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Registered Nurse Careers

Registered nurses provide hands-on care to patients in hospitals, doctors' offices, long-term care facilities and other settings. They may record patients' medical histories, perform diagnostic tests, analyze results, and report to doctors and other healthcare professionals according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered nurses also teach patients and their families to properly manage injuries or illness once they are released from treatment and may be a source of emotional support (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Although registered nurses sometimes work in solitary roles, most registered nurses work in collaboration with other healthcare professionals and may supervise licensed practical nurses (LPNs) or other medical staff. Some nurses have non-patient-facing roles, working in administration, teaching, consulting, and other capacities (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Because nursing is so diverse, work environments and schedules can vary greatly. For example, trauma nurses may need to be on-call in addition to regular day or night shifts. They also have to remain calm and provide quality care amidst the chaos of an emergency room. Pediatric nurses, on the other hand, may work fairly standard hours in a small private practice.

How to Become a Registered Nurse

Individuals interested in registered nurse careers should research the specific requirements needed to become licensed in their state. Schools that offer registered nurse training often provide courses and curriculum that prepare students for licensing exams. The following steps provide general guidelines on how to prepare for registered nurse jobs:

  1. Earn a high school diploma while focusing on science-related coursework such as anatomy, physiology and microbiology.
  2. Earn an Associate of Science in nursing (ASN) OR Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN), depending on the specific educational requirements in your state. Though most RNs complete a BSN or an ASN, some may also be eligible for licensure by completing a nursing diploma.
  3. Following the completion of a nursing degree or diploma program, prepare to take the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination) for registered nurses.
  4. After passing the NCLEX-RN, meet any other licensing requirements outlined by your state.
  5. Apply to entry-level registered nursing jobs with the goal of gaining relevant experience and exploring possible career options within the profession.
  6. Research nurse specialization options and learn about additional registered nurse training, education and certification that may be required.
  7. Consider entering a master's or doctoral program in order to qualify for more advanced registered nurse careers, such as a nurse practitioner, nurse educator or nurse administrator.
  8. Renew license by completing the required number of continuing education course hours in compliance with your state.

Please note -- these guidelines are intended for informative purposes only and do not guarantee employment.

Post-Education Requirements: Certification and/or State Licensing

Before applying to registered nurse jobs, nursing graduates need to become licensed in the state they wish to practice in. Part of the licensing process includes taking the NLEX-RN exam given by The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Those who earn a passing score and meet other requirements are eligible for licensure. Registered nurses in certain states are required to earn continuing education credits in order to keep their license current. Students should research the specific requirements for their state by visiting the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website.

Professional certification is also available to nurses who wish to further specialize. To be eligible for some certifications, registered nurses may need several years of specific work experience and/or more education. The American Nurses Credentialing Center administers the exams for many of these certifications.

Registered Nurse Specialties

According to Johnson & Johnson's Campaign for Nursing's Future, there are over 100 nursing specialties, including:

  • Ambulatory Care Nurse
  • Cardiac Care Nurse
  • Emergency Nurse
  • Forensic Nurse
  • Infection Control Nurse
  • Labor and Delivery Nurse
  • Oncology Nurse
  • Pediatric Nurse
  • Plastic Surgery Nurse
  • Psychiatric Nurse
  • Substance Abuse Nurse

To enter a nursing specialty field, additional certification, licensing, education and/or experience are often required.

Registered Nurse Job Growth and Average Salary

As the U.S. population continues to grow and age, the need for healthcare professionals is expected to surge. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, technological advancements, an emphasis on preventative care, and an aging baby boomer population will translate into overall job growth in the healthcare industry, including nursing (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

In fact, the BLS expects 711,900 new registered nurse jobs will be created in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020, more than any other profession. Employment for registered nurses is expected to increase 26 percent during this time, which is faster than the average job growth in the country (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

As for salary, the BLS also reports that the national median wage for registered nurses was $65,470 per year in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent of earners making more than $94,720 and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $45,040 (bls.gov/oes, 2013).

List of Related Careers

Those thinking of entering the nursing field may also want to consider similar occupations, such as:

  • Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses (LPNs/LVNs): Provide basic nursing care under the supervision of a registered nurse. Require a postsecondary diploma or certificate, and state licensure.
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographers: Use special imaging equipment to diagnose and assess a variety of medical conditions. Typically require at least an associate degree and certification.
  • Nurse Administrators: Assume a supervisory role in nursing care and help manage the day-to-day tasks of your unit or department. Generally requires prior experience as a registered nurse and a graduate degree.

Links to Sources and Associations

The following websites offer more information about registered nurse careers:

American Nurses Association

American Nurses Credentialing Center

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses, 2012

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Registered Nurses, 2013

National Student Nurses Association

The Campaign for Nursing's Future, Johnson & Johnson

National Council of State Boards of Nursing