How to become a nurse in 2024
A nursing career can be fulfilling, and there are plenty of opportunities for career progression. You can choose from a range of specialties and work your way toward a leadership position.
The good news is the long-term job outlook for nurses is good and set to rise 6% by 2031.
If you're thinking of becoming a nurse, there are a few steps you'll need to take. Not sure where to start? You've come to the right place.
In this guide, we'll tell you how to get a job as a nurse. Plus, we'll chat about the skills you'll need to be successful.
What is a nurse?
You’re probably already familiar with the nursing profession, but we’ll give you a quick rundown.
Nurses work in healthcare teams, and their colleagues can include doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists, and surgeons.
They support patients, administer medication, and perform diagnostic tests. Nurses also update patient files and educate patients and their families.
60% of nurses work in hospitals. 18% work for ambulatory services, and the rest work in education, residential care, or government roles.
There are different types of nurses.
Public health nurses
If you don't want to commit to a bachelor's degree, there are also roles for home health aides and licensed practical nurses (LPNs).
The hours can vary depending on the role. It's not unusual for nurses to have shift work, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. Nurses can be employed full-time or part-time.
Not sure about nursing? You can check out our career quiz to see if it’s right for you.
How to get a job as a nurse
Are you passionate about helping others? Before you can apply for a nursing position, you'll need to tick a few boxes.
Here are the steps you need to take to join the nursing profession:
1. Choose your pathway
Before you go any further, think about your long-term goals. The type of nurse you want to be will impact your study choices.
For example, if you want to work as a certified nursing assistant, you won't need a college degree. On the other hand, to work as a registered nurse (RN), you'll usually need to complete a bachelor's degree.
Then, you should consider different specialties. Do you enjoy working with children and babies? Maybe you'd like to learn to be a neonatal nurse, pediatric nurse, midwife, or school nurse.
Would you prefer the fast-paced emergency department (ED) environment? Then, a career as an ED nurse may be a better fit.
If you're happy to work night shifts, there can be more job opportunities. However, those looking for a nine-to-five role can apply for jobs in physicians' offices, education, and day surgeries.
2. Get qualified
Once you've thought about your pathway, it's time to enroll in a course or degree program. Keep in mind that you may need a high school diploma or equivalent.
There are different study options depending on your career goals.
First, you can complete a bachelor's degree in nursing or science of nursing. A bachelor's degree takes around four years or longer if you study part-time. If you want to work as a clinical nurse, you'll need to complete a master's degree.
The next option is to complete an associate degree in nursing (ADN). You won't have the same responsibilities as a registered nurse, but you'll still be able to provide healthcare support.
An associate degree takes around two years to complete, and you'll get credits for any future bachelor's degree.
Finally, you can complete a nursing program to gain a certificate or diploma for entry-level staff roles.
3. Get work experience
Nursing is a hands-on profession. While you'll learn about anatomy, physiology, and psychology during your time as a student, working in the nursing field will take your knowledge to the next level.
For most degrees, clinical hours will be included in the program. The number of hours will depend on the type of degree.
Any clinical experience will be beneficial and can help boost your confidence.
Nursing students can improve their future job prospects by networking with others. While you complete your clinical hours, try to make a good impression and build your professional network.
4. Pass an exam
Once your coursework and clinical hours are complete, you'll need to pass an exam. Why? By passing the national certification exam, you'll get a license.
The most common exam is called the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). The exams are in-person and computer-based. You'll have to book an exam time, pay an application fee, and bring identification on the day.
Keep in mind that there can be different rules depending on your state. You can learn more about the specific requirements at the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
You may also need a certification. For example, some employers require a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. Or, if you have a specialty, a professional certification in your chosen field can help you get a job.
5. Find employment
You've put in the hard work, and now you can start your job search. A professional resume, cover letter, and references will support your application. If you're not sure where to start, check out our comprehensive guide to nursing resumes.
Some healthcare facilities offer jobs for graduate nurses. These residencies give you ongoing support, and you'll gain valuable professional experience.
A residency will also set you up for other career opportunities.
Remember, your nursing specialty will determine the type of jobs you can apply for. Always read the job description to see if you have the right nursing education, experience, and license.
You'll need to pass a background screening check during the application process.
6. Keep up with industry trends
To continue working in the field of nursing, you'll need to keep learning.
Healthcare is an innovative industry, and there are always new treatments, procedures, and technological breakthroughs.
In most states, you'll need to keep your qualifications up to date to keep your license. Plus, any additional training can prepare you for a promotion.
Don't forget to keep up with trends and continue networking with other healthcare professionals.
What skills do you need to be a nurse?
Want to be a nurse? You'll need a wide range of skills.
Let's take a look at some of them:
Nurses provide care to patients in a range of healthcare settings. Often, these patients are vulnerable, distressed, and/or scared. Nurses also support family members who may be facing difficult times.
Due to the nature of the job, an important soft skill is compassion. If you're thinking about becoming a nurse, compassion is something that may come naturally to you.
Compassionate nurses have empathy and genuinely care about their patients. With this skill, you'll be able to provide positive care and put patients and their families at ease.
2. Time management
Healthcare facilities can be busy work environments. Whether it's a hospital, physician's office, or an out-patient surgery center, nurses can feel like there’s never a minute to spare.
To be successful, you'll need excellent time management skills. You should be confident in completing multiple tasks with efficiency and to a high standard.
For example, nurses may have to juggle patient alarms, emotional family members, administer medication, answer phones, and keep accurate records. They can't get distracted easily or spend too long in one spot.
You should be reliable and committed to getting to your shift on time. Nurses have to work together so that each shift runs smoothly.
Next on the list is organizational skills. Because nurses often pivot from one task to another, things can easily get missed.
With good organization and record-keeping skills, nursing staff can complete all of their duties without missing a beat. If overwhelmed, they know when to ask for assistance.
Some job duties are administrative. For example, nurses may answer phones, take messages, update electronic medical records, and schedule appointments. All of these tasks require strong organizational skills.
4. Medical knowledge
During your training, you'll learn fundamental nursing skills and gain medical knowledge, which are essential to the role.
Having medical knowledge helps nurses do their jobs and improves patient outcomes.
For example, nurses need to communicate with other healthcare professionals and discuss different medical conditions. Let's say a patient is in pain and asks the nurse for a different medication. The nurse will need to speak to the doctor and explain the situation using medical terms.
An understanding of medical jargon and terminology reduces medical errors. If the wrong information is written down, patients may get the wrong treatment.
5. Manual dexterity
Nursing staff use their hands to perform many of their daily duties. Manual dexterity is required to be an effective nurse.
For example, good hand-eye coordination and a steady grip help nurses draw blood, insert catheters, and handle medical instruments. And manual dexterity is also beneficial for those using a computer, changing beds, and dressing patients.
The job also involves long hours spent on your feet, lifting, and bending. Because the role can be demanding on the body, nurses need to be physically fit.
6. Communication skills
Anyone who works in the healthcare field needs excellent communication skills.
You'll be dealing with stressed and possibly confused patients, so you should be able to speak clearly and confidently. You may have to overcome language barriers and translate any complex medical jargon so that your patient understands their situation and treatment.
In addition to patients, you'll also have to communicate with other healthcare professionals and family members.
Besides speaking, there are other types of communication you should focus on. For example, you should have good body language to put people at ease. You can work on your eye contact and try not to fold your arms.
And nurses need excellent written communication skills. From typing documents to updating charts to answering emails, nurses need to know how to put information in writing.
How much does a nurse make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a registered nurse in the US is $77,600, or $37.31 per hour.
Then, there are nursing assistants. These healthcare workers have a national average salary of $30,290 per year or $14.56 per hour.
Don't meet the educational requirements but still want to care for others? You can apply for a job as a personal care aide. The average salary is $29,430 per year or $14.15 per hour.
Where to get a nursing job
Once you've completed your training and gained a nursing license, you can begin job hunting.
As an in-demand industry, there are roles available all over the country for both new nurses and those with years of hands-on experience.
You can start by browsing nurse positions on our job board. Sign up for a free account to set up job alerts and connect with others in the industry.
Don't forget to build your professional network. Someone you know could help you find new employment opportunities.
Becoming a nurse
Is nursing the career for you? There are a few steps you can take to get your dream job.
There are different nursing pathways and specialties. Once you know the direction you want to take, you can enroll in a college or nursing school. There are options for certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and advanced degrees.
Your course will usually include workplace training, and you’ll need to get a nursing license.
Once you’ve passed the exam, you can start your job search. Remember, nurses need a diverse range of skills. Some of the top skills include compassion, time management, and organizational skills.
Nurses also need medical knowledge, manual dexterity, and communication skills.