How to Become a Registered Nurse

Last updated: February 26, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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How to Become a Registered Nurse
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Registered nurses are crucial to the healthcare field, as they’re responsible for alleviating not only patients’ pain but also their fear. As such, this job comes with a huge responsibility.

This career is labor-intensive but also highly fulfilling, ranking #8 on U.S. News’ Best Healthcare Jobs list in 2023.

Nursing also has one of the highest pay-to-education ratios. You can enter the field relatively quickly and command a competitive income right away. Furthermore, a registered nurse position can open many doors, including travel opportunities.

Read on to discover the steps required to become a registered nurse, including the education and training requirements, the certification process, and career opportunities.

What do registered nurses do?

Registered nurses provide and coordinate patient care. They work with patients and their relatives face to face, ensuring that the correct treatments and medications are given.

They also collaborate with the rest of the healthcare team to coordinate patient care and ensure the best possible outcomes.

Common duties of a registered nurse include the following:

  • Monitoring and recording patient vital signs and progress to track changes and provide doctors with correct, up-to-date information

  • Administering prescribed drugs and injections or teaching patients how to administer their own care at home

  • Moving or transporting patients to different areas of a medical facility

  • Cleaning and dressing wounds

  • Reprocessing and sterilizing reusable medical devices

  • Assisting other healthcare professionals, such as diagnosticians

  • Completing maintenance tasks and ensuring a clean and sterile environment

  • Educating patients and others about health conditions

  • Providing emotional support and advice to patients and their families

Registered nurses have a multifaceted role that combines technical skills, compassionate patient care, and effective communication. Their day-to-day routine can vary depending on the specific setting in which they work.

As you’ll see in the following sections, not all nursing jobs require nurses to perform invasive procedures or work with open wounds on a daily basis.

What’s the job outlook for registered nurses?

The demand for nursing is high right now — and that’s not going to change any time soon.

The average growth rate for this occupation is 6%, which is above average when compared to other professions and industries. There are around 203,200 registered nurse openings projected each year, on average, until at least 2030.

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As a registered nurse, you can pursue either inpatient or outpatient careers. Inpatient jobs include working in hospitals, surgical clinics, psychiatric institutions, birthing centers, infectious disease clinics, intensive care units, hospices, and emergency rooms.

Outpatient jobs can be performed in doctor’s offices, specialized health clinics, residential care homes, orthopedic centers, and developmental disabilities centers.

Then there is a wide variety of alternative nursing careers. A registered nurse can work in research facilities, camps, public health organizations, the military, schools, correctional facilities, medical examiner’s offices, counseling and intervention centers, etc.

Nursing also has many sub-specialties. Here are some examples:

  • Ambulatory care nursing

  • Pediatric nursing

  • Cardiac nursing

  • Critical care nursing

  • Dialysis nursing

  • Genetics nursing

  • Oncology nursing

  • Mental health nursing

  • Medical-surgical nursing

  • Gerontological nursing

This means that as a registered nurse, you can specialize in the area that most interests you.

Furthermore, becoming a registered nurse doesn’t mean that you’ll be glued to one specific location. If you’re dreaming of a dynamic job, consider working as a transport nurse, helping transport patients between cities or even countries.

Another option is to become a travel nurse. In that case, you could work on temporary assignments or contracts in different healthcare facilities or locations across the country.

How much do registered nurses earn?

The median yearly salary for registered nurses as of 2021 is $77,600, which equates to around $37 per hour. The estimate will vary depending on the facility at which you work and the state in which you are employed.

If you choose to become a travel nurse, you can explore different options and find contracts in the highest-paying regions if you wish. The highest-paying states for registered nurses include California, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and Oregon.

The highest-paying industries for nurses are as follows:

  1. Government

  2. Hospitals

  3. Ambulatory healthcare services

  4. Nursing and residential care facilities

  5. Educational services

Meanwhile, doctor’s office jobs are usually among the lowest-paying for registered nurses.

Is becoming a registered nurse right for you?

Determining whether becoming a registered nurse is the right career path for you requires thoughtful consideration and self-reflection. You need to have a realistic idea of what this job entails.

Here’s what you can do to learn more about nursing careers and envision yourself in that role:

  1. Research the upsides and downsides of being a registered nurse. Each nurse has a slightly different experience, so it’s worth checking out specialized boards or forums and looking for answers there.

  2. Reach out to registered nurses who are currently practicing or have experience in the field. They can provide insights into their day-to-day experiences and their overall satisfaction with their career choice.

  3. Consider volunteering at a healthcare facility or shadowing a nurse. This experience can give you a sense of the nursing environment, the nature of the work, and the level of patient interaction involved.

  4. Familiarize yourself with the educational requirements to become a registered nurse. Determine if you’re willing and able to walk that road.

Shadowing a nurse is only possible for currently enrolled medical students, but volunteer options are available to anyone.

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If you’re serious about becoming a registered nurse, here are some soft skills you’ll need to develop:

  • Teamwork. Registered nurses need to be able to communicate, delegate tasks, and work in harmony with their colleagues.

  • Ethics and confidentiality. Registered nurses must maintain patient confidentiality, respect autonomy, and make ethical decisions in challenging situations.

  • Communication. Registered nurses must be able to effectively convey information, listen actively, and establish rapport with patients, families, and other healthcare team members.

  • Motoric skills. It’s important for registered nurses to have the physical dexterity and coordination needed to perform invasive procedures and interventions.

  • Physical fitness. Nursing can be physically demanding, requiring professionals to be on their feet for extended periods, work 12-hour shifts, lift and move patients, and react quickly in emergencies.

  • Analytical skills. Registered nurses need to analyze patient data, interpret lab results, assess symptoms, and identify potential complications or changes in a patient’s condition.

  • Patience. Registered nurses must be patient when their patients feel anxious, in pain, vulnerable, embarrassed, or dealing with emotional trauma.

  • Empathy. Registered nurses should be able to empathize with patients’ experiences, emotions, and concerns to provide holistic care.

  • Agility. Registered nurses need to be able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and evolving healthcare practices.

  • Conflict resolution. Registered nurses must be able to navigate interpersonal conflicts or disagreements within the healthcare team and clear up misunderstandings with patients and their families.

  • Resilience. Registered nurses are often exposed to challenging tasks and emotionally charged situations, so they need to know how to cope with stress, bounce back from adversity, and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Steps to become a registered nurse

Here’s a breakdown of a typical registered nurse’s career path:

  1. Complete an accredited nursing education program

Obtaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing will be your first step. Select and enroll in a nursing education program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Admission requirements may include a high school diploma or equivalent, prerequisite courses (such as biology, chemistry, or anatomy), a minimum GPA, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

The curriculum typically includes classroom instruction, laboratory practice, and clinical rotations in healthcare settings that give you hands-on experience providing patient care under a registered nurse’s supervision.

Your nursing program’s graduation requirements may include completing a specified number of clinical hours, passing required exams, maintaining a minimum GPA, and meeting specific program standards.

  1. Pass the nurse licensing exam

Register for — and pass — the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), a standardized exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

To register for the NCLEX-RN, you must first apply for a nursing license from your state licensing board. When they recognize your eligibility, you’ll be authorized to take the exam.

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This computer-based exam emphasizes care management and assesses registered nurses’ advanced scope of practice. It’s divided into four key areas:

  1. Providing a safe and effective care environment

  2. Health promotion and maintenance

  3. Psychosocial integrity

  4. Physiological integrity

The exam consists of 75–145 questions, most of which are multiple-choice. You’ll be given five hours to complete it.

The average pass rate for US-educated candidates taking the NCLEX-RN is 80.9%.

3. Obtain state licensure

Once you pass the NCLEX-RN examination, you will receive your nursing license from the State Board of Nursing. This license will allow you to practice as a registered nurse in that specific state.

You will likely need to undergo a criminal background check as part of the licensure application process. This may include fingerprinting and providing documentation related to your criminal history, if applicable.

You may also need to request official transcripts to be sent from your nursing education program to the State Board of Nursing. These transcripts will verify your completion of an approved nursing program and fulfill the educational requirements for licensure.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay fees for both the exam and the licensure.

4. Optional: Choose the field you want to specialize in

From this point forward, you can work as a registered nurse or specialize in an area you enjoy the most. Specializing is optional, but it allows you to unlock more opportunities and earn a potentially higher salary.

There are over 90 specialties to choose from. They include the following:

  • Emergency — working with patients in life-threatening situations

  • Family — looking after mothers, newborns, children, or the elderly

  • Surgical — providing care to patients before, during, and after medical procedures

  • Long-term care — helping patients with chronic conditions and diseases

  • Management — creating long-term care plans and hiring and training other nurses

  • Community — educating and providing care to people in certain areas or facilities

5. Explore advanced certification opportunities

Various credentialing centers and associations offer comprehensive certifications for nurses, allowing them to validate their clinical knowledge and demonstrate their commitment.

Depending on your desired field of work, you may benefit from having a certificate in Basic Life Support or Pediatric Advanced Life Support. Some common nursing certifications may be obligatory, while others are simply a good idea to obtain.

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However, it is not recommended that you obtain these prior to starting a new position, as some hospitals may offer to help you earn them free of charge.

Additionally, each certification will have its own requirements. For example, you may have to show that you have reached a certain number of direct-care hours in your specialty.

FAQs about registered nurses

Can you be a registered nurse if you have a criminal record?

It’s possible, but certain types of criminal convictions may disqualify you from employment. As part of the licensure process, nursing applicants are typically required to undergo a criminal background check.

Nursing boards evaluate criminal records on a case-by-case basis. Participating in rehabilitation programs, obtaining character references, and providing documentation of personal growth may increase your chances of getting licensed if you have a criminal record.

How long does it take to become a registered nurse?

The shortest path to nursing is a diploma program, which takes around 2 to 3 years to complete. These programs are typically offered by hospitals.

Alternatively, you can enroll in an associate degree program at a community college, which will also take up to 3 years.

Bachelor’s degree programs are offered by colleges and universities and generally take four years to complete.

After completing your education, you will need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to obtain your license. Preparing for and scheduling the exam can take additional time.

Is there financial aid available to nursing students?

Yes, there are various types of financial aid available to nursing students to help cover the cost of their education, including scholarships, grants, student loans, and tuition reimbursement programs. And, depending on the terms of the aid, you may not even need to pay them back.

Additionally, some universities also started offering tuition-free nursing education to combat hospital staff shortages.

Start your training to become a registered nurse

Registered nurses often deal with patients in distress, witness suffering, and sometimes experience loss. Few other jobs include the same spectrum of emotions and experiences.

However, by becoming a registered nurse, you get a rare chance to positively impact the lives of your patients and their families on a daily basis. This is also a collaborative job that allows you to build your professional network, constantly grow, and explore different areas of interest.

Check out Jobcase’s Getting Hired Resource Center and join our community to land a fulfilling job in healthcare and share your experiences with others.

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