What Are the Qualifications to Become an RN?

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a registered nurse. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about training, job duties and licensing to find out if this is the career for you.

Nursing is a challenging and ultimately rewarding occupation. The following information illustrates the five steps you go through to become an RN, as well as the job outlook, salary and advancement in the field.

Essential Information

A registered nurse (RN) can be found in various health care settings providing all types of patient care. RNs are highly trained medical professionals who care for patients and assist doctors by administering medication and conducting tests and a myriad of other duties.

Required Education Associate's or bachelor's degree or diploma*
Other Requirements Licensure*
Projected Job Growth 16% from 2014-2024*
Median Salary (2015) $67,490 annually*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Become a Registered Nurse

Step 1: Graduate from High School

A high school education is an essential prerequisite to becoming a registered nurse. Coursework in biology, psychology, mathematics and English is helpful. Advanced placement classes in anatomy and physiology can be especially beneficial.

Step 2: Complete a Nursing Degree Program

Registered nurses typically take one of three paths to complete their nursing education. One route is obtaining a diploma in nursing. Diploma programs are offered by hospitals and generally last three years, but they feature the least intensive course load and can delay advancement in the field compared to degree holders.

More commonly, one can also obtain either an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing. Associate degree programs take two years to complete and are offered at many community colleges. These programs prepare an individual for entry-level nursing positions at hospitals, adult care facilities, nursing homes and other health-related establishments. Once completed, the graduate is eligible to take the registered nurse licensing examination to qualify as an RN. Individuals who reach this level of training will have built a solid foundation for a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Many aspiring nurses go straight from high school into a 4-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. The bachelor's degree provides training in subjects such as leadership and communication and provides more practical clinical experience outside the hospital setting. Earning this degree opens up more opportunities for teaching, administrative and consulting positions as a registered nurse in various health care settings. Another route is to complete the associate degree and then enter an RN-to-BSN program, which applies the credits earned for the 2-year degree toward the bachelor's. An RN-to-BSN track could be started at any point in an RN's career and takes approximately two more years to complete.

Step 3: Become Licensed

All states require registered nurses to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. This comprehensive, 6-hour test assesses an individual's understanding of care management, health promotion skills, psychosocial and physiological integrity, preventive treatment abilities, basic care and several other pertinent topics. Other requirements regarding licensure vary by state.

Step 4: Find the Right Nursing Environment

While hospitals employ roughly 61% of all registered nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they aren't the only institutions that need RNs. Many choose to work with specific physicians in private practices, within nursing care facilities, at government agencies or even as mobile nurses traveling to clients to provide care. Hospitals are generally good places to start and gain experience dealing with an assortment of patients and a hospital environment can provide more opportunities for promotion to higher-level management and administrative roles.

Step 5: Choose a Specialty or Advanced Practice Nursing

RNs can become credentialed in specialties including pediatrics, ambulatory care and many other fields. The American Nursing Credentialing Center is one of several organizations that offer credentialing. This process is optional but can impress potential employers.

Another option for RNs is to become advanced practice nurses. These specialists, midwives, practitioners and anesthetists and can provide primary care services to patients. Each state explicitly defines the requirements for becoming an advanced practice nurse and all of these positions require at least a master's degree.

An associate's degree, diploma or bachelor's degree can be your entry into the nursing profession. Once you obtain the required education, you can become licensed by sitting for the NCLEX-RN, although your state may have additional requirements. You can advance your career by way of specialized certifications.

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