September 2, 2020
Smiling nurse working with older patient

For anyone who wants a career in healthcare with a lucrative salary, job security, and a variety of career advancement paths, becoming a registered nurse (RN) is a great choice.

Find out more about how to become a registered nurse, and what the career is all about to decide if it’s the right career for you.

Part One What is a Registered Nurse?

Being a registered nurse means that you’ve earned a license to practice nursing in your state, but there’s so much more to this exciting career. A registered nurse administers hands-on patient care in a variety of settings including hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, and other facilities. They work with physicians and other members of the health care team to provide the best course of treatment possible. They also help to educate patients and their families about health issues.

>>Related: The Ultimate Guide to Accelerated BSN Programs

Part Two Registered Nurse Salary

Most registered nurses make a healthy living from the day they begin working in the field because starting salaries are usually competitive. The median annual salary for registered nurses was $73,300 per year as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.) The lowest 10 percent earned less than $52,080, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $111,220 for 2019, though conditions vary by area.

A registered nurse’s salary depends on a number of factors including their level of expertise and areas of specialization and their education. For example, a nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) will make more than one with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN).

Other factors that affect salary include experience as a nurse, location, and the type of facility they work in. Therefore, a registered nurse working at an elite big city research hospital in a special unit will likely earn more than an RN working in a nursing home in a small town. But, in fairness, the cost of living in a large city is likely higher than a small town as well.

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Part Three What is the Career Outlook for a Registered Nurse?

One of the main reasons for becoming a registered nurse appeals to many people — aside from the opportunity to care for others — is that it has excellent job security. There were over 3 million registered nurses employed in the U.S. in 2019. That number could grow to 3.44 million by 2028, according to projections (BLS). That’s an increase of 12 percent, faster than average for most occupations.

In fact, the number of registered nurses may be even greater than projected by 2028 — as of January 2016, there were already 3.13 million registered nurses working in the U.S., according to a report from the Kaiser Foundation 1 . California leads the way as the state with the most employed registered nurses at 294,510, followed by Texas and New York.

As for earning potential, the top 5 states with the highest-paid RNs 2 are as follows (via the BLS). These numbers represent annual mean wages.

  • California: $106,950
  • Hawaii: $98,080
  • District of Columbia: $92,350
  • Massachusetts: $92,140
  • Oregon: $91,080

These above numbers represent annual mean wages.

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Part Four How to Become a Registered Nurse

Becoming a registered nurse requires dedication and time. There are six primary steps you need to take before you can begin working as a registered nurse.

Step One: Choose a nursing education program. Decide which type of nursing degree you will pursue. There are two levels of basic nursing education:

  1. Associate Degree in Nursing (2-year program)
  2. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (4-year program)

If you choose an associate degree in nursing, you can be finished in two years or less. However, many people decide to complete a four-year bachelor of science in nursing program, since some employers prefer candidates with the higher degree. For people who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, there are accelerated BSN programs of study to earn a bachelor’s of science in nursing as well.

Step Two: Verify that your program is accredited. Surprisingly, not every nursing program in the United States is accredited. Most states will only allow nurses to become licensed if they have attended an accredited school. Although there are different educational paths to becoming an RN, it’s important to choose a program of study that is accredited. You can locate your state board of nursing via the National Council of State Boards of Nursing 3 website, and check with them to be sure your program of interest qualifies.

Step Three: Complete on-site and clinical training requirements. During your schooling, you will complete a combination of classroom coursework and supervised clinic hours in a hospital or other healthcare facility. Your school will make sure you complete the minimum number of hours required. According to 4 , clinical hour requirements vary, but it’s usually three clinical hours for every hour of classroom instruction.

Step Four: Apply for your state license. The first license you ever apply for is generally called licensure by “examination”. You will apply to a state board of nursing to take the National Certification Licensing Examination (NCLEX) to become licensed in that state. Check with your state’s board of nursing to find out your specific requirements, as not every state has exactly the same requirements.

Almost every state now requires you to complete a Federal criminal background check (with fingerprinting) as well as meet the requirements of graduating from an accredited school of nursing. Once you meet your state’s requirements, you will be allowed to take the NCLEX. You cannot sit for the exam until your state board of nursing declares that you are eligible.

Step Five: Take the NCLEX-RN 5 . Once you are deemed eligible by the state board of nursing you are seeking a license from, you must sit for and pass the NCLEX in order to earn your RN license. Once you pass the NCLEX and meet all additional requirements, you will receive licensure in your state. Some nursing students take an NCLEX review course or use other study techniques prior to taking the test.

In most instances, a nurse only must take the NCLEX once in a lifetime — once you pass the NCLEX, your test result can be used as proof of initial licensure for the rest of your time as an RN. All future attempts to receive licensure in a state other than the original state where you received licensure are called licensure by “endorsement”. This means you can use your NCLEX results from your initial licensure to get endorsed for RN practice in other states.

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Part Five Top 10 Registered Nurse Programs


This list is based on a number of factors including:

  • Reputation
  • NCLEX pass rate
  • Tuition
  • Acceptance rate, when available
  • Only ACEN or CCNE accredited schools are eligible

Nurse Panel

Our selection panel is made up of 3 Registered Nurses with years of experience and multiple degrees:

  • Tracy Everhart, MSN, RN, CNS
  • Tyler Faust, MSN, RN
  • Kathleen Gaines, MSN, BSN, RN, BA, CBC

There are numerous registered nursing programs and our panel of nurses ranked them based on factors mentioned in the methodology. Because individual nursing pathways and careers take various forms, the top 10 registered nurse programs are ranked in no particular order. 

1. Villanova University

Annual Tuition: $56,730

Online: Yes

Program Length: 4 years

A private, Catholic school located in Villanova, Pennsylvania, Villanova University is often considered one of the best private schools in the nation. Similarly, the BSN ranks among the best, providing learners with plenty of high-quality clinical experience. Undergraduate nursing students also actively participate in research, which is great exposure for those planning on continuing their education, and students can choose to minor in global public health. Villanova even organizes summer study abroad programs specifically for nurses. Overall, Villanova provides perhaps the most well-rounded BSN of any school. 

2. Emory University

Annual Tuition: $53,070

Online: Yes

Program Length: 4 years

Emory University, a leader in nursing and healthcare education, provides BSN students with three paths to a degree: a high-school BSN entry, an Emory second-year entry, and a transfer BSN. The first two options see students complete all their courses at Emory's campus in Atlanta, Georgia, completed over four years. The university also uses a cohort system, so you'll be grouped with the same nursing students throughout the program. Outcomes for the program are excellent, and 61% of BSN students secure a job before graduating. 

3. University of Maryland

Annual In-State Tuition: $10,819 Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $38,886

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

Located in Baltimore, the University of Maryland is among the best public schools for higher education in the region. Before beginning the BSN program, students must first complete two years of prerequisite courses, all of which are available at the University of MD. The nursing program takes two years to complete, making the degree a four-year process. Graduates enjoy an 86.67% NCLEX pass rate, higher than the state's average. Anyone living in Maryland can also take advantage of the low in-state tuition rates. 

4. University of Michigan

Annual In-State Tuition: $15,938 Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $52,266

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

Aside from experiencing four years in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan students can also earn one of the best BSN degrees. The nursing program has evolved over the past 127 years, and graduates can take advantage of networking with over 13,000 nursing school graduates. While studying, nurses can select a minor in health in a global context, and UM sets up global nursing experiences for students. 

5. Georgetown University

Annual Tuition: $58,503

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

Located in the nation's capital, Georgetown University embraces the Jesuit tradition of educating the whole person. This holistic approach applies to the direct-entry BSN where students begin their clinical experience during the freshman year. By the end of the four-year degree, students will have earned over 850 hours of clinical experience in facilities across Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Those who want to get global experience can choose to study abroad in Dublin, Ireland, or Sydney, Australia. Recent graduates enjoyed a 100% NCLEX pass rate, and Georgetown graduates regularly post a 95% pass rate or higher. 

6. Duke University

Annual Tuition: $60,408

Online: No

Program Length: 16 months

Regarded as one of the top universities in the nation for healthcare, Duke University doesn't offer a traditional BSN. However, the famous research institution does have an accelerated BSN for aspiring nurses who already have a bachelor's degree. This 16-month program sees students complete 58 credits and almost 800 hours of clinical experience at sites within the extensive Duke University Health System, as well as other locations in the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina. The program even lets graduates transfer nine credits into the renowned MSN degree. 

7. University of Washington

Annual In-State Tuition: $11,745 Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $39,114

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

The Seattle-based University of Washington regularly sees students succeed with over 98% of all BSN students graduating each year. The traditional BSN takes two years to complete, though students must first complete two years of prerequisite courses. While studying, nursing students gain extensive clinical experience, earning over 1,000 hours of experience at over 700 sites, including the renowned Seattle Children's Hospital. Washington residents also get access to incredibly low in-state tuition rates. 

8. University of California Los Angeles

Annual In-State Tuition: $13,239 Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $42,993

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

Ranked among the best public schools in the West, the University of California Los Angeles hosts some of the top programs in the nation, including its BSN. While UCLA's BSN program prepares nurses to continue their education and earn a masters' degree, graduates are more than ready to begin a career. In 2019, 97.73% of all NCLEX test-takers passed on their first try, better than most schools in California. Also, nursing students get to live in Southern California and enjoy near-perfect weather daily. 

9. University of Wisconsin

Annual In-State Tuition: $15,521 Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $39,364

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

With options available for undergraduate, transfer, and second-degree seeking students, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has a BSN option for everyone. The BSN program begins with two years of prerequisite courses, followed by two years of intensive nursing courses. Aside from optional rural immersions, international experiences, and certificates, nursing students complete 124 credits and 720 clinical hours over a four-year period. Recent graduates enjoyed a 93% NCLEX pass rate, a high clip considering over 300 students are in the program. However, admissions are competitive with just 45% of applicants getting accepted. 

10. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Annual In-State Tuition: $18,711 Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $50,397

Online: No

Program Length: 4 years

Located in Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina is considered a "Public Ivy" due to its incredible academics and world-renowned programs. Part of its success comes from its intensive programs -- BSN students begin clinical experience during their first semester at UNC. Graduates of the program end up in various roles, running from non-profit work to military nursing. So far in 2020, 99.37% of nursing students passed the NCLEX, an auspicious sign for anyone who gets into this highly competitive program. 

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Part Six What are Registered Nursing Jobs Like?

Every registered nursing job will be unique depending on where you’re working, and what type of unit or setting you’re in. An ER nurse might have a more fast-paced day assisting with many emergency cases, while a hospice nurse will focus more on quality of life care for just a few patients in their final months. Registered nurses in hospitals sometimes work longer, non-traditional work shifts (evenings, nights, weekends), while school nurses or those in a physician’s office may have steadier hours.

That said, being a registered nurse is physically and emotionally demanding work. There is no national standard when it comes to nurse-to-patient ratio, which is determined largely by the type of nursing. For instance, medical-surgical units typically staff one RN for every 4-6 patients during the day shift, and one for every 6-10 patients during the night shift, according to the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses 6 . You can also get an idea of some of the working conditions at specific hospitals by reading hospital reviews here on

As mentioned, registered nurses don’t always work in hospitals. They can also work in nursing homes, medical offices, or clinics, or provide home health care, serve as military nurses, or work as school nurses.

Many registered nurses choose to specialize in one or more areas of patient care, and specialization usually means an increase in compensation. Some paths to career advancement require RNs to earn certifications or complete some type of continuing education; other promotions come with experience. Common registered nurse specialties can be related to work setting or type of treatment (e.g. critical care nurse); disease, ailment, or condition (e.g. oncology nurse); organ or body system type (e.g. cardiac or orthopedic nurse); or population (e.g. pediatric or geriatric nurse).

Part Seven Where Can I Learn More About Registered Nurse Careers?

For anyone interested in becoming a registered nurse, it’s good to know that there are many professional associations and resources available. You can use these resources to learn more about the profession and find career support. In fact, no matter your nursing specialty, there is likely an association you can join.

Here are just a few professional associations to consider:

If you’d like to do some more research into the registered nurse profession, here are a few journals to put on your reading list:

Are you ready to get started on your nursing journey, or take your RN career to the next level? Read up on these nursing school programs:

Becoming a registered nurse requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but as most working RNs will tell you, the career rewards and personal fulfillment are worth the effort.

Find Nursing Programs


The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
Bureau of Labor Statistics
National Council of State Boards of Nursing
Nurse Journal
National Council of State Boards of Nursing
Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses


RN $70,000 - $90,000 Associate's Bachelors
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