Quick Facts :
Registered Nurses

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Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses, May 2017

info-icon ADN or BSN
info-icon $73,550 Annual Wage
info-icon 15% Job Growth

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What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Depending on their location, work setting, and level of education, a registered nurse may perform a variety of duties. While most RNs provide direct patient care, specific job responsibilities and daily activities vary based on the needs of the healthcare team within which the nurse serves, the needs of the patient, and the patient demographics. Typical job duties and tasks of a registered nurse include:

  • Conduct physical exams to assess patient health needs and problems
  • Administer direct care to injured, disabled, ill, or convalescent patients
  • Review and maintain medical records
  • Implement and develop nursing care plans
  • Counsel patients and family members on disease prevention and health maintenance
  • Supervise the work of licensed practical nurses, nursing aides, and assistants
  • Educate patients about their medical conditions and treatment plans
  • Maintain a safe, hygienic working environment
  • Prepare rooms and medical equipment and decontaminate instruments
  • Provide emotional and psychological support

Registered nurses also have the potential to specialize in certain areas, such as neonatal, pediatric, geriatric, surgical, and emergency medical care. To succeed in these roles, an RN must possess strong communication skills, be detail oriented and compassionate, and have the ability to adapt to new technologies, techniques, and medical procedures as they are introduced.

Registered nurses may also choose to pursue positions in teaching, management, and administration. Nurse educators, for example, are registered nurses who not only possess clinical knowledge but also teaching expertise to help train licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, and other licensed nursing staff. Additional roles in designing and implementing an academic curriculum for continuing education programs also are available for clinical nurse educators.

Steps to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

To prepare for a role as a registered nurse and thrive in a dynamic environment with constantly changing demands, a strong educational and clinical foundation is necessary. Most importantly, to provide the best care for their patients, registered nurses must be highly skilled, with a deep understanding of theoretical nursing techniques as well as hands-on proficiency. To find a position as a registered nurse, an individual must complete a series of steps: acquiring the necessary education, completing clinical training, undergoing testing, applying for and gaining a license, and acquiring certification.

Earn Your High School Diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED)

Many individuals embark upon the path to become a registered nurse as early as high school. Most high schools offer students the opportunity to take college preparatory classes that ready them for the college-level coursework necessary to pursue a nursing degree.

Some of the most important classes for high school students to master include math, science, social studies, foreign language, and English. Math and science classes are directly relevant to the classes that nursing students will take in their nursing degree programs. Establishing a strong knowledge base in math and science has long-lasting benefits, both academically and professionally. A foreign language is useful when caring for patients who are more comfortable communicating in their native language: Successful communication helps increase patient comfort, understanding, and level of satisfaction.

Apply to Nursing School

After graduation from high school, the potential registered nurse must decide upon an educational path to pursue a nursing degree. Although many avenues are available to become qualified as a nurse, all nursing coursework provides training in subjects such as ethics, anatomy, microbiology, pathophysiology, fundamentals of nursing, human behavior, microbiology, health assessment, and nutrition.

Students also are expected to complete clinical rotations, during which they observe nurses as they complete their everyday duties. With a combination of clinical experience and theoretical knowledge, nurses prepare to meet the types of challenges they will encounter during the course of their careers. Although a two- or three-year associate’s degree qualifies an individual to practice as a nurse, those who study longer and seek higher degrees often earn more money and have additional opportunities for advancement.

Associates Degree in Nursing

An Associate of Science Degree in Nursing (ASN/ADN) is attractive, not only because it can be obtained relatively quickly, but also because it’s more affordable than a four-year degree. After graduation, the student is qualified to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, which takes four years of study at a college or university, prepares nurses to provide direct patient care and assume leadership roles. Once the prospective nurse obtains a BSN degree, the student can continue his or her education for approximately another two years to earn a master’s degree. However, this advanced degree is not necessary to work as an RN. Upon graduation with a BSN, students qualify to take the NCLEX-RN exam.

Masters in Nursing (MSN)

The Master of Science in Nursing degree takes two years of study at a college or university in addition to the four years spent earning a BSN. Students who graduate with their MSN degree qualify to work as a nurse educator or manager. Additionally, the MSN is a prerequisite for study for a Ph.D.

Get Licensed / Pass the NCLEX-RN Examination

After completing a degree program, the next step is to take the NCLEX-RN exam, which is administered and scored by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Passing the test is a requirement for nurses in all 50 states and the U.S. military.

Before nursing candidates can take the exam, they must apply for a license from their state board of nursing. Every state has different eligibility requirements for graduates seeking nursing positions, so individuals must fulfill the obligations for their state of residence. After submitting the application for a license, the nurse can register with Pearson VUE, which can be completed on the Pearson VUE website

Preparation for the test can be quite a lengthy process. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing provides a test plan to help candidates prepare for the test.

The NCLEX-RN exam is designed to gauge a nurse’s understanding of the fundamental concepts of nursing. Since it’s computerized, the test adapts to each person who takes it. As the test taker-proceeds, questions are based on answers to previous questions.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing, an organization that regulates health care standards in the nursing industry, works with state boards across the United States to establish standards within the nursing profession. This helps ensure a standard level of care in every state, so that anyone who receives medical treatment anywhere in the United States can expect a base level of expertise from nursing staff at a healthcare facility.

The NCLEX-RN exam is composed of four categories with six subcategories. The categories are:

  • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
  • Reduction of Risk Potential
  • Physiological Adaptation
  • Management of Care
  • Basic Care and Comfort
  • Physiological Integrity
  • Safety and Infection Control
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Safe and Effective Care Environment

The test covers a range of potential medical challenges that nurses typically encounter on the job, including disease prevention, disease treatment, infection control, safety, pharmacology, and management of care, injuries, and illnesses. The test also measures a nurse’s problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Pursue Professional Development Opportunities

Participating in professional development opportunities helps nurses develop their skills and grow their careers. Nurses can pursue professional development opportunities through volunteer work at a local hospital, which helps potential nurses gain experience working with patients and physicians in a professional setting. Hospitals and outpatient facilities frequently need volunteers and are happy to work with nursing students who possess some knowledge and understanding of health care.

Volunteer-abroad programs, which provide vital health care services to patients all over the world, are another way for nurses to develop professionally. Find volunteer-abroad placements with organizations or medical facilities that make these kinds of arrangements. Volunteer-abroad opportunities help nurses understand healthcare challenges in other countries and forge connections with healthcare professionals around the world.

Nurses also can develop professionally by connecting with a variety of nationally recognized nursing organizations, some of which work with nurses of specific specialties. Many organizations hold conferences and events that provide learning opportunities for nurses.

Enter the Workforce and Search for Jobs

Once an RN passes the NCLEX-RN exam, the next step is to look for a job. Registered nurses are a vital part of the healthcare industry; therefore, they can find work in facilities all over the country, including doctors’ offices, hospitals, nursing care facilities, assisted living facilities, and home health care services.

The type of facility in which an RN chooses to work has a big impact on his or her lifestyle, so this decision should be made with care. For example, registered nurses employed in hospitals and nursing care facilities often work long, unusual hours, including late nights, holidays, and weekends. However, nurses who work in doctors’ offices typically work a regular weekday schedule and are routinely off work on holidays. Some nurses change jobs as their circumstances and scheduling needs change.

Research for available positions should begin even before graduation. Nurses are in demand all over the country, but to narrow your focus to jobs in your area, attend job fairs and check job boards in nearby facilities. The school’s career center can provide guidance during the job search.

Networking is an important skill for anyone searching for a new job. Reaching out to other medical professionals may help the prospective RN find a position before it’s listed on job boards. Nursing students should develop and maintain good relationships with other nurses and health care professionals when participating in clinical rotations during school to help build networking contacts.

Before beginning the job search, RNs should compile a comprehensive resume along with a well-written cover letter. Have a friend or coworker look over the resume before sending it out with job applications.

To provide a high level of care to their patients, nurses must be compassionate and empathetic, communicate skillfully, and have the required educational foundation. The interview is the nurse’s opportunity to demonstrate his or her skills and characteristics to potential employers. Interviewing is stressful, even for veteran nurses who have worked for a long time. Participating in mock interviews helps make this part of the job-hunt process easier. Many school career centers offer the opportunity to role-play mock interviews with staff.

With more people needing quality health care every day, nursing is a profession in high demand. Many jobs are available across the country. With a combination of time and effort, a highly credentialed nurse will find a position that is both rewarding and satisfying.

Registered Nurse Salary & Employment Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for a registered nurse was $73,550 in May 2017. RNs at the lowest 10 percent of earnings had an average salary of $48,690 annually, while those at the 90th percentile earned approximately $104,100 per year. The BLS reports that those employed in the Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing industry had the highest median salary in 2017, followed by general medical and surgical hospitals, specialty hospitals, outpatient care centers, and home health care services.

An RN typically works a variety of different shifts, such as 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 or 11:00 p.m.; 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.; or 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Healthcare facilities must be staffed seven days a week, 24 hours a day, including holidays. Because these shifts are harder to fill, some employers offer premium pay if the nurse is willing to work evenings, overnights, weekends, and holidays. Approximately 80 percent of RNs work full-time, while the remainder holds part-time positions.

The BLS anticipates that the demand for registered nurses will remain steady at 15 percent annually (much faster than average) through at least 2024, a significantly higher rate than the projected 7 percent expected increase for all occupations combined. Several factors play into the demand, including:

  • An aging population. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one person in eight in the United States is over age 65.
  • Advances in medical technology allow people to live longer lives, which means that some people may require ongoing nursing assistance for lengthier periods.
  • More people have access to health care because of the Affordable Care Act, which made health insurance more available.
  • More people require the care of a registered nurse at home or in an outpatient facility because of the rapid discharge of patients from medical facilities.
  • The nursing shortage caused by older nurses retiring and few nurses entering the field.