How to Become an RN: Education and Career Roadmap

Aug 19, 2018

Learn how to become a registered nurse (RN). Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in nursing.

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  • 0:00 Should I Become a…
  • 0:48 Career Requirements
  • 1:36 Steps to Become a…

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Should I Become a Registered Nurse?

Registered nurses, also known as RNs, are responsible for almost all of the patient care not directly provided by a physician. RNs administer treatment and medication, perform diagnostic tests, operate medical equipment, provide follow-up care, and perform many other patient care-related duties.

Registered nurses are also responsible for delegating tasks to licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs). They may work at hospitals, physicians' offices, government branches, correctional facilities, schools, and nursing care facilities. RNs may need to be on call and cover night and weekend shifts.

Career Requirements

Registered nurse degree programs range from diploma to associate's degree to bachelor's degree options. Additionally, RNs should have supervised clinical experience. Licensing is required in all states. Aspiring registered nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN, and voluntary specialty certifications are also available. Nurses should have good communication, organizational, and critical thinking skills. They should also be patient and emotionally stable and have strong attention to detail. Familiarity with medical and workforce timekeeping software as well as Microsoft Excel is also helpful. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses earned a median salary of $67,490.

Steps to Become a Registered Nurse

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

Acquiring a high school diploma or its equivalent is an essential first step to becoming a registered nurse. Aspiring registered nurses should take courses in chemistry, biology, and anatomy. Since nurses also need effective speaking and communication skills, students should work to develop these attributes and take courses that may help develop those skills.

Step 2: Choose a Career Path

The three different ways to become a registered nurse include obtaining a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN), earning an associate's degree in nursing (ADN), or receiving a diploma from a hospital. Typically, a BSN takes four years to complete. An ADN usually takes two or three years to complete. A diploma program may take three years to complete. Other educational programs include an RN-to-BSN program, combined bachelor's and master's degree programs, master's degree programs, and programs for prospective nurses who hold a bachelor's degree in another field. Nursing programs may include courses in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, psychology, and math. Additionally, aspiring RNs should research the Nurse Practice Act. Prospective nurses should become familiar with the unique requirements of their state.

Step 3: Complete Clinical Training

In addition to classroom instruction, nursing programs include supervised clinical training. Some programs may also offer simulated lab training, which are classes held in real-world medical environments. Nursing students also receive clinical training in hospital departments, public health departments, home health agencies, nursing care facilities, and medical clinics.

Step 4: Get Licensed

All states require nurses to obtain licensure before starting a job, though specifics vary for each state. Students who have completed a hospital nursing program, associate's degree in nursing, or 4-year bachelor's degree in nursing must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This exam measures the competencies, knowledge, and skills that new nurses need to perform their jobs safely and effectively. Some nursing programs offer NCLEX-RN review courses, which equip students with test-taking strategies. Additionally, RNs might consider earning certification. Nurses may become credentialed in specialty areas such as (but not limited to) cardiology, gerontology, and pediatrics.

Step 5: Career Advancement

There are quite a few options available to RNs who wish to advance in their careers. To advance from a staff nursing position to a management or an administrative roll, nurses will most likely need a master's degree or higher in health services administration or nursing. Some RNs may choose to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, or nurse anesthetists. RNs may also work as postsecondary teachers in university settings.

There are various educational routes that can prepare someone to work as a registered nurse, including earning a diploma, an associate's degree, or a bachelor's degree in nursing, which includes supervised clinical experiences. Additionally, licensure is required, and certifications in specializations are available.

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