How to Become a Registered Nurse
Some registered nurses work in hospital operating rooms.
Registered nurses usually take one of three education paths: a bachelor's of science degree in nursing (BSN), an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Registered nurses also must be licensed.
In all nursing education programs, students take courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology and other social and behavioral sciences, as well as in liberal arts. BSN programs typically take 4 years to complete; ADN and diploma programs usually take 2 to 3 years to complete. All programs also include supervised clinical experience.
Bachelor's degree programs usually include additional education in the physical and social sciences, communication, leadership, and critical thinking. These programs also offer more clinical experience in nonhospital settings. A bachelor's degree or higher is often necessary for administrative positions, research, consulting, and teaching.
Generally, licensed graduates of any of the three types of education programs (bachelor's, associate’s, or diploma) qualify for entry-level positions as a staff nurse. However, some employers may require a bachelor’s degree.
Many registered nurses with an ADN or diploma choose to go back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree through an RN-to-BSN program. There are also master’s degree programs in nursing, combined bachelor’s and master’s programs, and programs for those who wish to enter the nursing profession but hold a bachelor’s degree in another field. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement.
Certified nurse specialists (CNSs) must earn a master’s degree in nursing. CNSs who conduct research typically need a doctoral degree.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
In all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, registered nurses must have a nursing license.
To become licensed, nurses must graduate from an approved nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN.
Other requirements for licensing vary by state. Each state's board of nursing can give details. For more on the NCLEX-RN examination and a list of state boards of nursing visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
Nurses may become certified through professional associations in specific areas, such as ambulatory care, gerontology, and pediatrics, among others. Although certification is usually voluntary, it demonstrates adherence to a higher standard, and some employers may require it.
CNSs must satisfy additional state licensing requirements. They may choose to earn certification in a specialty.
Critical-thinking skills. Registered nurses must be able to assess changes in the health state of patients, including when to take corrective action and when to make referrals.
Compassion. Registered nurses should be caring and sympathetic, characteristics that are valuable when caring for patients.
Detail oriented. Registered nurses must be responsible and detail oriented because they must make sure that patients get the correct treatments and medicines at the right time.
Emotional stability. Registered nurses need emotional stability to cope with human suffering, emergencies, and other stresses.
Organizational skills. Nurses often work with multiple patients with various health needs. Organizational skills are critical to ensure that each patient is given proper care.
Physical stamina. Nurses should be comfortable performing physical tasks, such as helping to lift and to move patients. They may be on their feet for most of their shift.
Speaking skills. Registered nurses must be able to talk effectively with patients to assess their health conditions. Nurses need to explain how to take medication or to give other instructions. They must be able to work in teams with other health professionals and communicate the patients’ needs.
Most registered nurses begin as staff nurses in hospitals or community health settings. With experience, good performance, and continuous education, they can move to other settings or be promoted to positions with more responsibility.
In management, nurses can advance from assistant unit manager or head nurse to more senior-level administrative roles, such as assistant director, director, vice president, and chief of nursing. Increasingly, management-level nursing positions require a graduate degree in nursing or health services administration. Administrative positions require leadership, communication skills, negotiation skills, and good judgment.
Some nurses move into the business side of healthcare. Their nursing expertise and experience on a healthcare team equip them to manage ambulatory, acute, home-based, and chronic care businesses.
Employers—including hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and managed care organizations, among others—need registered nurses for jobs in health planning and development, marketing, consulting, policy development, and quality assurance.
Some RNs choose to become nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, or nurse practitioners, which, along with certified nurse specialists, are types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). APRNs may provide primary and specialty care, and, in most states, they may prescribe medicines. For example, clinical nurse specialists provide direct patient care and expert consultations in one of many nursing specialties, such as psychiatric-mental health.
Other nurses work as postsecondary teachers in colleges and universities.