How to Become a Registered Nurse: Degree Types, Certifications, Salaries, and More

How to Become a Registered Nurse: Degree Types, Certifications, Salaries, and More
The lowest-paid 10 percent of RNs earn less than $50,800, while the highest-paid 10 percent earn more than $106,530 per year. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 13, 2019

Nursing isn't for everyone. When you become a registered nurse, you'll endure long shifts, challenging patients, and hours spent on your feet. You'll also see the difference you're making in the world every single day. It's more than a job, and to be successful in this career, you have to be in it for more than the money.

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It’s common knowledge that registered nurses don’t have it easy. To succeed in this role, you need empathy and compassion, a thick skin, a healthy and fit body, a great memory, and the ability to do your best day after day even when it feels as though no one appreciates your contribution to patient care. As one nurse explained on Quora: “A nurse must be all things to all people all the time.”

But if nursing is truly your calling, the hard days won’t feel so hard, and you’ll be able to focus on the good days. And there will be so many good days—the days when your patients regain their independence, when you help people reach their wellness goals, and when you have the privilege of helping someone through the toughest moments of their lives.

In this article about how to become a registered nurse (RN), we’ll cover:

  • What do registered nurses do?
  • The kinds of RN careers
  • What is the average registered nurse salary?
  • The educational commitment required to become a registered nurse
  • Choosing the right university
  • Do I really need a bachelor’s degree to become a registered nurse?
  • Certifications for RNs
  • Is there really a nursing shortage?
  • Should I become a registered nurse (RN)?

What do registered nurses do?

The primary duties of RNs involve caring for people, though a nurse’s specific responsibilities depend on where they work, their employer’s expectations, the needs of their patients, and their specialization. The day-to-day duties of a registered nurse working in critical care are very different from the duties of an RN working for a home healthcare agency or in a pediatric practice.

Registered nurses work in a lot of different environments, some of which may surprise you. When you become a registered nurse, you might work for a:

  • Hospital
  • Medical office
  • Community health clinic
  • School
  • Summer camp
  • Outpatient care center
  • Psychiatric hospital
  • Church
  • Prison
  • Nursing home
  • Government office
  • Home healthcare agency
  • Ambulatory care center
  • Medical transport agency
  • Law firm (as a consultant)
  • Police department
  • Hospice facility
  • Corporation (as a health coach)
  • Community disaster relief organization

A nurse’s duties can include:

  • Examining patients
  • Taking health histories
  • Monitoring patients’ conditions
  • Overseeing patients’ recoveries
  • Observing and recording patient behavior and condition
  • Administering medication
  • Counseling and comforting patients
  • Taking blood and other diagnostic samples
  • Performing diagnostic tests
  • Cleaning and bandaging wounds
  • Carrying out treatment plans created by doctors and nurse practitioners
  • Managing licensed practical nurses, assistants, and nurse aides
  • Explaining post-exam and post-discharge care to patients
  • Conducting research

There’s a common misconception that the ickier tasks in hospitals and other facilities (e.g., dealing with bodily fluids and cleaning patients) are the sole responsibility of certified nursing assistants (CNAs). While it’s true that registered nurses are primarily responsible for patient care, they are called upon to handle anything and everything. This is not a job for the squeamish!

The kinds of RN careers

Some nurses are RNs until they retire, while other registered nurses treat their job as the first step on the path toward becoming a nurse practitioner, nurse educator, nurse manager, forensic nurse, nurse anesthetist, or certified nurse midwife. Whether you aspire to become a chief nursing officer someday or you want to spend your career as a caregiver, it’s important to realize that registered nurses can work in different specialties. The specialty you choose will probably determine what kind of RN career you have. RNs work in nursing specialties like:

Most of the roles open to registered nurses involve direct patient care, but some RNs work in administrative, educational, and other non-clinical roles. Keep in mind that some specialty roles require additional certifications or continuing education. For example, advanced practice registered nurses (a group that includes nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists) are required to hold a master’s degree in nursing, as are nurse managers, nurse administrators, and other nurse leaders.

What is the average registered nurse salary?

The average registered nurse salary, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $71,730 per year for RNs with a bachelor’s degree, but that doesn’t mean you will make precisely that when you become a registered nurse. Entry-level RNs and registered nurses who launched careers after earning an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) typically make less. Nurses employed by the government make more. The lowest-paid 10 percent of RNs earn less than $50,800, while the highest-paid 10 percent earn more than $106,530. How much you can make when you become an RN will also depend on your specialty, how many additional certifications you have, and where in the country you work.

The educational commitment required to become a registered nurse

Currently, aspiring RNs have three options to fulfill educational requirements:

  • An associate’s degree RN program that confers an ADN
  • A four-year or accelerated bachelor’s degree RN program in nursing that confers a BSN
  • A diploma from a nursing school at a hospital that has a diploma program.

Most nursing students choose either an ADN or a BSN program, though some aspiring RNs still enroll in hospital-based nursing schools like West Penn Hospital School of Nursing and Roxborough Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. It typically takes two years to earn an ADN and three years to complete a diploma program; full-time students can usually earn a BSN in four years. If full-time study isn’t feasible, nursing students can attend online, part-time, and hybrid programs. Mount Saint Mary’s University, for instance, offers an online program and an on-campus evening/weekend program.

Regardless of what type of nurse program you choose, you’ll take classes like:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Psychology
  • Microbiology
  • Statistics
  • Nursing assessment
  • Nutrition
  • Pharmacology
  • Nursing theory
  • Nursing research

In BSN nurse programs, you’ll also study English composition, math, history, and other core liberal arts topics. Students in nursing degree programs are also required to complete clinical rotations. These rotations take place in different working environments. It’s common for nursing students to do clinical rotations in multiple facilities during their studies.

When you graduate with your ADN or BSN, you need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) exam and apply for your nursing license from your state board of nursing. At that point, you’ll be a registered nurse and qualified to work with patients.

Choosing the right university

No matter what educational pathway you take, you should choose the right registered nursing program for you. There are highly-ranked Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs at schools like:

Keep in mind that a university without that kind of name recognition might have just as rigorous a program and also the flexibility or the price tag you need to make getting your degree a reality. State universities typically offer excellent nursing programs with very reasonable in-state tuition.

As you consider schools, look at each one’s NCLEX-RN exam pass rates. That will give you an idea of how well a program prepares students to become RNs. You should also only consider BSN programs at colleges that are accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) or National League for Nursing (NLN). Getting your degree from an accredited program is extremely important if you plan to pursue a master’s in nursing or certifications, once you’ve amassed enough work experience.

Do I really need a bachelor’s degree to become a registered nurse?

Right now, not exactly. Soon, though, the answer to this question will be almost certainly yes. A lot of professional associations and regulatory groups (like the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice, the Pew Health Professions Commission, the National Black Nurses Association, and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses) have come out in favor of requiring all RNs to hold a BSN. It’s already fairly common for job listings to include “BSN preferred.” The BSN is the preferred or required level of education in certain specialties, and some states are already drafting legislation to require registered nurses to have undergraduate degrees. The US Army, Navy, and Air Force already require all nurses to have a BSN to practice as active duty RNs.

At the moment, however, you can still find work as a registered nurse with an ADN. The job outlook for all nurses is still good and the number of job openings is expected to keep increasing. Until all states adopt the BSN as the minimum required degree for RNs, nurses with ADNs will fill some of those jobs. That said, more people are applying to nursing programs and that means employers can be choosier. If you haven’t yet begun pursuing a degree, a BSN program is probably the best possible choice. If you’re nearly finished with an ADN program, look into accelerated RN to BSN programs that will let you earn a bachelor’s degree in just a couple of years while working.

Certifications for RNs

Advancing your nursing career when you become an RN usually involves getting a master’s degree, pursuing general and specialty certifications, or both. If you’re not sure that you want to invest the money and time it takes to earn a Master of Science in Nursing, you can still qualify for promotions and make more money by passing an exam in certain competency areas. There are more than 180 different nursing certifications—many of which are open to RNs. Some certifications for registered nurses are:

There are certifications for just about every nursing specialty and role, including home health nursing, cardiac nursing, gerontology, surgical care, blood transfusions, breast cancer care, infection control, and prison nursing. Some certifications take a couple of days to earn (nurses take classes for two days and then sit for an exam), while others require months of classwork.

Is there really a nursing shortage?

Some people are initially attracted to nursing because they’ve heard there is a nursing shortage in the US. A shortage implies that there are plenty of jobs and that those jobs will be secure, and that’s true for certain roles and in certain regions. While some states and cities report nursing shortages, others have more nurses than there are jobs in nursing. And while hospitals and doctors’ offices don’t typically have any trouble finding qualified nurses to fill open positions, assisted living and senior housing facilities often do. You may find you have an easier time getting a job if you choose a less popular specialty like geriatric care, behavioral health, mental health, or substance abuse.

Should I become a registered nurse (RN)?

Many registered nurses know from a young age that they want to work in this field. Some of these nurses watched a compassionate nurse care for an ill family member or felt a desire to give back when they were cared for by nurses themselves. Others knew deep inside that they wanted to make a career of helping people but only realized in adulthood that becoming a registered nurse was one way to make that happen. Not every nurse is called to this profession in the same way, but what nearly all nurses have in common is the desire to work in a field that is equally challenging and interesting, and that affords them daily opportunities to make people’s lives better.

One way to determine whether you genuinely want to become a registered nurse is to do some volunteering. Many hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, other healthcare facilities, and community health departments are happy to have volunteers. You may not tackle any tasks directly related to patient care, but you’ll be working in a medical environment supporting medical staff, and in the process, you’ll get a chance to observe how real RNs spend their days.

Volunteer experience may also make you a more attractive candidate when you’re applying to nursing programs.

“For applicants to be able to show us that they have some knowledge of the healthcare system or some experience and how that has impacted their decision to go into nursing is very helpful,” Maureen O’Brien, associate dean for graduate programs in the Marquette University College of Nursing, told US News & World Report.

You should also consider the pros and cons of a nursing career before you commit to becoming a registered nurse. Registered nurses spend more time with patients than any other care providers, and yet many nurses feel under-appreciated and overworked. In 1859, Florence Nightingale said, “No man, not even a doctor, ever gives any other definition of what a nurse should be than this—’devoted and obedient.’ This definition would do just as well for a porter. It might even do for a horse.” More than a century later, there are still doctors who act like they own the nurses on their teams and patients who think nurses are glorified gofers.

RNs who enter the field because they feel strongly called to improve the patient experience are probably the ones most able to brush off the drawbacks. Simply put, you must choose this career with your eyes wide open. Only then will the many, many pros (e.g., the ability to build relationships with patients, the satisfaction you get from helping people get well, the opportunities for growth, and job security) truly outweigh the cons.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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