated procedures previously done only in hospitals, are performed in ambulatory care settings and physicians’ offices.

Certification information

In all states, registered nurses must have a nursing license. To become licensed, nurses must graduate from an approved nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN.

Other requirements for licensing vary by state. Each state’s board of nursing can give details. For more on the NCLEX-RN examination and a list of state boards of nursing visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

Effective Jan. 31, 2016, all RNs will be required to complete continuing education as a condition of licensure. Specific requirements vary by state.

Professional organizations

American Nurses Association:

National League for Nursing:

American Association of Colleges of Nursing:

Association for Nursing Professional Development:

American Assembly for Men in Nursing: