What Is a Registered Nurse?

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated February 28, 2023
Reviewed by
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Are you looking for a challenging and rewarding career that allows you to make a difference in the lives of others? Registered nurses (RN) benefit from a growing employment rate, flexible job opportunities, and career advancement options.

This guide explores the steps to becoming an RN, where they work, and how much they earn. Keep reading for information that can help you make the right choice for your career.

How Long to Become:
2-4 years

Job Outlook:
9% increase from 2020-2030

Average Annual Salary:

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Diploma, ADN, or BSN required
Certification Optional

RNs provide care to patients by assessing and monitoring their condition, working in coordination with physicians during medical procedures, and administering treatments prescribed by the healthcare provider. They perform diagnostic tests, operate medical equipment, and educate patients on follow-up care.

An RN’s primary skills and responsibilities include the following.

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Monitoring patients’ conditions and informing the healthcare provider of important changes
  • Educating patients on their health and providing support
  • Performing diagnostic tests and updating patient medical records
  • Assisting the healthcare provider during medical procedures
  • Advocating for a patient’s health and well-being

Career Traits

  • Integrity
  • Empathy
  • High math and science skills
  • Ability to perform well under pressure
  • Critical thinker

Where Do Registered Nurses 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 like dressing wounds or administering treatments, supervise certified nurse assistants (CNAs), 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 & 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.

Why Become a Registered Nurse?

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, and the demand for RNs continues to grow.

Advantages of Becoming an RN

  • check-circleA profession that others trust and respect
  • check-circleAbove-average salaries for highly credentialed nurses and good benefits
  • check-circleCareer growth potential in administration or further education for an NP role
  • check-circleOpportunities to make a difference in patients’ lives and health

Disadvantages of Becoming an RN

  • x-circleHealthcare settings bring a risk of injury or illness
  • x-circleInpatient and residential care schedules are especially demanding
  • x-circleHigh pressure and many priorities
  • x-circleLimited professional autonomy within scope and practice

How to Become a Registered Nurse

To become a registered nurse, students must complete several steps. These include graduating from an accredited program, passing the NCLEX-RN, and receiving their license from the state board of nursing.

The minimum educational requirement is an associate degree in nursing (ADN). However, more states are moving toward requiring BSN-prepared nurses. This offers advantages for the patient and the nurse, including lower patient mortality, shorter length of stay, and lower readmission rates.

BSN-prepared nurses also have greater earning potential, more job opportunities, and a shorter path to higher education. After graduating from an accredited nursing program, the candidate must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to get a state nursing license.

To qualify for the NCLEX-RN, a candidate must have graduated from an accredited program, registered for the test, and paid the necessary fee. Candidates must meet the requirements for state licensure based on those set by their state board of nursing.

Learn more about how to become a registered nurse here.

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RN Certifications and Specializations

RNs can choose to focus their career on specialized patient care. After acquiring the necessary experience, an RN may earn an optional certification in a specialty. Certification validates an RNs knowledge in the specialty and demonstrates their commitment to professional development. It can also increase job opportunities and improve salary potential.

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.


Learn More About Pediatric Nurses

Neonatal Nurse

Neonatal RNs have the choice of caring for newborn infants in a variety of settings. They may work in hospital maternity units or in the community helping parents care for their newborns.


Learn More About Neonatal Nurses

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.


Learn More About Critical Care Nurses

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 both emotionally challenging and rewarding.


Learn More About Gerontology Nurses

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.


Learn More About Oncology Care Nurses

RN vs. RNC: What’s the Difference?

A registered nurse has graduated from an accredited program, passed the NCLEX, and has been granted an RN license in the state. An RNC designation means a registered nurse has earned a core certification from the National Certification Corporation (NCC).

The letters that appear after the dash indicate the specialty. For example, RNC-NIC is a certification in neonatal intensive care nursing. Nurses must meet the eligibility requirements to take a core certification examination. Requirements include an active, unencumbered license in Canada or the U.S., 24 months and at least 2,000 hours of experience in the specialty, and employment in the specialty within the last 24 months.

Some employers in specialty areas may require an RNC certification. The advantages include better salary potential and validation of your skill and knowledge in the specialty. Nurses must renew their core certification every three years by supplying required documentation, which includes continuing education.

How Much Do RNs Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are over 3 million registered nurses employed in the U.S. with a mean annual salary of $82,750. This is well above the average annual mean salary of $58,260 for all U.S. workers.

The salary range for RNs starts at $59,450 for those in the lowest 10% of the nursing workforce. The median annual salary is $77,600, and those in the highest 90% of the workforce make $120,250.

The biggest employer includes general medical and surgical hospitals, where nurses earn an annual mean salary of $85,020. Nursing care facilities have the lowest number of employed RNs and the lowest annual mean salary of $72,260, which is still far higher than the mean salary of U.S. workers.

Factors that can influence salary potential include geographical location, cost-of-living index, education, certification, and experience. Below is a list of the top-paying states and the total number of RNs employed there.

Top-Paying States for RNs

StateAnnual Mean WageTotal Number of RNs
Washington, D.C.$98,54011,540

Frequently Asked Questions about Registered Nurses

What is the difference between an RN and an NP?

An 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. An 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.

Related Registered Nursing Program Resources

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