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Career Guide to Becoming a Registered Nurse

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What Is a Registered Nurse?

If you’ve seen any of the medical sitcoms that have aired over the past decade, you may think you have a good idea of what a registered nurse (RN) does on a daily basis. But, while those shows may portray some of the common nursing duties, the reality is that nurses are likely to do a lot more than you’d think.

Nurses care for patients and support  providers in a wide variety of settings, including clinics, hospitals, senior care, schools, and government care facilities. And, this field is growing much faster than the national average. The nursing field is projected to see a job growth of about 7% by 2029. The pay in this field is higher than the national average, too. As of 2020, the average annual salary for registered nurses was $75,330, with government and hospital workers earning the highest salaries.

[ Read: The 25 Most Affordable Online RN-to-BSN Programs for 2021 ]

Considering the growth and average pay, nursing can be a great career to pursue. You’ll need to meet the educational and licensure requirements first, though. Registered nurses are required to graduate from accredited nursing programs and meet the prescribed standards of education and state clinical competence requirements in order to obtain a nursing license. So, if you’re considering a career in this field, or are just wondering how to become an RN, here’s what you need to know. 

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What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Registered nurses (RNs) are multi-tasking healthcare providers. Nurses consult with patient healthcare teams to evaluate, plan, and implement patient care. They also administer medications, monitor patients for changes in health status, record and update patient information, and educate patients on treatment and care plans. 

An RN’s duties can also include:

  • Assessing a patient’s condition
  • Recording and observing symptoms
  • Operating different kinds of medical equipment
  • Collaborating and consulting with other healthcare professionals
  • Setting up treatment plans and administering patient medications 
  • Teaching patients and families about how to manage care plans, illnesses and injuries 
  • Helping to perform various diagnostic tests

Some RNs also mentor and supervise nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, and home health aides. 

The typical duties of an RN will also vary quite a bit depending on the place of employment, too. For example, a registered cardiovascular nurse works with patients with heart conditions. A neonatal nurse works with newborns with health issues. Sometimes, two or more areas of practice are combined. 

Registered Nurse vs. Licensed Vocational Nurse: How the Two Roles Differ

A licensed vocational nurse (LVN) is a nurse with formal educational training, but they do this without obtaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. These types of nurses typically work under the supervision of an RN, a doctor, or another mid-level healthcare practitioner. 

To become an LVN, you will spend one to two years in a vocational nursing program, where you will obtain a certificate, diploma, or another formal certification in nursing. When you graduate, you must pass an exam to gain your licence to practice.

A registered nurse (RN), on the other hand, has completed at least an associate’s degree in nursing. While it is possible to become an RN with just an associate’s degree, it is common for RNs to complete a four-year bachelor of science in nursing program. 

Following graduation from an accredited program, RNs must also complete an NCLEX-RN exam to obtain licensure. You may also need to meet different standards or licensing requirements before you can get licensed as an RN. 

Both an RN and an LVN perform similar duties. However, RNs have a higher level of responsibility and care for patients, and are compensated accordingly. 

Different Types of Registered Nurses

There are many types of registered nurses, all of whom perform many different duties in a variety of workplaces. These include:

  • Certified addiction nurse (CARN): These RNs care for patients on the road to overcoming addictions to alcohol, drugs, and other substances
  • Case management nurse (ACM-RN): When a patient is undergoing long-term treatment or has been hospitalized for mental health issues, they may require a long-term care plan. ACM-RNs coordinate with physicians to help create individualized care plans.
  • Critical care nurse (CCRN): Critical care nurses are RNs who work with patients whose lives are threatened due to critical conditions caused by accidents, injuries, or other health issues. These nurses primarily work in intensive care units, emergency rooms, burn centers, and other critical care environments. 
  • Dialysis nurse (CDN): Patients on dialysis for liver or kidney failure need personalized care that only a nurse specialized in dialysis is trained to give. RNs in this capacity may work in clinics, dialysis facilities, and hospitals.
  • Occupational health nurse (OHN, COHN or COHN-S): OHNs use their knowledge and skills to care for individuals in the workplace. They may be trained in specific areas, such as ergonomics, health education, disease management, or psychophysiological concerns. 
  • Genetics nurses: These types of RNs provide counseling, screening, and treatment to patients with genetic disorders.
  • Neonatal nurses: Babies who have healthcare concerns at birth, or shortly after, need the specialized care of Neonatal RNs, who are trained to work with this population. 
  • Correctional health professional nurse (CCHP-RN): When inmates at a correctional institution need medical help, a CCHP-RN is generally the person in charge of offering care. 
  • Public health RNs: These types of registered nurses typically promote public health by educating people on the various diseases or how to manage chronic health conditions. They also might immunize patients, work at blood drives, run health screenings, or handle other public-facing duties. 

How to Become a Registered Nurse

Wondering how to become a nurse? To become an RN, you must first earn a nursing degree or diploma. Training and education for RNs is offered at many colleges, universities, community colleges, or online. 

Bachelor of science in nursing degrees (BSN) typically take about four years to complete, while associate’s degree programs in nursing (ADN and ASN) typically take two to three years to complete. You will also have to complete the clinical requirements, like rotations at hospitals or nursing homes, to obtain licensure.

Diploma programs are sometimes offered at healthcare facilities, like medical centers or hospitals. Like ADN and ASN programs, these programs typically take between two and three years to complete, including clinical experience. 

Most often, licensed graduates of any of these programs qualify for entry-level positions as a staff nurse. Some RNs with ADN or ASN or graduates of diploma programs may go back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree. Many hospitals will only hire RNs with bachelor’s degrees. 

There are also master’s degree programs in nursing and accelerated programs if you want to become a nurse but already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field. 

Licenses and certifications

Working RNs must be licensed in the state where they work. To become licensed, you’ll need to graduate from an approved nursing program. You will also be required to pass the NCLEX-RN exam. You will also need to pass a background check and meet other requirements set out by your state. RNs must also have knowledge and training in basic life support, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) certifications.

RN-to-BSN programs

RN to BSN programs are great options for registered nurses who only have an associate’s degree in the field. If you are a registered nurse with an ADN or ASN in nursing, you may want to obtain your bachelor of science in nursing degree through this type of program. A BSN helps RNs obtain more knowledge and skills, and can lead to earning a higher salary as well. RN-BSN nurses earn about $85,000 a year on average, while ADNs earn about $69,500 per year on average. Plus, RN-to-BSN programs can usually be completed in about two years. 

You may also decide to go back to school to earn a master’s of science in nursing. Earning your MSN can open doors and unlock advanced roles in the nursing field. You may also get the opportunity to earn a higher salary. To pursue an MSN degree, you must hold a BS in Nursing and have experience as an RN. 

Where Do Registered Nurses Work?

In most hospital or treatment settings, RNs will work in shifts — including nights, weekends, and holidays. They might also be required to be on call and to work on short notice. 

Nurses who work in schools and offices, on the other hand, might only work regular business hours or be on call during off-hours. 

RNs can work in many places, including:

  • Hospitals: state, local, and private
  • Healthcare facilities and clinics
  • Treatment centers
  • Residential care facilities
  • Doctor’s offices
  • Assisted living and nursing homes
  • Government facilities, like correction facilities 
  • In education at the state, local and private level

Registered Nurse Salaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salaries for RNs by industry included:

Government$84,400
Hospitals; state, local, and private$76,840
Ambulatory healthcare services$72,340
Nursing and residential care facilities$68,450
Educational services$64,630

Who Should Become a Registered Nurse?

Thinking of becoming a registered nurse? You should know that nurses typically follow doctor’s orders, which means that your temperament should be able to handle being told what to do by other medical professionals. That said, nurses must also assess a patient’s condition or symptoms, which calls for critical thinking skills.

The best nurses are also emotionally stable and compassionate, which can help in tough situations. It’s also important to note that RNs work shifts. If you don’t like shift work, you may want to reconsider becoming a nurse.

If you want to work as an RN, it helps to like working with people and be able to handle them when they are at their worst or in pain. You will witness patient suffering, have to deal with family members, and be able to handle the medical aspects of providing care, too. It helps to be in good physical shape, too, as you are on your feet and very busy for your entire shift.

Nurses work under pressure and must often make quick decisions, so if stress management is tough for you, this may not be a good fit. You must be able to work in a team environment, as nurses are just one part of a treatment team.

Where Can You Earn a Registered Nursing Degree?

Because nurses are in high demand, there are plenty of colleges and universities that offer nursing degrees and diplomas to students. Many two-year programs are available at community colleges, while most four-year bachelor programs are offered at traditional colleges and universities. Some hospitals offer nursing programs, diploma programs, or advancement opportunities as well. And, if you’re looking for an RN-to-BSN program, you may be able to complete your degree online.

Can You Earn a Degree in Nursing Online?

Yes, you can earn a degree in nursing online. That said, it’s important to understand that the clinical experience and other practical components of becoming a nurse are generally required to be completed in-person. Those practical requirements are why most online BSN programs only offer an online RN to BSN degree option. You must already hold a valid RN license to apply, which means this option is best for working nurses who want to gain more education in their field. There are also many accredited MSN nursing programs available online, which is an option for RN-BSN nurses.

Kathryn Pomroy picture

Kathryn Pomroy

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Kathryn Pomroy is a freelance journalist who covers higher education, online graduate programs, college planning, and more for Best Value Schools. She has written for dozens of major publications including TIME magazine.

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