How to Become a Registered Nurse

If you're seeking a rewarding career in a high-growth field, now is a great time to become a registered nurse (RN). As an RN, you'll play an essential role in promoting health and wellness, and help improve the quality of life of everyone from infants to the elderly. 

Registered nurses provide medical care, education, and emotional support to patients. Employment for nurses is expected to increase by 26% from 2010 to 2020, which is a faster growth rate than most jobs. Read this article to learn how to get started in this rewarding and exciting career.
When you become a registered nurse, your primary responsibilities will involve caring for patients, but your specific job duties will vary depending on your employer and specialization. RNs work in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, outpatient facilities, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, dialysis centers, home healthcare agencies and physicians’ offices. They also work with diverse patient populations in specialized areas such as critical care, pediatrics, neonatology and gerontology.

Registered nurses assist physicians in providing treatment to patients suffering from various medical conditions. They may administer medication, monitor patient recovery and progress, and educate patients and their families on disease prevention and post-hospital treatment. RNs with advanced education may be responsible for performing patient diagnosis and case management. For some, becoming a registered nurse is the first step toward a career in healthcare administration or nursing education.

According to the BLS, the average annual income for registered nurses was $66,530 as of May 2009.2 RNs in the middle 50% bracket earned between $52,520 and $77,970, while the lowest 10% had salaries at or below $43,970. When you first become a registered nurse, your salary may fall in the lower to lower-middle range. However, your earnings can increase substantially with experience and advanced education. BLS findings showed that top 10% of registered nurses earned upwards of $93,700.


Education and Credentials
1. Get a high school diploma or pass the General Education Development (GED) test. While in high school, pay attention to your performance, skill, and interest in science courses like biology, physiology, and chemistry. How you perform in these types of courses early on will help you determine whether a career in medicine is right for you.
  • Don't get discouraged if these subjects don't come easily to you. Consider hiring a private tutor to help you excel in these courses. Remember that there may be confounding factors affecting your performance, like the classroom environment, a particular teacher's testing and grading methods, the quality of your textbook, and so on.
2. Pursue one of the following educational paths. There are three ways to become a registered nurse. Whatever path you choose, the coursework involved will include physiology, biology, chemistry, nutrition, and anatomy.
  • Obtain a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN). Programs typically take four years to complete, and vary in cost depending on which institution you choose. Bachelor's programs usually include more training in social sciences than other nursing programs. You may take courses in sociology, communications, leadership, and critical thinking. 
  • Complete an associate's degree in nursing (ASN). These programs usually take two to three years to complete. Many students transition to BSN programs after having completed an ASN.
  • Get a diploma from an accredited nursing program. Though most RNs complete a BSN or an ASN, you can also be eligible for licensure by completing a vocational nursing program. These programs vary in length, depending on which institution you choose.
3. Take the National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN). This test is the nationally recognized licensing exam for registered nurses. You will need to have completed one of the three types of nursing programs before you can be eligible to enroll for this examination.
  • Prerequisites to the exam may differ between states. Check with the requirements for your state, or for the state you plan on practicing in.
  • To enroll for the test, you will need to have completed the proper educational requirements.
4. Find a job as a nurse. There are more than 2 million nurses in the United States, making the position the largest in the healthcare field. There are a variety of settings in which a nurse can work, including hospitals, physicians' offices, elderly care homes, and schools.
  • First-year nurses should consider working in a specialty unit, as the patients in these facilities are more homogeneous. Examples of specialty units include orthopedic and pediatrics units.
  • Nurses with a bachelor's degree have better employment prospects than those who do not. Increase your job prospects by obtaining a bachelor's degree, if possible.
Other Considerations
1. Know the skills involved. Beyond having a breadth of knowledge in medicine, a nurse must also exhibit the following qualities: strong communication skills, a caring attitude, interest in working with people, openness to diversity, and ability to perform under stress.
  • Being a nurse requires working with people, so you should have strong interpersonal skills, be a good listener, and be patient.
  • You should not be squeamish when it comes to seeing sick or injured patients if you plan on becoming a nurse, as you will likely be exposed to blood and other bodily fluids on the job.
  • Patients and their families may need to be supported emotionally when dealing with a crisis, so make sure that you are somebody who can maintain your composure under emotionally stressful circumstances.
  • Be compassionate. Remember that patients may be scared or in pain, and they need to be comforted, reassured, and motivated to fight through their illnesses. Treat each patient as you would treat your own family member, and you will find the job much more rewarding.
  • Be comfortable working as part of a team. Nurses work closely with doctors, receptionists, and other staff members, so it is important that you be cooperative and friendly.
2. Stay up-to-date with your practice. Even after completing the required education and certification, nurses should continue to read medical journals, be aware of the policies of the healthcare organization they work for, and take additional courses in medicine.
  • The field of medicine is constantly growing and evolving, so it is important to stay up-to-date with new trends in healthcare, including new technologies and medications.
3. Consider becoming a nurse practitioner. Advance your career as a nurse by becoming a nurse practitioner, who can make diagnoses, prescribe medications, treat acute conditions and do other tasks that registered nurses cannot.
  • You will need to obtain a master's degree in nursing and pass a national examination in order to become a nurse practitioner. Additional requirements vary between states.
  • Nurse practitioners must become registered nurses first.