How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Nurses may be considered to be an important component in the healthcare ecosystem. Depending on what kind of registered nurse (RN) you wish to be, you could find yourself scrubbing in to assist surgeons with major surgical procedures, or you could be the one caring for the patient after surgery. You might work in oncology, assisting patients with life-changing diseases as they undergo treatments, or you could work with expectant mothers as they progress through pregnancy, labor and delivery.

This guide can help you understand the different pathways to becoming an RN as well as the career options available at each level of nursing.

What Is a Registered Nurse?

Registered nurses work with other members of a medical team to deliver patient care and support. They are responsible for monitoring patient health and educating patients and their families about illnesses, injuries, treatment options and medications. A registered nurse may also help patients and their families understand procedures, care plans, and medication schedules. Registered nurses work in hospitals, primary care clinics, medical offices, nursing homes, schools and other settings.

Difference between Registered Nurse and Nurse Practitioner

Registered nurses may hold a variety of credentials, but there’s only one they need to have: the RN credential they earn when they pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN exam). 

Without advanced training or degrees, RNs are authorized to perform limited duties. For example, an RN cannot prescribe medication, but they do administer medications prescribed by a physician. The duties of an RN include monitoring patients, cleaning and dressing wounds, maintaining medical records, and consulting with other members of their medical team to evaluate and adjust care plans.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) hold at least a master’s degree and possess advanced skills within a specialty area, such as family practice or acute care. NPs are qualified to perform some of the same duties as a physician. Their level of authority varies depending on the state where they practice. For example, NPs can make diagnoses and prescribe medications in all 50 states; however, some states require NPs to work under a physician’s supervision.

Educational Requirements to Become a Registered Nurse

An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is typically the only prerequisite for taking the NCLEX-RN examination and becoming an RN, but make sure to reach out to the NRB in your region for full eligibility requirements. Obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can open the door to additional career options and better pay.

Does an RN need a Nursing Master’s Degree?

Registered nurses are not required to hold a master’s degree. However, obtaining an advanced degree can mean additional career options—such as nurse anesthetist or nurse practitioner—and increased salaries if you choose to pursue these specialities. Learn more about online master’s in nursing programs.

How Many Years Does it Take to Become an RN?

Completing the minimum steps to become an RN means obtaining a two-year degree, passing the NCLEX-RN exam, and obtaining state licensure. All of this can be completed within 2.5 years, but depending on your timeline it may take longer. Completing a BSN, passing the NCLEX-RN exam, and obtaining state licensure can be done within 4.5 years.

3 Common Steps to Becoming a Registered Nurse

While everyone’s journey to a career in nursing is different, there are three common steps that many take to become a registered nurse.

  1. Get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited program

    There are a few ways to complete this first step. Students who are starting their college career can simply enroll in a nursing program. While only an ADN is required to take the NCLEX-RN exam, some may choose to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Students who hold an associate’s degree in nursing may wish to go on to earn what’s known as an RN-to-BSN degree (a two-year associate-to-bachelor’s program).
    Learn more about online bachelor’s in nursing programs.

  2. Register for state licensure through your state board of nursing

    After obtaining an ADN or bachelor’s degree in nursing, the graduate must register for licensure with their state. This is a prerequisite for signing up to take the NCLEX-RN exam. Each state’s nursing board has its own rules and requirements for licensure, so check with your state’s board for specific guidance. Check the National Council of State Boards of Nursing for more information.

  3. Pass the NCLEX-RN examination

    Once the student has registered for state licensure, they may register for their Authorization to Test, which is required to schedule an NCLEX-RN exam session. One way to start preparing is to check outUse the exam prep materials available on the NCSBN website.

    Once a new nurse has fulfilled these three requirements, they are eligible to apply for nursing jobs. With demand for registered nurses expected to grow faster than average, new nurses often have many job opportunities to choose from when they are entering the field.

Registered Nurse Careers

There may be many opportunities for registered nursing students to consider. RNs with associate degrees are qualified to administer patient care at medical facilities, assist physicians during examinations or surgeries, or work with patients at residential care facilities. 

Registered nurses can also work with traveling nursing organizations. These agencies place RNs at facilities experiencing nurse shortages, or at hospitals that need to fill vacancies during vacations or leaves of absence. Working as a travel nurse is a great option for RNs who are flexible, enjoy challenges and are interested in living and working in various cities around the country.

For some employers and roles, a bachelor’s degree may be needed. Learn more about which nursing degree might be right for you.

Types of Registered Nurses

Registered nurses may specialize in a variety of areas, including:

  • Cardiac care nurse
  • Emergency room nurse
  • Flight nurse
  • Intensive care unit nurse
  • Labor and delivery nurse
  • Oncology nurse
  • Pediatric nurse
  • Psychiatric nurse
  • Substance abuse nurse
  • Surgical nurse
  • Trauma nurse
  • Travel nurse

How Much Does an RN Make?

The average annual salary for an RN in 2019 was $73,300, according to the BLS. Nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists earned $115,800 on average in 2019. Salaries can vary based on several factors, including nursing salary by state, facility and specialty.

Should You Become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)?

Advanced practice registered nurses are qualified to perform most of the same duties as physicians, according to the BLS, depending on the state in which you intend to practice. If you are interested in a challenging career in medicine, but don’t want to commit to more than a decade of postsecondary training to become a medical doctor, then becoming an APRN could be a good career path for you.

An APRN candidate should obtain at least a master’s degree in nursing and may want to have experience working as a registered nurse. APRNs typically take at least one specialization exam, preparing them to work in a specific area of practice. The four primary concentrations for APRNs are:

  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), who deliver anesthesia to patients undergoing surgeries, monitor the patient’s airway and vital signs during surgery, do pre- and -post operative rounds to check on patients, and administer epidurals to women in labor.
  • Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM), who provide prenatal care for pregnant women, support women going through perimenopause or menopause, and assist women through the labor and delivery process. Some CNMs treat women and their partners for sexually transmitted diseases, and some states allow CNMs to prescribe medications.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), who work with a medical team to coordinate care and improve patient outcomes, and serve as liaison between the medical team and the patient and/or their family. CNSs usually specialize and work with specific populations, such as pediatrics, psychiatry or emergency care.
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP), who deliver care directly to patients by conducting examinations, ordering diagnostic tests and prescribing medications. NPs also choose a specialty. Common specializations include family health, acute care, psychiatric mental health, and women’s health, A common workplace for NPs is private primary care practices. Learn more about the differences between an RN and a nurse practitioner.

Nursing can be both a challenging and rewarding career path with plenty of opportunities for professional growth.

Last Updated September 2020