Guide to Become A Registered Nurse

Registered Nurse Resource – Everything You Need To Know Before You Become A Registered Nurse

In order to become a registered nurse (RN), candidates usually need a bachelor’s or associate degree in nursing though some students choose to earn diplomas from approved nursing programs instead. These programs may be offered in a traditional on-campus format, online, or in a blended format that incorporates campus- and web-based learning.

Regardless of their chosen pathway, RNs should complete courses in fields such as anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and nutrition. Once they complete their studies, RN candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) in order to be licensed. A license is required to work as an RN in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. In addition to licensing, RNs may choose to become certified in gerontology, pediatrics, or other specialized fields.

RNs are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for RNs will rise 15% adding more than 430,000 new positions between 2016 and 2026. In addition, nurses earn salaries above the national average. RNs can choose from several specialized roles, including critical care nurses who work in intensive-care units, neonatology nurses that care for newborns and infants, and rehabilitation nurses who care for patients with temporary or permanent disabilities.

If you wish to become a registered nurse, you can enroll in many different educational programs from the diploma to doctoral level. However, all will culminate with the NCLEX-RN exam. There are several pathways you can follow in order to take the NCLEX-RN exam, as well as various other resources you may need if you are thinking about becoming a registered nurse.

RN Education Pathways

You can become a registered nurse using the following educational methods:

Diploma in Nursing

A diploma in nursing provides students with basic nursing knowledge and hands-on practical nursing experience in a clinical setting. A nursing diploma program typically takes two to three years to complete, depending on a student’s enrollment status. Nursing diploma students enroll in courses covering topics such as lifespan nursing concepts, nursing informatics, basic pharmacology and psychology, and public health. A large portion of the nursing diploma program involves direct patient care, often through hospitals or health providers with ties to the school.

A nursing diploma program prepares students to pass the NCLEX-RN, a basic requirement for nursing professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada. An RN license qualifies holders for several entry-level nursing positions and further studies in the nursing field.

Since diploma programs immerse students in direct patient care, students graduate from the program with practical nursing skills that prove invaluable not only in a hospital setting, but in other clinical environments as well. Additionally, completing a nursing diploma program gives students the chance to enter the workforce sooner. Students who wish to pursue further studies can do so while already working in the field.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) prepares students to enter the workforce after just two years of full-time enrollment. Many employers prefer nurses with an associate degree over those with just a diploma. ADN programs require students to complete a certain number of clinical hours in order to graduate. However, the required number of clinical hours varies between schools.

Like most associate degrees, an ADN consists of 60 credits. An ADN curriculum includes foundational nursing courses such as anatomy, microbiology, pharmacology, behavioral health, and maternal and child nursing care. In addition, an ADN program also includes general liberal arts classes like English literature, history, writing and communications, and psychology. After completing an ADN program, students usually take the NCLEX-RN to obtain their registered nurse license.

An ADN prepares students for employment in the nursing field immediately after graduation. However, most ADN programs also provide students with an excellent foundation for further studies in nursing or in a closely related field. Many universities with four-year nursing programs maintain articulation agreements with two-year colleges that help ADN graduates transition to a four-year nursing program.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) features 120 credits and typically takes four years of full-time enrollment to complete. However, licensed registered nurses with an associate degree in nursing can usually earn a BSN after just two years of full-time study. Many hospitals and other health-based organizations prefer nurses with BSN degrees. In addition to more job options, nurses with a BSN degree are also more likely to be promoted and entrusted with greater responsibilities.

Many colleges and universities now offer online RN-to-BSN programs. Nurses no longer have to stop working while pursuing their BSN degree, since they can more easily fit online classes around their busy schedules. A typical BSN curriculum includes courses on topics such as emergency care; health assessment; nutrition; public and global health; and family, community, and population-based care.

The amount of clinical or practicum hours in an RN-to-BSN program can vary greatly between schools. Most programs require students to follow a rotation-based clinical program. Student nurses train in different departments or clinical specialty areas, such as pediatrics or obstetrics, to gain a broad understanding of the nursing field and their professional duties and responsibilities.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

The nursing field consists of several different specializations, and employers increasingly seek nurses with training in a specific nursing area. A master of science in nursing degree (MSN) gives nurses the opportunity to specialize in a particular medical arena, such as anesthesiology, mental health, or acute care. Nurses can also use an MSN to develop the necessary skills to work within a specific lifespan sector like gerontology or pediatrics. Nurses who opt to specialize in nondirect care aspects of the nursing profession, as nurse educators or clinical nurse leaders, also benefit from earning an MSN.

Registered nurses often qualify for RN-to-MSN programs. The length of the program depends on the type of nursing degree students have at the start of the program, the number of credits they can transfer, and their enrollment status. RNs with an associate degree or diploma in nursing typically complete an RN-to-MSN program in three to four years. RNs with a nonnursing bachelor’s degree can complete the program in two to three years. Students with a BSN degree typically take two years to earn an MSN degree.

Most MSN degrees require students to complete a practicum, usually comprised of several hundred hours of clinical nursing experience. The required number of hours varies between schools, but often comes to at least 500. Regardless of a student’s specialty area or the population they wish to work with, MSN students usually enroll in courses in pharmacology, health care policy, ethics, and advanced health assessment.

Doctorate in Nursing

There are two terminal degrees in nursing doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Both degrees present the holder as an expert in the nursing field and thus qualified for a variety of leadership and top administrative nursing positions. A Ph.D. in nursing prepares nurses to pursue careers in research-oriented sectors such as academia or research organizations. A Ph.D. can take four to six years to complete. Ph.D. candidates often must write a dissertation.

A DNP degree, on the other hand, prepares nurses for the highest level of nursing practice in a clinical setting. The degree typically takes two to three years to complete. Most schools require DNP candidates to complete an evidence-based practice project.

Doctorate students enroll in courses that focus on their specialization area, but most programs offer classes that cover common advanced nursing topics. Some of these classes include the following: health policy and advocacy, principles of epidemiology and environmental health, fundamentals of comprehensive care across the lifespan, and intellectual and conceptual foundations of nursing science.

BSN-to-DNP and Ph.D. in nursing programs usually require the completion of at least 60 credits and a minimum of 1,000 practicum hours. Some of these programs award an interim MSN degree, while others move students straight to the doctorate program as soon as they meet the requirements. Nurses with an MSN degree may take fewer classes, depending on the number of credits they can transfer to the doctorate program. Many schools require MSN-to-DNP or Ph.D. students to complete a minimum of 500 clinical work hours.

Online Options

More and more people are looking into ways of studying online. Traditionally, few distance learning programs could accommodate nursing students because of the need for hands-on job training. However, many schools now offer bachelor’s and associate degrees that students can complete partly or fully online. Nevertheless, online nursing programs still require some hands-on clinical experience as well, which distance learning students must do in their local community.

Many fully online nursing programs exist for individuals looking into an online RN-to-BSN or an online RN-to-MSN. These online classrooms are primarily designed for those who already work as nurses. Some colleges also offer accelerated programs for individuals who rapidly want to finish coursework. Take note, however, that these programs generally only accept students who have healthcare experience and a high GPA.

Getting Licensed

Each state in the country has a nursing board, which ensures that the public is protected from harm caused by incompetence. The way these boards function can vary. However, they usually perform the following:

  • Deciding the requirements for individuals to obtain and retain a nursing license. Criteria include initial education, dedication to continuing education, developing competency, and more.
  • Determining the parameters of nursing practice, especially for each kind of license. Each state has a statute known as the Nurse Practice Act which defines these areas.
  • Investigating complaints delivered by or about licensees and managing disciplinary actions.

Prerequisites for Studying Towards Becoming An RN

If you want to practice as a registered nurse, you must hold a nursing diploma or associate degree. However, you must also complete certain prerequisites before you can gain acceptance into these programs. These generally depend on the state you are studying in, although some standard requirements exist.

These include:

  • Minimum scores on the SAT or ACT
  • A GPA between 2.0 and 3.25
  • Three years of math subjects, including algebra II and geometry
  • Three years of science subjects, including chemistry and biology
  • Four years of English
  • Two years in any other foreign language

If you want to earn a BSN, then you usually have to make sure that nursing becomes your major once your prerequisite classes have been completed.

Program Accreditation

Program accreditation is an important step in selecting a postsecondary school. Schools must pass rigorous educational standards in order to receive accreditation. The government only provides financial aid for accredited schools, so you must ensure that you attend a properly accredited institution in order to receive government-distributed loans and grants. Furthermore, only if you study through an accredited school can you move on to a postgraduate degree program.

Numerous accrediting bodies assess nursing programs across the country. Generally speaking, however, a school will readily advertise their accreditation. Accreditation can vary between schools, so make sure you check the credentials of each institution. Furthermore, you may benefit from studying with a school that has held accreditation for a long period of time. The two main nursing accrediting bodies at present are:

Nursing schools should also prepare students for the NCLEX. However, NCLEX preparation does not necessarily mean the school has the proper accreditation. Particularly since more and more online programs have appeared, students run the real risk of studying at schools that lack accreditation. Generally, state nursing boards do not approve of or recognize unaccredited institutions. It is slightly possible that you can still take the NCLEX, but you will generally struggle to keep up with continuous education, which means you may struggle to keep your license.

Getting Certified as a Registered Nurse

After completing a nursing program, it will be time to take the NCLEX exam. Graduates must apply for a license from their state board of nursing before taking the NCLEX exam. Each state has different criteria for eligibility, so ensure you meet all the requirements first.

The NCLEX covers the four “categories of needs.” These categories have been established nationally and include the following:

  1. A care environment that is safe and effective (including infection control)
  2. Psychological integrity, which includes coping and adaptation
  3. Health maintenance and promotion, which focuses on early intervention and preventing health issues, rather than curing them
  4. Physiological integrity, which primarily entails making sure patients are comfortable and properly cared for

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The Cost of Becoming a Nurse

The cost of studying towards becoming an RN depends entirely which degree program you choose. To earn an ADN, which takes two years, expect to pay around $20,000-$52,000 for the full degree. To earn a BSN, which takes four years, expect to pay around $72,000-$104,000. You must also pay for your books, accommodation, travel, and more. However, you can lower your costs significantly by attending public institutions, completing their first two years at a community college, seeking financial aid, and applying for governmental grants.

It is no surprise, therefore, that many choose to go for the associate degree, since it costs much less. However, it also limits career plans and makes it more difficult to later become a nurse practitioner or a midwife. Consequently, many students choose to take a bridge program to go from an RN license to a bachelor’s degree.

Scholarships for RNs

A number of nursing scholarships assist those students who are interested in working in the healthcare sector. Nursing education can be incredibly expensive, particularly for some of the more prominent universities. Consequently, there are numerous bursaries and scholarships that exist to help students pay for their degree and enter the profession. This financial aid applies to all types of nursing degrees and medical programs, such as certified midwife or nurse midwife.

Some of the most popular options include:

Working as a Registered Nurse

Registered nurses work in various settings, including physicians’ offices, hospitals, home or community healthcare centers, schools, nursing care centers, correctional facilities, and the military. Pay varies depending on location and service time.

According to the BLS, the median wage for RNs was $70,000 in 2017. The lowest 10% of registered nurses reported earning $48,690, while the top 10% of earners brought in a reported $104,100, according to the bureau. Of course, pay is not just about the money. Different employers offer different benefits, including perks like childcare, flexible schedules, bonuses, and educational benefits.

Below is a breakdown of RN salaries by industry in 2017.




Hospitals; State, Local, and Private


Ambulatory Healthcare Services


Nursing and Residential Care Facilities


Educational Services; State, Local, and Private


Source: BLS

Your salary also depends on your working schedule. In hospitals or care homes, for instance, patients need round-the-clock care, which often includes night shifts. Employers may pay more for these late shifts, as well as weekend shifts or holiday shifts. Additionally, nurses often work “on call,” which means not at work, but available if called in. Nurses should also receive remuneration for this.

In terms of prospects, the nursing profession boasts one of the fastest growth rates in the U.S. This is due to a number of reasons:

Your salary also depends on your working schedule. In hospitals or care homes, for instance, patients need round-the-clock care, which often includes night shifts. Employers may pay more for these late shifts, as well as weekend shifts or holiday shifts. Additionally, nurses often work “on call,” which means not at work, but available if called in. Nurses should also receive remuneration for this.

In terms of prospects, the nursing profession boasts one of the fastest growth rates in the U.S. This is due to a number of reasons:

  • The population is aging, which means there is growing demand for nursing care.
  • The population is getting unhealthier, with obesity still on the rise, even in younger people.
  • Various other health complaints (like diabetes) also require nursing care.
  • Because of the Affordable Care Act, more people now have access to healthcare.
  • Hospitals are trying to discharge patients as soon as possible in order to keep costs and to free up bed spaces for acute care. This means that home healthcare has experienced increased demand. Nurses can find more and more jobs in long-term rehabilitation, including with patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Healthcare providers have also experienced tremendous growth in outpatient care, including rehabilitation, same-day chemo, and surgery. An increased number of procedures occur on an outpatient basis, which means that people need more care at home.
  • Over the coming decade, a high proportion of nurses are expected to retire, adding to the demand for healthcare as they themselves become elderly.

The prospects for nurses clearly look promising. However, some nurses face better prospects than others. BSN-holders, for example, have better job prospects and can earn higher salaries than nurses with an ADN. Furthermore, employers tend to prefer nurses who have extensive work experience. As a result, schools encourage students to take on volunteering work while they study so they can gain experience in healthcare settings.