Registered Nurse Career Guide

    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: Top 10 Online RN to 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 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 Registered Nursing Programs

    When you're considering becoming a registered nurse one of the biggest decisions you have to make is which nursing school and program to go with. To make it easier on you, we've put together a list of the best nursing schools of 2021. Here are the top 5:

    1.) Duke University

    2.) Georgetown University

    3.) Johns Hopkins University

    4.) New York University

    5.) University of Pennsylvania

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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.

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    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


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