Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Get a Job as an RN?

Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Get a Job as an RN?
Once viewed as subservient and subordinate, RNs serve as both the backbone and frontline of today's healthcare industry. Image from Unsplash
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Mairead Kelly May 26, 2020

Forming a clear picture of how to get started in the registered nursing field may seem difficult. To make it easy, let's look at the degrees you'll need to begin work as an RN today—and how that may change in the future.

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With ever-shifting technology, an aging patient population, and new challenges brought on by federal legislation, the healthcare industry is being forced to evolve to continue to provide the best possible care.

Arguably at the center of change are registered nurses (RNs). At 3.8 million strong, this occupation makes up the largest segment of the healthcare workforce and has the closest and most sustained proximity to patients. They’ve also held the title of most trusted U.S. profession for the last 18 years.

Once viewed as subservient and subordinate, RNs serve as both the backbone and frontline of today’s healthcare industry. Over the years, those in the field have improved access to care, promoted wellness, and charted new paths in telehealth, informatics, and technology development. They’ve proved essential in the effort to reduce medical errors and advance patient safety, and engaged in research with practical applications and impact. And that’s just the beginning.

While there are no guarantees of the future of registered nursing, RNs have a responsibility to their patients and themselves to always be on the lookout for new ways to improve their practice. To stay ahead of the game, it’s more crucial than ever for this profession to stay up-to-date on the latest trends, best practices, and innovations in healthcare.

In light of these changes, the motivation for RNs to advance their education is stronger than ever. What’s more, as more healthcare organizations look to make a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) an entry-level requirement, RNs are increasingly pursuing advanced degrees like a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to stay competitive in the job market.

With all this in mind, forming a clear picture of how to get started in the registered nursing field may seem difficult. To make it easy, let’s take a look at the degrees you’ll need to begin work as an RN today—and how that may change in the future.

So, do you need a master’s degree to get a job as an RN? In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is a registered nurse?
  • What does a registered nurse do?
  • Do I need a master’s degree to get a job as a registered nurse?
  • How to become a registered nurse

What is a registered nurse?

Integral to the healthcare team, RNs are licensed by the state in which they reside and practice. They’re extensively trained in anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry, pharmacology, and other disciplines related to nursing, providing the framework needed to assess and treat patients accurately across a wide variety of settings.

Although the demand for licensed RNs varies by region, overall, the need for their skills throughout all 50 states is significant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nursing is among the top-growing occupations through 2028, with an estimated increase of 12 percent. On average, about 210,000 new openings for RNs are expected each year over the decade.

Despite the bright job outlook, the historical relationship between nurse supply and demand in the US is cyclical, with periodic shortages of nurses where demand outstrips supply. A 2017 report from the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis approximates that while most states are projected to keep up with the demand for RNs in the next decade, seven are expected to have significant shortages. Of them, California will experience the most severe shortage (of about 44,500).

What does a registered nurse do?

RNs are employed in a variety of settings, including hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, and a range of other facilities. While they’re primarily tasked with administering patient care, RNs wear many hats—from working with new technology and educating patients to conducting research and acting in supervisory roles. Specific duties vary from one RN to the next, but in general, they must be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and highly perceptive of patient needs.

The exact duties of an RN also rely heavily on their focus in the field. Whereas many work in primary care, others practice within a specialty, diving deeper into an area of nursing that meets their interests and skills. There are many nursing specialties available to RNs, including critical care, oncology, neonatology, geriatrics, and pediatrics.

Do I need a master’s degree to get a job as a registered nurse?

Students who graduate from MSN programs are most likely to get jobs as advanced practice nurse practitioners (APRNs) or assume advanced positions such as nurse managers or educators. In both the clinical and non-clinical realms, those in these occupations are granted a greater level of autonomy and responsibility than RNs.

Registered nurses and nursing students who are interested in providing a higher level of patient care or expanding their career opportunities may choose to enroll in an MSN program. But for those who are set on RN jobs, the education requirement isn’t as intensive.

How to become a registered nurse

While each state sets its own rules for licensing registered nurses, there is more commonality than difference to the process. Prospective RNs must complete an accredited program and, afterward, pass a national licensing exam.

Accredited nursing programs

Many, but not all, registered nursing programs seek accreditation through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission For Education in Nursing (ACEN). Both are approved by the US Department of Education and act as the primary bodies that evaluate nursing education on a national level.

The Department of Education also approves The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) and the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME) as accrediting bodies concerning specialties within the nursing field.

While there are many critical factors in choosing a nursing program, accreditation is a crucial first step. By choosing accreditation programs, students can guarantee that their courses will have the right content and that instructors use appropriate teaching methods.

Come graduation, they’re also more likely to be competitive in the job market than students with degrees from non-accredited programs—especially since many employers only hire nurses who have completed accredited programs. Many schools also refuse to accept credits from non-accredited programs. This can pose significant problems for students who want to transfer from a non-accredited program or have already completed one and want to continue their education in the field.

Program types

Several education tracks can lead to RN licensure. While many RNs opt to earn a diploma or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), the BSN program is becoming the new educational standard for nurses. After the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published its recommendation in 2010 for the nursing profession to increase the number of RNs with a BSN to 80 percent by the year 2020, healthcare organizations and legislators have responded.

For example, beginning in 2005, the Veteran’s Administration, the nation’s largest employer of RNs, established the baccalaureate degree as the minimum preparation for nurses to qualify for promotion beyond entry-level roles. The IOM’s call for an 80 percent BSN ratio has also become a requirement for hospitals hoping to achieve Magnet Status, which in turn, has pushed many hospitals to require or express a strong preference for nurses with a bachelor’s degree.

Other than the traditional track, these BSN programs are available for nurses at different stages of their careers:

  • LPN-BSN: For nurses who hold a licensed practical nurse (LPN) diploma. Using students’ education and experience as a starting point, LPN-BSN programs offer a more in-depth collection of courses to fill the training gap between the two career levels.
  • RN-BSN: Designed for practicing nurses who have earned an ADN degree. Like other bridge programs in the field, this program allows students to build on their existing experience and gain the training that’s necessary to advance their careers.


No matter which nursing programs students complete, they must pass a licensure exam before they can pursue work registered nurses.
This is done through the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), which is administered through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and assesses knowledge, understanding, and competency in nursing. The exam is accepted in all 50 states and requires periodic renewal, which necessitates that RNs must complete continuing education courses every two years.

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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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