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How to Become an RN

Liz Heintz

Written By: Liz Heintz

Published: 6/14/2022

The nursing profession continues to be an in-demand career in various health care settings. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects registered nursing as one of the occupations expected to see the most job growth through 2030. With this in mind, we'll look at what RNs do after completing a nursing program, where they work, and the steps it takes to become an RN to help you decide if it's the right fit for you. We'll hear from an experienced RN about the path her career took and the pros and cons of working in this critical health care field.

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What Is an RN?

RNs play a vital role in medical teams. They typically hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN) earned at a nursing school with programs accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). After graduation, they must successfully pass the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN) to apply for state licensure and practice nursing legally. RNs support advanced practice RNs (APRNs) and physicians by providing high-quality patient care. In addition to medical treatment, patients rely on these health care professionals to provide reassurance and comfort during hospital stays.

What Personal Qualities Are Needed To Be an RN?

The nursing field can be demanding. As a result, there are certain unique qualities that O*NET has identified as beneficial to the success of registered nurses:

  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Attention to detail
  • Compassion
  • Cooperation
  • Dependability
  • Initiative
  • Independence
  • Integrity
  • Self-control
  • Stress tolerance

There are also several work values many nurses share:

  • Building professional and respectful relationships with coworkers who hold similar moral values
  • Working in a supportive environment that values the work of its employees
  • Being able to grow and being trusted to take on new challenges in an organization where achievement is recognized and rewarded

What Does an RN Do?

An RN's work is vital to ensuring the patients they serve are treated with compassion and receive quality care in a safe environment. In general, their primary responsibilities include the following:

Coordinating patient care

Educating patients and their families about health and wellness

Recording patient health histories, symptoms, and changes in health

Implementing patient care plans and providing instructions for after-visit care

Teaching patients how to care for wounds and injuries

Operating medical equipment

Collecting specimens for lab work analysis

Administering treatments and medications

A nurse's responsibilities will vary depending on their work environment and specialty. For example, nurses working in smaller facilities and clinics may provide more comprehensive care. In contrast, nurses in larger institutions and medical facilities may work with licensed practical or vocational nurses and nursing assistants, such as CNAs, who share responsibility. The demographic they work with will also influence the care they provide. For example, neonatal nurses working in an NICU receive special training to provide lifesaving care to premature infants, which requires a targeted skillset. On the other hand, pediatric nurses may use a broader range of skills: working in a physician's office, administering routine immunizations, and caring for everything from childhood bumps and bruises to respiratory infections.

An APRN has earned a master's degree in administering advanced patient care. They may also fulfill leadership roles and supervise other nurses. APRNs include nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse practitioners (NPs). While they perform much of the same work as an RN, APRNs may also perform the following job functions:

Perform physical exams

Diagnose conditions

Create patient health plans

Analyze test results

Monitor a patient's response to treatment and medication

Conduct research

Where Do RNs Work?

RNs work in various inpatient and outpatient environments depending on the type of nursing they practice. For example, some nurses work in rural areas with limited access to health care, while others may work in larger metropolitan areas at more centralized hospitals and clinics. Some may even work in the legal system as nurse consultants or expert witnesses. Travel nursing is a popular career for RNs willing to work wherever help is needed, and as hospitals all across the US continue to face staffing shortages since the COVID-19 pandemic, this career track has proven to be crucial.

To learn more about nursing requirements and see a list of accredited online nursing programs by state, explore our guide to becoming a nurse.

Steps To Become an RN

Becoming an RN includes completing the following steps:


Earn your nursing diploma through a nursing program accredited by the CCNE or ACEN. Complete required hours of supervised clinical experience to take the NCLEX and prove competency.


Apply for and pass the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for licensure through a state board of nursing to practice legally.


Start looking and applying for jobs. Tap resources for job postings and career advice, such as your school's career center, your personal network, LinkedIn, and any nursing associations you may belong to.


Throughout your career, make sure you complete required continuing education units (CEUs) to renew your nursing license and keep it in good standing.


Seek advanced training through a bachelor's degree (RN to BSN program), graduate degree program, or certificate program if you are interested in job growth opportunities.

What Is the Career Outlook for RNs?

The BLS anticipates that RNs will see 9% job growth through 2030, equating to over 3 million nurses. However, there is a widespread nursing shortage throughout the US due to several factors, such as increased life expectancy necessitating long-term care, turnover due to retirement, stress, and burnout. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, demand will be highest in the following states through 2030:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Georgia
  • New Jersey
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas

Because of an increased need for geriatric care, RNs are needed in nursing homes, residential care, and hospital settings. APRNs can anticipate significantly higher 45% job growth through 2030. Again, the greatest need will be in geriatric care.

How Much Do RNs Make?

How much an RN makes often depends on the work setting, geographical location, and specialty. In general, BLS data shows that RNs earn a $77,600 annual median salary. Those that work in the government in public health earn more on average at $85,970. The western US typically pays their RNs the highest wages, with the District of Columbia as the outlier:

Top Paying States for RNs Top Paying Metro Areas for RNs
California San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
Hawaii San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA
Oregon Vallejo-Fairfield, CA
District of Columbia Santa Rosa, CA
Alaska Napa, CA

APRNs earn a $123,780 annual median salary, with nurse anesthetists earning the highest at $195,610. The highest-paying states for nurse anesthetists are as follows:

Top Paying States for Nurse Anesthetists Top Paying Metro Areas for Nurse Anesthetists
Alaska Fairbanks, AK
Connecticut Green Bay, WI
New Jersey Madison, WI
Illinois Wausau, WI
West Virginia Springfield, IL

Career Advancement

RNs have numerous opportunities for career advancement in high-demand disciplines. They can transition laterally into different environments, gain experience in a specialty to hone skills, or earn a master's degree to become an APRN. An APRN can earn a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) to provide advanced care or work in health care leadership. Some nurses use their acute care and emergency room experience to earn credentials, such as becoming a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), paving the way to new opportunities.

Karin Ashley, an integrative women's health NP, always knew she was interested in transitioning from an RN to an APRN and specializing in women's wellness during the childbearing years. She worked in two different children's hospitals early in her seven-year RN career because she knew "inpatient nursing would be beneficial for experience."

"Most of the students in my master's program were able to get jobs at their preceptor location," Ashley says, "or they were promised jobs by their current employer in more advanced positions."

Ashley decided to pursue a master's degree to become an NP because of the opportunities it can create. "Most of the students in my master's program were able to get jobs at their preceptor location," Ashley says, "or they were promised jobs by their current employer in more advanced positions." Ashley also recognizes that career advancement can take on many shapes and forms. In states where APRNs can work independently, she points out that "nurse entrepreneurs are on the rise, setting up and managing their own businesses and clinics, some even employing physicians to work for them."

Nurses who earn their master's can earn significantly more money than those with a BSN degree and have more opportunities for advancement.

Should I Become an RN?

As with choosing any career, it helps first to take a personal inventory of your interests, aptitudes, career goals, and financial situation. It's then essential to dive a little deeper and consider the other aspects of being an RN, such as the coursework in a degree program and how long it may take you to complete, licensing requirements, the work environment, and overall job satisfaction.

It may be beneficial to speak to RNs in the field that interests you. LinkedIn is always a great place to start connecting with others, and you'll be able to search for job opportunities. The resources we list below can also provide a chance to network and hear others' personal stories and perspectives.

Ashley also offers some insight into the pros and cons of nursing. "The biggest pros of pursuing a nursing career are by far the diversity of job opportunities and flexibility of work/life balance," she says. "There are so many different ways to use an RN license — from your own home, a clinical setting, in a hospital setting, in private homes, as an educator, a writer, a researcher, even as an expert witness." It can help to remain flexible and adaptable to change. "Nursing shortages come and go in waves," Ashley says, "so even when the market gets saturated, it will likely swing the other way, and new opportunities will arise."

"There are so many different ways to use an RN license — from your own home, a clinical setting, in a hospital setting, in private homes, as an educator, a writer, a researcher, even as an expert witness."

As for the cons of nursing, Ashley says, "The biggest con is that nurses are often overworked and underappreciated, both by employers and patients. This is more specific to certain specialty areas," she says, "but certainly a possibility in any setting." In addition, Ashley acknowledges that there has been a "mass exodus" of hospital nurses. "Some of those nurses have stopped working in health care altogether," she says, "but many have found other jobs with less stress, higher pay, and greater flexibility."

FAQs About Becoming an RN

Is Becoming an RN Hard?

Becoming an RN takes commitment. Education requirements can be challenging but also stimulating if you have a passion for entering the medical field and providing patient care. Passing the NCLEX requires focus and comprehensive training. Schools with high NCLEX pass rates work hard to prepare nursing students for success beyond graduation.

What Are the Qualifications To Become an RN?

At a minimum, entry-level RNs must earn an ADN and pass the NCLEX-RN exam for licensure though larger medical care facilities may require the completion of a BSN program. Students must also complete clinical supervised experience hours to be eligible to take the exam, which may vary by state.

How Long Does It Take To Become an RN?

It generally takes full-time students two years to complete an ADN program to become an RN. There are also practicum hours to complete to graduate and meet NCLEX exam eligibility for RN licensure.

What Is the Average Salary for an RN?

RNs earn a $77,600 annual median salary, according to the BLS. The lowest 10% of RNs in the field earn less than $59,450, while the highest earn over $120,250. Wages may depend on the nursing position, specialty, and location.

Resources for RNs

RNs have access to dozens of nursing organizations that offer resources to help them network with others in their field, conduct research, take classes and webinars, and provide support throughout their career. Many of these associations are specific to nursing specialties or the demographics they serve so that RNs can find information targeted to their field. While this list isn't exhaustive, it gives an idea of the kinds of associations RNs can join and how they are represented in the greater health care community.

There are also several academic nursing journals RNs refer to when conducting research or keeping up with the latest news in the nursing community:

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