How to Become a Nurse Researcher

NurseJournal Staff
Updated December 6, 2022
    Nurse researchers play a vital role in improving medicine. Learn how to become a nurse researcher, about admission requirements, and more.
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    Nurse researchers perform research or work with patients who are participating in medical research and ensure their wellbeing and gather data for the research project. If you enjoy research and caring for patients’ rights, are detail oriented, and want to apply your nursing expertise to make new discoveries, becoming a nurse researcher may be the right career for you. This guide describes how to become a nurse researcher.

    What is a Nurse Researcher?

    What do nurse researchers do? Nurse researchers work for hospitals, especially academic medical centers, and for research organizations. They may conduct original research on how to improve nursing practice, administrate research studies, or help to care for patients who are participating in research studies. Because most nurse researchers still work with patients, becoming a nurse researcher is an excellent career choice if you want to combine research and patient care. In addition to nurse researcher schooling, nursing knowledge, and nursing skills, you must have strong analytical skills, be able to analyze data and recognize patterns or unusual results, and be able to communicate with academics as well as patients.

    Steps to Becoming a Nurse Researcher

    The first step to become a nurse researcher is earning a nursing license. Different states have different requirements for this. However, the minimum nurse researcher degree for most jobs is an MSN, making nurse researcher school requirements more academically rigorous than other nursing jobs.

    While you can become a nurse with just an ADN, a BSN degree is required for nurse researchers. Typically, this takes four years, but if you have an ADN, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program and if you have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, you can enroll in an accelerated BSN program. You will get more exposure to nurse researchers and careers if you attend a good nurse researcher school, such as one affiliated with a respected research hospital.

    To receive your nursing license, you will need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam, a multi-hour multiple choice examination. The examination covers nursing practice, hygiene and infection prevention, communication, legal and ethical aspects of nursing, and other related topics.

    Most MSN programs require or prefer at least two years experience in nursing. If you are interested in becoming a nurse researcher, you can use this time to explore possible specialties or different academic medical centers or other settings. This will help you pick a specialization in your MSN program. The MSN is the minimum nurse researcher degree for most jobs, though you may want to earn a DNP if you want to lead research studies, An MSN typically takes two years and a DNP two or more.

    While certification is not a legal requirement, many employers prefer or require certification. You have different certification options as part of becoming a nurse researcher, but most research nurses have either a clinical research coordinator (CRC) or a certified clinical research associate (CCRA) credential. Both of these require at least 3,000 hours of experience in clinical research or a combination of academic study and experience.

    Once you have earned certification, you have even more employment options. You may work for a hospital or health system, a medical device or pharmaceutical company, or in any setting where medical or healthcare research is performed.

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    Nurse Researcher Schooling

    Because the minimum nurse researcher degree is an MSN, it will take most nurses at least eight years to become a nurse researcher (four years for a BSN, two years nursing experience, two years for an MSN). However, if you have an ADN or a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can earn a BSN or MSN more quickly.

    BSN Degree

    To become a licensed nurse, you must have an ADN or BSN degree and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Once you have your license, you can gain experience in nursing and in research hospitals or other research settings. If you have an ADN, AP credits, or other college credits, you may finish faster.

    • Admission Requirements: Most BSN programs require at least a 3.0 GPA, at least two references, the ability to pass a background check (each state has different regulations on what kind of criminal convictions might disqualify you), and a completed application, including an essay.
    • Program Curriculum: Your program will include classes on practical nursing, basic nursing research and evidence-based practices, the healthcare system, communication, legal and ethical aspects of nursing, public health, and disease and injury prevention. You will also complete clinical hours working in a healthcare setting.
    • Time to Complete: Most BSN degrees take at least four years, but if you have applicable credits, you may be able to finish sooner. Most accelerated or bridge programs take at least one year.
    • Skills Learned: You will be able to administer tests, including blood drawing for blood tests; take patient vital signs; record symptoms; read and update health records; help lift and move patients; and communicate effectively with patients and colleagues.

    MSN Degree

    Becoming a nurse researcher requires at least an MSN, though many nurse researchers earn a DNP after earning an MSN. During your MSN program, you will learn more advanced research skills and how to conduct research, as well as more advanced nursing skills.

    • Admission Requirements: Most MSN programs require at least a 3.0 GPA, with some requiring a 3.25 GPA, and at least two years of experience as a licensed nurse. You will also need references and an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
    • Program Curriculum: An MSN includes more advanced courses in research and research methods, as well as more advanced courses in practical nursing, nursing leadership, and analyzing and applying evidence-based studies. Like a BSN, an MSN includes clinical hours.
    • Time to Complete: Most MSN programs take at least two years of full-time study, though most programs will allow part-time students up to four years. If you know you want a DNP, you can enroll in an MSN-DNP program, which will take less time than both programs separately.
    • Skills Learned: In addition to basic nursing practice, you will learn about diagnosis and prescribing treatments (though you will not be able to perform these unless you become an APRN), advanced research and research analysis, nurse leadership, healthcare management, and public health.

    Doctor of Nursing Practice

    A DNP is the terminal degree in nursing practice (that is, there is no higher degree). Unlike a Ph.D. which takes several years, a DNP usually takes two years of study. Many nurse researchers have a Ph.D., as a Ph.D. in nursing focuses more on research than a DNP program. However, many employers also hire DNPs for nurse researcher positions.

    • Admission Requirements: An MSN (or enrollment in an MSN-DP program), at least a 3.0 GPA, references, and often some academic publications or other existing contribution to nursing literature or research.
    • Program Curriculum: DNP programs have different tracks and the curriculum varies by track. Most nurse researcher degree programs will focus on research methods, evaluation and evidence-based practice, analytics and informatics, financial and cost-effectiveness analysis, as well as clinical hours and an original research thesis.
    • Time to Complete: A DNP typically takes at least two years of full-time study. Most programs allow part-time students up to four years. A joint MSN-DNP usually takes three years.
    • Skills Learned: You will be able to conduct original research, act as lead author on academic publications, analyze existing research at an expert level, and understand how to apply research to lead systems change.

    Getting Licensed

    Nurse Researcher Credentials

    Earning a nursing license is required for becoming a nurse researcher. Each state establishes its own licensing requirements, but all states require a nursing degree and passing the NCLEX-RN examination. Certification cannot be legally mandated the way that licensing can, but most employers require or prefer certification. Independent boards set the standards for certification, which include experience and/or education and passing an examination.


    • Certification demonstrates that you have a combination of experience and knowledge in a particular topic. Certification requirements are designed by independent professional organizations.
    • Unlike a license, certification cannot be legally required, but employers may require certification.
    • The Association of Clinical Research Professionals is the main certification organization for nurse researchers.
    • Maintaining certification typically requires continued experience and continuing education from approved providers. These include academic courses, conferences, webinars, and approved professional reading (which often requires passing a test).


    • You must have a nursing license to practice nursing, so becoming a nurse researcher requires earning a nursing license.
    • Requirements vary by state. To earn a nursing license, you must have an ADN or BSN, pass the NCLEX-RN examination, and meet other state requirements, typically including a background check.
    • You must maintain your license the same way you maintain certification, though continuing education and experience. You must also maintain a record without certain kinds of disciplinary action or criminal convictions.

    Working as a Nurse Researcher

    You can find a job as a nurse researcher through school career services, networking, recruiters, or finding jobs on job boards. The median annual salary for a nurse researcher is $82,000, according to Payscale. Nurse researchers work in a variety of settings, including:


    Act as liaison between researchers and participating patients; monitor patient wellbeing during research studies; track patient data and results.

    Medical Clinics

    Educate participants on the study and what to expect; track patient progress and update records; act as patient advocate; report any side effects patients experience.

    Research Laboratories

    Educate participants; conduct tests and track results; monitor patient physical and emotional wellbeing; act as patient advocate.

    Other settings

    Nurse researchers may also work in pharmaceutical or medical device companies and academic medical centers.

    Becoming a Nurse Researcher: FAQs

    How many years does it take to become a Nurse Researcher?

    Becoming a nurse researcher takes at least six years of school and two years of experience (four years for a BSN, two years of experience to apply for an MSN, two years for an MSN). You will need at least 3,000 hours of experience (or a combination of experience and education) to earn clinical research certification.

    What is the quickest way to become a Nurse Researcher?

    The quickest way to become a nurse researcher depends on your education and experience. If you do not have any college credits, it will take you about eight years (four years for a BSN, then two years of experience to apply to most MSN programs, then two years to earn an MSN). If you have an ADN or other college credits, you can finish faster. Additionally, some nurse researcher positions only require a BSN.

    How hard is it to become a Nurse Researcher?

    Becoming a nurse researcher takes excellent skills in data collection and analytics, statistics, analyzing and interpreting research, as well as good nursing skills. Nurse researchers must be especially observant, as part of their job is detecting possible side effects, and good communicators with patients and academics.

    Do Nurse Researchers get paid well?

    Nurse researchers earn a median annual $82,000, according to Payscale. This is approximately twice the national median salary in the United States. However, the minimum nurse researcher school requirement is an MSN, so early-career nurse researchers may have loan debt.

    Learn More About Nurse Researchers

    Page last reviewed January 13, 2022

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