Registered Nurse (RN) Career Overview

by NurseJournal Staff
Reviewed by Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

Registered nurses (RNs) provide care to and educate patients in hospitals, physician offices, schools, nursing homes, and other settings. They work under the supervision of nurse practitioners (NPs) and physicians and may supervise the work of nursing assistants.

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Registered Nurse (RN) Career Overview
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What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Diploma, ADN, or BSN required
certification required

RNs provide care to patients by assessing and monitoring their condition, assisting physicians during medical procedures, administering treatments prescribed by the healthcare provider, such as a physician, physician's assistant, or NP, performing diagnostic tests, operating medical equipment, and educating patients on follow-up care.

Their primary skills and responsibilities include the following tasks:

A young female Asian-American nursing student sitting in a large, classroom asks a question during class.

Image Credit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

Where Do RNs Work?

RNs work in virtually every healthcare setting, including hospitals, private physician practices, residential care (such as nursing homes), health clinics, and urgent care centers.

Hospitals (State, Local, and Private)

In hospitals, RNs monitor patients' health and perform tests, deliver care such as dressing wounds or administering treatments, supervise CNAs and other assistants, and collaborate with other healthcare providers.

Ambulatory Healthcare Services

In ambulatory healthcare services settings, such as physician practices, RNs take medical histories, answer patient questions, and supervise assistants.

Nursing and Residential Care Facilities

In nursing and residential care facilities, RNs administer care, perform medical tests and monitoring, oversee the work of certified nursing assistants, and act as liaisons to patients' families.

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Why Become an RN?

RNs are the most trusted profession in the United States. Nurses with more advanced credentials such as a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) earn salaries well above the national median salary, and the demand for RNs is growing.

Advantages to Becoming an RN

A profession that others trust and respect Above-average salaries for highly credentialed nurses and good benefits Career growth potential in administration or further education for a NP role Opportunities to make a difference in patients' lives and health

Disadvantages to Becoming an RN

Healthcare settings bring a risk of injury or illness Inpatient and residential care schedules are especially demanding High pressure and many priorities Exposure to body fluids and waste Limited professional autonomy within scope and practice

How To Become a Registered Nurse

To become an RN, students should expect to complete 2 to 4 years of education, achieve a passing score on the NCLEX-RN exam, and receive licensure from their state board of nursing.

Complete prerequisites for an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or BSN.
ADN and BSN programs require a high school diploma or GED, an application that includes a personal statement or essay, and official transcripts. BSN programs and many ADN programs also require recommendations. BSN programs typically require high school coursework in math and science. Students with GPAs above 3.0 and high scores on standardized tests are more likely to be admitted to competitive BSN programs.
Apply to an ADN or BSN program.
An ADN degree program usually takes two years and costs less per credit hour than a BSN program. A BSN program takes four years and costs more, but graduates earn higher salaries and have more opportunities for advancement.
Attend ADN or BSN classes.
Topics include human anatomy and physiology, nursing theory and skills, pharmacology, and pathophysiology. BSN programs cover more theoretical grounding and in-depth topics.
Graduate and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive RN licensure.
The exam tests whether a nurse has the required knowledge to begin an entry-level position. Testers have up to six hours to complete the exam. Question types are multiple choice, multiple response, and other interactive question types. The test is computer-adaptive, meaning the difficulty and total number of questions varies depending on the tester’s knowledge and ability.

RN Certifications and Specializations

adn or bsn Required

Pediatric Nurse

Pediatric RNs specialize in caring for children at family care physician practices, hospitals, or schools. They also educate families on child health in general and how to address a specific health need.
Salary $62,600*
Job Outlook positive job outlook in coming years
Learn More About Pediatric Nurses
adn or bsn Required

Neonatal Nurse

Neonatal RNs care for newborn infants, typically in hospital maternity wards or units, and help parents care for them both in the hospital and at home. Most neonatal nurses work in neonatal intensive care units.
Salary $73,390*
Job Outlook 7% increase from 2019-2029
Learn More About Neonatal Nurses
adn Required

Gerontology Nurse

Gerontology RNs work with older patients, often in long-term residential care (nursing homes) or in rehabilitation settings. Gerontology RNs may care for patients over a long time, which can be simultaneously emotionally difficult and rewarding.
Salary $50,400*
Job Outlook positive job outlook in coming years
Learn More About Gerontology Nurses
diploma, adn, or bsn Required
High Demand

Ambulatory Care Nurse

Ambulatory care RNs work with patients in physician offices, urgent care centers, and other outpatient settings. They perform tests, assist physicians and NPs, and educate patients about their care.
Salary $57,380*
Job Outlook 19% growth rate by the year 2022
Learn More About Ambulatory Care Nurses
adn Required
High Demand

Oncology Nurse

Oncology RNs specialize in helping patients who have cancer, generally in hospitals and specialized care facilities. Like gerontology, oncology nursing can be emotionally stressful and rewarding at the same time.
Salary $73,760*
Job Outlook 12% increase from 2018-2028
Learn More About Oncology Nurses
adn or bsn Required

Critical Care Nurse

Critical care RNs provide care to patients with the most serious conditions or injuries, usually in intensive care units or emergency departments. This specialty requires steadiness under pressure, specialized knowledge, and quick decision-making.
Salary $66,660*
Job Outlook positive job outlook in coming years
Learn More About Critical Care Nurses
*SOURCE: PayScale

How Much Do RNs Make?

RNs make an average annual wage of $80,010. Among the most common employment settings, nurses working for government healthcare (such as Veterans Affairs facilities) had the highest median wage as of 2020 at $84,490; those working in schools had the lowest at $64,630.

Jobs for RNs are projected to grow faster than average, increasing 7% between 2019 and 2029. This is primarily due to the growing need for geriatric healthcare.

Top-Paying States for RNs
State Annual Mean Wage Total Number of RNs
California $120,560 307,060
Hawaii $104,830 11,260
Massachusetts $96,250 84,030
Oregon $96,230 36,840
Alaska $95,270 6,240
Source: BLS
Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for RNs
Metropolitan Area Annual Mean Wage Total Number of RNs
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $149,200 40,600
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $146,870 17,750
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $142,140 3,690
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $134,350 21,920
Salinas, CA $132,160 2,910
Source: BLS
Top-Paying Industries for RNs
Industry Median Annual Wage
Government $84,490
Hospitals $76,840
Ambulatory Healthcare Services $72,340
Nursing and Residential Care Facilities $68,450
Educational Services $64,630
Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions about Registered Nurses

What is the difference between an RN and a NP?

A NP is a nurse who has earned at least a master of science in nursing and has passed the national NP certification examination. An RN has either a diploma, an associate degree, or a bachelor's degree in nursing and has passed the RN certification exam. A NP is authorized to perform more medical functions than an RN, including prescribing medication and making diagnoses.

Can you complete an RN program online?

While all RN programs require fieldwork/clinical hours, many schools offer hybrid or online RN programs that allow students to take online classes and complete clinical hours in their own communities.

What kind of accreditation should nursing programs have?

Nursing programs should be accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). The ACEN accredits all levels of nursing programs, including diploma, associate degree, and doctoral programs as well as bachelor's and master's programs.

What qualities are important for RNs?

RNs should be able to display empathy for patients and their families, balance heavy workloads, think clearly under pressure, and communicate effectively.

Professional Organizations for RNs

  • ANA is part of the ANA Enterprise, which combines ANA, the American Nurses Foundation, and the American Nurses Credentialing Center. ANA advocates for nurses and provides information, networking, and professional education. Membership is only open to RNs, but non-RNs can become subscribers and access information.
  • The NBNA has over 200,000 members and works to eliminate health disparities, support the careers and work of Black nurses, and encourage more Black people to enter the nursing field. Its member offerings include networking, professional education, and a conference. Membership is open to all credentialed nurses, retired nurses, and students.
  • The AACN is the institutional membership organization for nursing colleges that offer bachelor's or higher nursing degrees. Comprising more than 800 member organizations, the AACN develops and maintains educational standards, accredits programs, conducts research on nursing education, and fosters networking. Only organizations can join; once an organization joins, all of its nursing faculty and administration are members.
  • AWHONN has approximately 24,000 member nurses who provide care for women and newborn children. The association offers professional education, advocates for women's and children's health, conducts research, and establishes guidelines and best practices. Membership is open to nurses and others with an interest in women's and neonatal health.
  • ASRN aims to “encourage the personal and professional development of nurses, on local, national, and international levels, and foster communication and education.” ASRN provides networking, advocacy, professional development, and a recognition program. Full membership is open to RNs working in the United States or Canada. There are alternate categories for RNs working in other countries, retirees, students, and organizations.

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Reviewed by:

Nicole Galan is a registered nurse who earned a master's degree in nursing education from Capella University and currently works as a full-time freelance writer. Throughout her nursing career, Galan worked in a general medical/surgical care unit and then in infertility care. She has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students.

Galan is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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