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Registered Nurse (RN): Career, Outlook and Education Requirements

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

What is a Registered Nurse?

A registered nurse (RN) is a health care professional who treats patients, educates the public about various medical conditions, provides emotional support to patients and their families and assists physicians. Many registered nurses do direct patient care on a day-to-day basis, but some choose jobs involving research, sales, or education instead.

Those who do care for patients typically work in a team with physicians and other healthcare providers. Their job duties include recording patients' medical information, administering treatment, and operating and monitoring medical equipment. Patience and empathy are important qualities for registered nurses, who also teach patients about diagnoses and illness management. However, daily duties do vary depending on where the registered nurses work and what type of patients they see. Pediatric nurses, for example, see young patients, and oncology nurses focus on those with cancer.

The following chart provides an overview of a career as a registered nurse.

Degree Required Nursing diploma, associate's degree or bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Nursing
Licensure or Certification All states require registered nurses to be licensed
Key Responsibilities Observe and monitor patients; take vital signs and maintain patient records; administer treatments and medications; perform diagnostic tests; participate in creating patient treatment plans and reporting results
Job Growth (2018-2028) 12%*
Median Salary (2018) $71,730*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Do Registered Nurses Do?

RNs monitor and assess patients, which may include taking vital signs, drawing blood or collecting other lab samples. You might also assist with diagnostic tests and administer medications and treatments. Although most registered nurses work in hospitals, RNs also work with private physicians, insurance companies, attorneys, nursing homes and school districts. You could also serve as an independent health care consultant or assist in medical research in areas like biology, psychology and human development.

What Degree Do I Need to Prepare?

You must hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a nursing diploma. You must also have completed the NCLEX-RN examination. Most BSN programs at 4-year colleges and universities require a student to apply to the general college and complete prerequisite courses in math and science before applying to the nursing program.

Although you may become an RN with just an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree in nursing gives you the opportunity to develop more specialized skills. A bachelor's degree may also serve as a stepping-stone to a number of specialties, including pediatric nursing and surgical nursing. Registered nurses who complete a master's degree program in nursing usually have more opportunities in work in leadership, management and nursing education positions.

No matter which degree you choose, you'll likely take courses in anatomy, medical ethics and pathology. Most programs also include training in patient assessment and critical thinking. Some programs may also include internships or other hands-on training programs.

What License Do I Need?

All nurses must obtain a professional license from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Accredited associate's and bachelor's nursing programs provide adequate preparation for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). You should also check with your respective state about additional license requirements for registered nurses.

What Is My Employment and Salary Outlook?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), the overall jobs for registered nurses were expected grown by 12% between 2018-2028. The BLS reports that the median salary for registered nurses in 2018 was $71,730. RNs with a bachelor's degree or higher have the best prospects. In addition, RNs and nurse practitioners specializing in advanced nursing, such as clinical nursing, nurse-midwives and nurse anesthetists, are more sought after.

What are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you are interested in the medical field but aren't sure if becoming a registered nurse is right for you, you might instead consider a career as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or diagnostic medical sonographer. To become an EMT requires completion of a non-degree training program, and the job involves responding to medical emergencies in a pre-hospital setting. Diagnostic medical sonographers are professionals who operate special imaging equipment to conduct medical tests. They often work with physicians and nurses in a healthcare setting, and an associate's degree is the typical minimum education requirement.