Registered Nurse Salary & Career Outlook

Registered nurses (RNs) play a critical role in communities. This article describes RNs work environment, qualifications to become an RN, training and certification, and education requirements, among others.

What RNs Do

Registered nurses provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members. RNs must have a large amount of specialized knowledge to assess, plan, and intervene to better promote good health and prevent disease. Nurses often observe, assess, and record vital health information while providing direct patient care, and in doing so provides other healthcare professionals a basis for care planning and intervention.

Top 5 RN Tasks

  1. Maintain accurate, detailed reports and records
  2. Administer medications to patients and monitor them for reactions or side effects
  3. Record patient medical information and vital signs
  4. Monitor, record, and report symptoms or changes in patient conditions
  5. Consult and coordinate with healthcare team members to assess, plan, implement, or evaluate patient care plans.

Work Environment

Registered nurses often work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, home healthcare services, and nursing care facilities. Others work in correctional facilities, schools, or serve in the military. RNs must follow strict guidelines to guard against illness and disease, and stay aware of other dangers in the work environment, such as radiation, needles, and hazardous chemicals.

How to Become an RN

Registered nurses usually take one of three education paths: an associate degree in nursing, a bachelor’s degree in nursing, or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Registered nurses must be licensed.

Most nursing programs require courses in physiology, anatomy, microbiology, nutrition, psychology and chemistry. A bachelor’s degree program will also have education in physical and social sciences, leadership, communication and critical thinking.

Students can also work with an associate’s degree in nursing, and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. This flexibility in entering into the profession is one of the biggest advantages of nursing.

Diploma in Nursing

A diploma in nursing is a traditional training program, typically offered in a hospital setting to promote direct patient interaction. Depending on the institution, diploma programs take between 1-3 years to complete. Students learn the fundamentals of clinical practice and patient care, and often pursue specialized training in areas such as psychological care and basic pharmacology. This immersive style of nursing education provides real-world training while also preparing students to sit for the NCLEX nursing licensure exam upon graduation.

With extensive clinical experience, individuals can transition directly from student to professional with a diploma in nursing. This degree qualifies you for the licensing exam to become a practical nurse (LPN), a nursing assistant (CNA), or an RN.

Though a diploma is a standard of traditional nursing education in the U.S., the number of diploma programs have decreased in recent years due in part to employer preference for associate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing. This preference may affect the availability of programs in your area, and your future employment opportunities. Even so, the diploma is treated with the same respect as an associate degree when sitting for the RN exam, and will not negatively impact your future salary as an entry-level nurse.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

A 2-3 year academic program, an associate degree in nursing has become one of the most popular degrees among RNs in the U.S. This program combines many of the practical training objectives of the nursing diploma with a liberal arts education. Typically hosted by a college or university, associate degree programs cover a variety of specialized medical fields, including anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and biology. Students learn the distinction between nursing procedures in areas ranging from emergency and surgical care, to pediatrics and family treatment. Simultaneously, students pursue fundamental liberal arts courses in mathematics, leadership, and written composition, all of which are intended to create a well-rounded nursing professional.

The ADN prepares you to sit for state licensure. Clinical rotations at a local hospital, medical institution, or university healthcare center allow you to see and interact in real-world situations. Most importantly, the ADN and RN licensure open pathways to higher professional specializations, like nursing in pediatrics or surgical care. These specific positions typically require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. An associate program exposes students to specialized areas and prepares them for the rigor of higher education. The increased number of accelerated RN-to-BSN programs also prepare you to enter a more focused field in nursing.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A BSN offers a solid foundation for a nursing career with job growth potential. This is a 3-4 year education for undergraduates, or a 2-year program for students already in possession of RN certification. Designed to prepare students for specialized fields of nursing — including obstetrics, pediatrics and general practice, emergency and surgical care, and healthcare advocacy — the bachelor’s prepares students to work one-on-one with patients, but also at administrative levels to coordinate and supervise colleagues.

With a heavy focus on the sciences, including courses in anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology, students pursue a specialized education designed to work at higher levels in the medical profession. With supplemental coursework available in psychology, child and adolescent development, and communication, you can tailor your degree to match your professional aspirations. Additionally, upper-level courses in statistics and metadata acquisition and analysis helps students to develop skills in independently gathering and comparing data sets, which are the fundamentals of an independent nurse practitioner.

With the bachelor’s degree you can work in a general or specialized medical practice or institution. If you intend to become a nurse educator, you may one day consider continuing your education with a master’s in nursing, which trains you to prepare new professionals in the field.

Training & Certification Requirements

To become an RN, graduates must take and pass the NCLEX-RN certification exam.

Types of RNs

Addiction Nurses

These nurses treat patients with substance abuse issues by combining pain regulation and monitoring with psychological assessment and care. Addiction nurses work with individual patients or small groups to coordinate patient therapies and provide instruction on how to maintain positive lifestyle choices.

Cardiovascular Nurses

Cardiovascular nurses focus on acute cardiovascular illness and rehabilitation through careful assessment, monitoring, and patient education. This specialization typically requires a BSN and periodic continuing education training to stay informed on the latest in cardiovascular health.

Critical Care Nurses

Intensive care units and emergency centers need critical care nurses that are trained to handle serious issues such as third-degree burns, motor accidents, and extreme violence. This career requires the ability to quickly problem-solve and monitor carefully.

Public Health Nurses

Public Health Nurses liaise between medical professionals and local communities by bringing healthcare initiatives to government bodies and educating the local public, respond to regional disease outbreaks, and organize immunizations and treatment centers.

Rehabilitation Nurses

Rehabilitation Nurses assist patients with long-term injuries, assessing the patient’s abilities and personal lifestyle priorities, and collaborating on physical therapy regimens with patients, their family members, and any primary care assistants. These nurses monitor progress and reorient therapies to improve results.

Job Outlook

Registered nurse employment is projected to grow 15% from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. Growth will occur for a number of reasons, including an increased emphasis on preventative care; growing rates of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity; and demand for healthcare services from the baby boomer population, as they live longer and lead more active lives.

There is also more financial pressure on hospitals to turn out patients quickly, which increases the number of people sent to long term-care facilities and outpatient care centers.

The Largest Employers of RNs

Setting Percent Employed Median Annual Salary
Hospitals; State, Local, and Private 61% $72,070
Ambulatory Healthcare Services 18% $66,300
Nursing and Residential Care Facilities 7% $62,320
Government 5% $75,900
Educational Services; State, Local, and Private 3% $60,300

Source: BLS


The median annual salary for RNs in 2017 was $70,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10 percent in the field earn over $104,000. Generally, these professionals have many years of experience, and usually have their master’s degree in nursing.

Workers employed for the government generally receive higher than average salaries, followed by nurses at various types of hospitals. The lowest-paid RNs work for educational services.

Top-Paying States for RNs

State Employment Annual Mean Wage
California 282,290 $102,700
Hawaii 10,800 $96,990
District of Columbia 11,000 $90,110
Massachusetts 82,870 $89,330
Oregon 35,140 $88,770

Source: BLS