Healthcare worker assisting a patient

How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Healthcare worker assisting a patient

If you’ve always been the type to patch up your siblings’ scraped knees, provide first aid to your friends, or keep your cool in an emergency, a career as a registered nurse might just be your calling. It’s a demanding job at times, but the rewards are proportional—the pay is great, there are many different opportunities to specialize in the areas you care about the most, and you’ll have the chance to quite literally save lives!

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a registered nurse, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch a career as an RN.

Not sure if becoming an RN is right for you? Click here to see the rest of the careers featured on our list of the 16 best entry-level medical jobs.

Registered Nurse Definition

What is a Registered Nurse (RN)?

Registered nurses are the frontline workers of the healthcare world. They’re the first to treat any given patient in many healthcare settings. They provide hands-on care in collaboration with doctors and other healthcare professionals.

RNs provide arguably more hands-on treatment than any other medical job and are usually the medical staff members that patients interact with the most.

Registered Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Registered Nurse (RN) Do?

Registered nurses (RNs) are at the forefront of patient care in just about any healthcare setting. Their responsibilities often include assessing patients’ conditions, administering medicine or other treatments, and teaching patients and their caregivers how to manage injuries or illnesses. Most patients spend far more time with registered nurses than their doctors, so RNs are frequently the ones who answer questions, provide advice and emotional support, and educate patients and their caregivers on continuing treatment at home.

Registered Nurse Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of registered nurses include:

  • Assessing patients’ condition and understand their concerns or symptoms
  • Administering medication and other treatments to patients
  • Operating and monitoring various types of medical equipment
  • Observing and recording critical data about patients’ condition
  • Performing and analyzing diagnostic tests to determine proper treatments
  • Teaching patients and their caregivers how to care for their injury or illness at home

Registered Nurse (RN) Skills

The best registered nurses are caring, compassionate people who can also stay cool under pressure. Critical-thinking skills and decisiveness are both important, as protecting patients’ health will often require quick thinking and quick action. Just as important is attention to detail, as mistakes or carelessness can lead to potentially life-changing consequences. A career as a registered nurse requires enough physical stamina to stay on your feet for long periods of time, as well as the emotional resiliency to deal with emergencies and stressful situations.

Registered Nurse Hours & Work Environment

Many registered nurses work in shifts to provide round-the-clock coverage at hospitals or clinics that stay open 24 hours a day. Nights, weekends, holidays, and on-call shifts are typical at these facilities, and registered nurses often work longer shifts a few days a week, with a few days off. Nurses employed by schools, private doctor’s offices, or other places that don’t provide 24-hour care may work more standard business hours.

Registered Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to be a Registered Nurse?

Smiling student on a laptop

To open the most doors for yourself throughout your career as a registered nurse, you’ll want to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Traditionally, that means four years in school before you can even start taking licensing exams and applying for jobs—but with an accelerated degree program, you can complete your BSN in as little as 36 months and get started in a rewarding (and high-paying) new field of work.

Like any long-term goal, working toward a new career as a registered nurse seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a registered nurse:

1. Enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree Program

Whether you’ve always known you want to become a registered nurse or you’re looking to make a change after working other jobs, getting into a BSN degree program at an accredited college or university is the best way to start a new career as an RN. Even if you didn’t get the best grades in high school, you can still earn your degree and make it happen. For example, one of the qualifications for the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Brookline College is a high school diploma (or GED) with a 2.5 GPA or higher.

2. Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing

Like most bachelor’s degree program, your BSN coursework will include general education requirements such as math, history, communications, and social and behavioral sciences. While these courses may not seem directly related to your new career as a registered nurse, they’re all an essential part of becoming a well-educated, well-rounded professional who can relate to others from all walks of life.

During your program-specific studies, you’ll cover a wide range of knowledge essential to becoming a proficient registered nurse. You’ll learn how to assess and work with patients of all ages, learn about relevant medical technologies, and study the basics of pharmacology. You’ll also study anatomy, microbiology, and nutrition to build an understanding of how the human body works. Finally, you’ll gain knowledge of healthcare ethics, learn leadership skills in a medical setting—and of course, gain lots of hands-on experience to prepare you for a variety of entry-level nursing jobs across the healthcare industry.

When comparing different BSN degree programs, consider looking for one that offers students job-placement assistance after finishing their degree—it can take a lot of the stress out of a job search to have a little help along the way from somebody who knows the ins and outs of the nursing field.

3. Pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN)

Once you’ve completed your BSN degree, you’ll need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam to prove you’ve mastered the material enough to safely and effectively perform your duties as a registered nurse. The NCLEX is a computer-adaptive test, meaning that a correct answer will result in a slightly more difficult question, and an incorrect answer will make your next question slightly easier. Every time you answer a question, the overall assessment of your knowledge gets increasingly precise.

The exam questions are mostly multiple-choice, with a few fill-in-the-blank or drag-and-drop questions. How long the exam takes depends on how quickly you answer the questions. While the exact number of questions varies from year to year, you’ll usually get between 100-200 questions and a maximum of six hours to complete the exam. Regular breaks are scheduled, and you can take more breaks if you need to—just be aware they’ll count against your overall testing time!

Close up of pencils and a notebook

4. Get Licensed On a State-By-State Basis

After passing the NCLEX-RN, you’ll have completed the most challenging part of the licensure process, though you may still need to take additional steps like completing a background check to get a nursing license in any given state. Licensure requirements for registered nurses vary state-by-state—you can learn more about individual states’ requirements from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

How Much Does it Cost to Earn a Nursing Degree?

It’s not uncommon for colleges or universities to charge over $20,000 per semester just in tuition—not to mention the costs of lab fees, books, and living expenses. However, due to lower overhead costs and not having to pay for things like athletic programs, attending nursing school at an online university can be a great way to save thousands while still receiving a top-notch education. Wherever you decide to attend school, make sure it’s with an institution that’s upfront about what you can expect to spend. For example, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at Brookline College charges a flat rate of $732 per credit hour and includes all books, lab fees, and other required materials throughout your 122-credit-hour program.

Registered Nurse Salaries

How Much Do Registered Nurses Make?

Registered nurses work hard both in school and on the job, and the salary they earn reflects that. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for an RN works out to about $77,000, with the top 25% of earners bringing home $90,000 per year and up. Make it to the top 10% of the field, and you’re looking at a six-figure income.

Highest Paying Industries for Registered Nurses

Just like you’d expect, the vast majority of jobs for registered nurses are in hospitals where 24/7 care is a must. However, hundreds of thousands of RN jobs are still available in other areas like private physician’s offices, home healthcare services, nursing homes, and outpatient care centers. Your salary as a nurse can also vary depending on your chosen industry or workplace setting.

The following is a list of the highest paying industries for registered nurses:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Pharmaceuticals & Medicine $41.54 $86,400
Outpatient Care Centers $40.73 $84,720
Specialized Hospitals $38.86 $80,840
General Hospitals $38.20 $79,460
Psychiatric & Substance Abuse Hospitals $35.87 $74,610
Home Health Care Services $35.41 $73,660
Nursing Care Facilities $33.53 $69,740
Physicians’ Offices $33.45 $69,570

Highest Paying States for Registered Nurses

Most of the top-paying jobs for registered nurses tend to be located in more populated places with higher living costs. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stuck in a big city. According to the BLS, these are the states with the highest average wages for RNs:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
California $54.44 $113,240
Hawaii $50.03 $104,060
District of Columbia $45.59 $94,820
Massachusetts $44.79 $93,160
Oregon $44.69 $92,960

Highest Paying Cities for Registered Nurses

The following cities pay the highest average salaries to registered nurses in the US.

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Jose, CA $67.67 $140,740
San Francisco, CA $66.35 $138,000
Santa Cruz, CA $64.42 $134,000
Salinas, CA $64.22 $133,580
Fairfield, CA $63.45 $131,970
Sacramento, CA $60.85 $126,560
Yuba City, CA $57.34 $119,260
Modesto, CA $54.22 $112,790
Stockton, CA $52.99 $110,220
Santa Barbara, CA $52.38 $108,940

What is the Job Outlook for Registered Nurses?

Two nurses discussing a patient's chart

Demand for healthcare services is only projected to increase as a significant portion of the population enters old age, which means the long-term prospects for registered nurses are excellent. The BLS projects the employment of registered nurses to increase 7% by 2029, which is nearly double the average growth rate for all careers in the same time period (4%). Opportunities for advancement into management or specialized nurse practitioner jobs are also plentiful once you gain some experience in the field.

Ready to Start Your Career as a Registered Nurse?

Whether you’ve always known you were destined to help people heal, or it’s a passion you’ve discovered more recently, a career as a registered nurse is a fulfilling way to earn a fantastic living. Learn more about the bachelor’s degree in Nursing program at Brookline College, and start taking steps toward your new life as an RN.