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Registered Nurse (RN) Career Guide

What is a registered nurse?

Registered nurses, or RNs, are essential personnel in hospitals and other medical settings who are responsible for helping to properly care for those in need. They must have compassion, medical knowledge, and strong interpersonal skills to understand their patients’ needs.

Duties and responsibilities

Registered nurses’ main priority is to provide high-quality care and support to their patients. This includes observing a patient’s vitals, conducting various assessments, informing patients about their health, and providing advice and emotional support. Registered nurses will need to record the patient’s vitals, symptoms, medication, and history for their patient’s charts.

Supporting and helping to heal patients through a difficult time in their life can be incredibly rewarding. Registered nurses can feel good knowing they have made a difference in people’s lives through their work. Registered nurses can also have flexible schedules, allowing an ideal work-family balance in their lives.

Work environment

The typical work environment of a registered nurse may be a hospital, a physician’s office, an education facility, or a nursing home. Registered nurses must provide and coordinate care for patients and occasionally educate patients and the public about common healthcare concerns and practices. A registered nurse will be responsible for evaluating patients, recording patient data and locating patient history, performing physical exams and diagnostic tests when required, and giving patients treatments and administering medications. Typical work hours for a RN will be full-time and reliant on clinic hours.

Typical work hours

Registered nurses work various schedules because some healthcare facilities are open early in the morning, late at night, or 24 hours a day. As a result, RNs might work evenings, weekends, and holidays. They frequently log more than 40 hours a week and often are on call, meaning they must be available to work on short notice.

How to become a registered nurse

In order to become a registered nurse, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Earn your high school diploma

Once you’ve earned your high school diploma, it’s time to pick a major and career path. If nursing has been on your radar, consider taking the Complete Guide to Nursing School for Pre-Nursing Students from Udemy. This course covers information on what nursing school is like, teaches tips on how to stand out amongst your peers, and how to manage stress and study well to get your nursing degree. 

Step 2: Work on a nursing degree from an accredited program

Most registered nursing positions require a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited college or university. Complete your four-year degree with courses in biology, anatomy, and the basics of patient care. 

Step 3: Complete clinical training requirements

Clinicals will depend on the program you’ve signed up for. Shifts happen a few times a week during the semester, with shifts ranging from four to twelve-hour shifts. Most programs have nursing students work about 120 to 140 hours in total. Clinicals give you hands-on experience where you will get out of the classroom and into a medical facility to assist and learn.

Step 4: Apply for the required state licenses

Once you have completed your education, you can begin applying for a state license in the state where you plan to work. Once you’ve begun your application, you can move to the next step and start preparing for the exam.

Step 5: Prepare for and pass the nursing license exam

The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is a national exam for nursing students in the United States and Canada. Create a study plan and prepare for the exam before taking it. If you need help, check out the Ultimate NCLEX Study Plan for Nursing Majors course. This course will ensure you’re covering the appropriate material for the exam and putting together the best study plan to pass the test. Plus, it covers tips on what to expect on the test day. 

Step 6: Apply for nursing jobs

Search for nursing jobs on online search engines and hospital websites, or utilize the connections you made during nursing school. Many working nurses will have good information on who is hiring and for which positions and shifts. 

Step 7: Get additional certifications and/or degrees for nursing

Once you’ve become a registered nurse, you can apply for specialty certificates to work in specific areas of medicine. These can help you increase your salary.

  • Public Health Nursing Certification (APHN) – The public health nursing certification may be helpful to a RN due to the variety of positions a nurse may work in. Public health nurses will work with communities and may be required by some states to have this certification, which can prove helpful to a RN. 
  • Emergency Nurse Practioner Certification – The emergency nurse practitioner certification will benefit RNs looking to work in emergency-related fields, like a hospital or urgent care clinic. The certificate is required in some states and provides advanced knowledge of emergency services.
  • Specialty Certifications – Each hospital or surgery unit specialty has certifications available for nurses to learn more about that specific part of the healthcare system. Options include cardiovascular, respiratory, gastroenterology, and geriatric nursing.
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – Gaining an advanced nursing degree will provide additional healthcare opportunities. Nurse practitioners often work in primary care facilities and handle a lot of patient interaction instead of MDs. 

Step 8: Take continuing education courses

Once you’ve been hired as a nurse, it’s important to stay updated with changing technologies and new discoveries in the medical field. You may also want to switch specialties and grow your knowledge within your role for future opportunities. There are many fantastic ways to learn, and these courses are a few simple ways to do a quick refresh or branch out into a new area at your own pace.

  • Sign up for the Medical Terminology Course from Udemy to get a great overview of medical terminology. The course teaches basic skills and terms for nursing and will help you work with your patients and communicate more effectively with doctors and other medical professionals.
  • Another great refresher course is Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body is Telling Us from Coursera. You’ll dive into the vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate, and pain. It shows appropriate techniques for measuring these vital signs in yourself and others.
  • Easy Anatomy and Physiology is an excellent course if you want to review the human body’s anatomical structures. This will review things you learned in nursing school, but it may be helpful if you switch specialties or want to review again.
  • For more specialized training, there is a Coursera class called Anatomy Specialization. It covers the major organ systems, their functions, and their relationships within the body. The course includes information on the skeletal system, the integumentary system, and more. 
  • The Advanced and Comprehensive Nursing Course covers common medical conditions you’ll come across in the hospital. There are also sections on nurse management, research, and helping to promote preventative health.
  • Another course that covers terminology is Clinical Terminology for International and U.S. Students from Coursera. This course will help anyone that wants to work within the United States health care system. It covers clinical terms and abbreviations commonly used in verbal and written communication.
  • Top Drugs 1 – Medications You NEED to Know – Pharmacy is a course from Udemy. This course will help you learn all about the top drugs used in hospitals and clinics. Understand when drugs are used, why, and how. It’s a great introduction to pharmacology.
  • Patient safety is critical in nursing. Leading Healthcare Quality and Safety is a course that provides an introduction to the knowledge and skills for patient safety initiatives. Understand research and studies from the World Health Organization and other international organizations. 

How much do registered nurses make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a registered nurse makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few.

Highest paying states

  • California – $124,000
  • Hawaii – $106,530
  • Oregon – $98,630
  • District of Columbia – $98,540
  • Alaska – $97,230

Browse RN salary data by market

Types of registered nurses

In the nursing field, there are a few levels of nursing positions that depend mostly on the amount of education you have received. A certified nursing assistant (CNA) has usually not completed a four-year nursing degree and can only assist with specific patient duties. A nurse practitioner (NP) has completed additional schooling after a nursing degree and can diagnose patients in certain situations, prescribe medications, and organize treatment plans.

Registered nurses make up the largest group of nurses in the medical field. Within that category, there are dozens of types of nurses and different areas you can enter if you are interested in pursuing that route.

ICU nurses

Critical care/ICU nurses manage various cases that come into the hospital and are extremely well-rounded regarding knowledge and experience. Ambulatory nurses assist with patient transports to a hospital in ambulances or even by air. Medical and surgical nurses assist the doctors and surgeons with patient care and administer pre-op and post-op care. 

Specialty nurses

Specialty nurses often have additional certifications or required years of experience for their specialty. These include cardiovascular, gastroenterology, orthopedic, neonatal, pediatric, oncology, and geriatric nurses. These specialty positions will usually remain only in their units and become knowledgeable in their area of medicine.

Non-hospital nurses

In non-hospital settings, you’ll find rehabilitation nurses that may help patients with long-term recovery from an illness or operation. Addiction nurses assist in rehab facilities. Occupational nurses can be found in a variety of different environments, as well as public health nurses. You might work in schools, offices, government agencies, etc. 

Traveling nurses

The last major category includes travel nurses. If you are open to working in different locations, you may opt for this role. Nurses move around to hospitals that are in need and set up with specific contracts (usually three to six months) and set up with a housing stipend. This a wonderful opportunity to be introduced to multiple hospital settings and geographies before you settle down and commit long-term.

Once you become a nurse, there are so many directions you can take in your career. You may work in many roles throughout your life in nursing. Remain open to the possibilities and chat with your peers to learn more about other departments and specialties. 

Top skills for registered nurses

Registered nurses have a specific requirement of education and passing exams to become eligible to apply for nursing jobs. Hands-on clinical experience is required in many programs as well. Certain specialties also require specific certification gained by completing additional coursework.

Nursing candidates should have excellent people skills with easy-going attitudes. Empathy and compassion are also important when working with patients all day, many of whom are vulnerable. A calm, caring demeanor will help them remain professional and make their patients comfortable.

Other essential skills for becoming a registered nurse include discretion and handling confidential information. Physical stamina is important for long shifts mostly spent moving around and standing. Emotional stability is good for managing tough situations. And finally, the ability to prioritize a workload and multitask is good because nurses rarely take charge of just one patient at a time.

Registered nurse career path

After becoming a registered nurse, you can receive a few certifications to further your career and join a specialty within the hospital. There are also hospital administration and nurse management positions that you can work toward as a nurse. Those positions can make a more significant impact on overall hospital interactions.

Nurses also make excellent medical school candidates. Continuing on to medical school will allow nurses to receive their medical degrees and become doctors. Some hospitals provide tuition reimbursement for nurses pursuing advanced degrees.

There is a great deal of job growth projected for registered nurses in the coming years, which suggests a promising career path. An aging population, an increasing emphasis on preventative care, and advances in medical technology are all trends that have contributed to this growth. Furthermore, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of nurses in the healthcare system, prompting many organizations to hire and retain more nurses.

Employment projections for RNs

With an aging population, the demand for registered nurses will continue to be strong. It’s estimated to grow by about 6% in the next decade, with more skilled nurses leaving the field due to retirement or career transitions. Some RNs who want to improve their career prospects decide to get certified in a specific discipline, like gerontology or pediatrics, but it’s not required. 

More and more patients prefer receiving treatment at home or in residential care facilities, so more registered nurses will be needed to provide care in those settings. 

Registered nurse career tips

Soft skills and traits

Remember that the nursing career path isn’t always linear. There are many different types of nurses, so if you aren’t happy with your first role, you can always readjust and try something different. Continue learning long after you receive your degree. In the field of medicine, there are constantly new discoveries and technologies that can alter your methods at work. 

Move your body. Nursing will require many hours of standing on your feet, and stretching and caring for your muscles to handle that amount of movement is essential. Invest in good shoes and spend time stretching and doing strength exercises. Find calming self-care routines. There will be some emotional days working with patients; bringing yourself peace and calm will be good for your mental health.

Work on your bedside manner. You must keep a straight face and minimize your emotions when delivering news and answering questions. Empathy is important, but you don’t want to cry or be visibly upset when working.

Commonly required skills and qualifications

Study acronyms and prepare a cheat guide to keep with you. Medical terminology is complicated and involves similar-sounding acronyms. Study as much as you can and write down the ones that you struggle to remember, so you have them on you at all times. Switch your thinking to military time. This may seem simple, but you’ll need to be used to the 24-hour clock, so start prepping yourself now.

Learn to take good and quick notes. Nurses need to be able to communicate and relay a lot of information to doctors or patients. Make sure you can quickly capture information and document it so that you can understand and report back.

Develop a professional network

Make connections with other nurses and aspiring nurses. The job can be challenging sometimes, and having people in your life who understand the job’s demands can be extremely helpful.

  • American Nurses Association
  • National League for Nursing (NLN)
  • Emergency Nurses Association (ENA)
  • Oncology Nursing Society (ONS)
  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
  • LinkedIn and Facebook Groups

Where the nursing jobs are

Top companies

  • HCA Healthcare
  • Baylor Scott & White Health
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • Mayo Clinic

Top states

  • New York
  • Florida
  • California
  • Texas
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Dice
  • Careerbuilder
  • Monster


Do nurses need to go to college and get a degree?

To become a registered nurse, you must complete a nursing degree from an accredited college or university and pass the nursing exam. Some programs are quicker than four years, but most are standard four-year degrees.

Can a nurse become a doctor?

Nurses can absolutely continue on to medical school once they have their nursing degree. They make excellent candidates for medical school thanks to their experience with patients and assisting in hospitals.

How long does it take to become a nurse?

Depending on your nursing degree, becoming a nurse typically takes two to four years. If you continue on to work toward a doctorate in nursing, it might add an additional two years.

Are nurse positions stressful?

The role of a nurse is critical in hospitals, and there might be times when the patient load is higher and, therefore, a bit more stressful. The hardest part of the job is losing a patient, but managing stress and emotion is something good nurses can do.

What does a typical day look like for a nurse?

Nurses will have a set of patients to manage during their shifts. They speak with patients, collect information, observe and record details, and help prepare patients for different medical treatments and procedures. Nurses administer medicines and treatments and work with doctors and patient families.

How many hours do nurses work?

Staffing shortages can be common in some major metropolitan areas, especially since the pandemic so nurses may cover longer shifts. It is a full-time job that often involves schedules with more than 40 hours a week. Professional burnout can happen in this position.

What type of person makes a good nurse?

A nurse needs patience, kindness, and the ability to multitask and prioritize. Bedside manner is important when caring for those ill and injured, so it’s good to be easygoing. Empathy and compassion are essential skills as well in someone becoming a nurse.

Why do people become nurses?

Nurses are incredibly well-respected professionals who do so much to help people. There is a high demand for more registered nurses, so it’s a strong career path with great earning potential and high job satisfaction. 

Does each state have its own nursing license?

Nursing licenses differ for each state, but once you’ve passed the nursing exam, you can apply for licenses in any state you work in. There are temporary permits if you need to get to work immediately while waiting for your permanent license to be approved.

Are there different kinds of nurses?

Registered nurses can take a collection of different certification courses to work in specific medicine units. For example, neonatal nurses work with infants that need additional monitoring and care. Nurses can take the necessary courses to earn a neonatal certificate.

What is a float pool in nursing?

Some hospitals plan for needed shifts by hiring nurses in a float pool. This group moves around to different parts of the hospital as the numbers require a shift. Schedules and specialties may change daily, but it helps plan and be prepared for the unexpected.

Can you complete a nursing degree online?

There are some accredited colleges and universities that offer online programs. However, there is still a clinical aspect where you’ll need to be in person for hands-on experience. The nursing license exam will also need to be completed in person.