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How to Become a Registered Nurse in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a registered nurse. Learn about licensure, salary, degree requirements and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you.

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Registered nurses (RN) assist and attend to the various needs of patients. They conduct medical examinations, dispense and manage prescriptions, monitor different indications, document medical reports, and train patients and their relatives in home care. They may also educate the public on diseases, run blood drives, and organize health screening clinics. An overview of this career is profiled in the table below.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree, Associate's degree, or Diploma
Education Field of Study Nursing
Key Skills Compassion, physical stamina, attention to detail, communication
Licensure/Certification Licensure is required in all states; certification is optional
Job Growth (2018-2028) 12% (for all registered nurses)*
Median Salary (2018) $71,730 (for all registered nurses)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What is a Registered Nurse?

Becoming a registered nurse involves a formal nurse training program and passing a licensure examination. As an RN, you will collaborate with other healthcare professionals, including physicians, licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and nursing aides. You can choose to specialize in the treatment of a specific health condition, work with a specific organ or body system or focus on a specific segment of the population such as the elderly or children. Also, you may pursue additional training to become an advanced practice nurse (APN) to work as a nurse anesthetist or nurse practitioner.

Step 1: Research Career Options and Education Requirements

To become an RN, you'll need a diploma, associate's degree or bachelor's degree in nursing. If you earn a diploma or associate's degree, your career opportunities may be limited. Bachelor's degree programs offer more clinical training as well as provide more training in critical thinking and communication.

A bachelor's degree may be necessary if you'd like to teach, conduct research, work in public health, provide consulting services or work in an administrative position. It also gives you the option to directly earn a master's degree and become an APN.

Step 2: Complete a Registered Nursing Program

Once you've decided a course of study, you'll need to research and select the appropriate program. Diploma programs can typically be found in hospitals and generally take three years to complete, while associate's degree programs take 2-3 years. It will take about four years to complete a bachelor's degree program in nursing.

There are also RN-to-BSN programs available to nurses who have earned a diploma or associate's degree and would like to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in an accelerated program. Typically, nurse programs offer courses in chemistry, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, health assessment, ethics, and nursing. You'll also have the opportunity to gain clinical experience in hospitals, working in departments such as psychiatry, maternity, surgery, geriatrics, and pediatrics.

Step 3: Earn a License

To work as a registered nurse, you must earn a license by passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Each state maintains its own eligibility requirements for this exam. Some states require continuing education to maintain your license.

Step 4: Earn Certification in a Specialty

As an RN, you may choose to specialize in a field such as gerontology, ambulatory care, pediatrics, mental health or community health. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers voluntary certification to specialty nurses. These certifications are preferred by some employers because they demonstrate that a nurse possesses a high degree of knowledge and competence in a specific field. Continuing education may be required to periodically renew your certification.

Step 5: Pursue Graduate Education

Once you're a licensed RN, you may want to improve your career opportunities by earning a master's degree to become an advanced practice nurse (APN). This will allow you to work as a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife or clinical nurse specialist. There are also master's degree programs available for nurses interested in healthcare administration or public health.

Master's degree programs typically combine classroom, clinical and research experience. If you're interested in administration or public health, some dual degree programs are available which will award a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) along with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Public Health (MPH).

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Some related careers also requiring at least an associate's level education are dental hygiene and diagnostic sonography/cardiovascular technology. Dental hygienists clean teeth, search for signs of oral disease and provide preventive care. Diagnostic medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians perform imaging exams to help identify medical conditions. Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics usually only need a postsecondary nondegree award; these professionals are responsible for responding to critical events; they must treat those in danger or injury while transporting them to a hospital for expanded care.