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What is a Registered Nurse (RN) Salary?

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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the registered nurse (RN) profession to grow by 7% from 2019-29. The current healthcare landscape calls for even more RNs, as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) warns enrollment of prospective nurses in training programs may not meet this demand, citing a current shortage of RNs.

This guide provides an overview to the registered nurse profession, including details on job tasks, education and career paths, and salaries.

What is a Registered Nurse?

RNs care for patients in many different medical settings. They may take patient medical histories, check vital signs, and perform diagnostic tests under the direction of other healthcare providers. Nurses also educate the public on healthy living, ensuring that patients and families understand treatment directions and concerns.

Each state sets their own registered nurse requirements, including education, exam, and licensing standards. Prospective nurses must complete a state-approved nursing program.

Many nurses begin by earning an associate degree in nursing and continue their education with a bachelor’s degree. In some cases, these professionals also obtain graduate and doctoral degrees for advanced nursing positions.

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What Do Registered Nurses Do?

RNs provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their families. RNs must possess specialized knowledge to assess, plan, and intervene to better promote health and prevent disease.

Nurses often observe, assess, and record vital health information while providing direct patient care. This work provides other healthcare professionals with a basis for care planning and intervention.

RNs also carry out elements of the care plan, such as drawing blood or other biological samples for lab testing, preparing patients for medical procedures, or changing wound dressings. Nurses also need excellent communication skills to efficiently and effectively relay information to their supervisors, physicians, or patients. Technical skills also benefit RNs, as they use electronic medical records and computerized medication dispensers.

Job duties can vary by nursing specialization, particularly for advanced practice nurses. With proper training, certification, and licensure, advanced practice nurses administer anesthesia, prescribe medications, and diagnose and treat medical conditions. They may also carry out administrative duties, such as scheduling or quality assurance.

Where Do Registered Nurses Work?

RNs work in healthcare organizations like hospitals, outpatient clinics, residential care facilities, physician offices, and patient homes. They work with doctors, nursing assistants, allied healthcare providers, and administrators.

Most nurses work full-time schedules. RNs working in facilities providing 24-hour care may work overnight hours, along with weekends and holidays.

Hospitals employ the greatest number of RNs. The BLS reports that 60% of the 3.1 million RNs in the U.S. work in hospitals, earning a median annual salary of $73,300. Their medical expertise makes them valuable employees in related industries, as well. Some nurses find employment in pharmaceutical manufacturing, one of the top-paying industries for nurses, with an average median wage of $86,400.

How to Become a Registered Nurse

Aspiring RNs must earn either an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, complete the number of clinical hours as required in their state, pass the national council licensure exam for RNs (NCLEX-RN), and apply for licensure. The process can take 2-4 years or longer if students enroll in a part-time BSN program.

About 40% of RNs surveyed in a 2018 Medscape Nursing Career Satisfaction Report considered making a difference in people’s lives to be the most rewarding part of their job. The survey found that even among those dissatisfied with nursing, 25% of those surveyed only wanted to move to a new path within nursing, as registered nursing can set the stage for specializing in a field or becoming a nurse practitioner.

States set rigorous standards for nurses to ensure patients receive care from knowledgeable RNs who adhere to a set of professional rules and meet high moral standards. Every state requires each nurse to complete an approved nursing program with classroom and hands-on learning, followed by a comprehensive exam. The sections below provide more information on the education, training, and licensing processes.


A two-year degree with a focus on clinical education meets the minimum education standards for most states. These programs often include 60 credits in general education and nursing, with courses in anatomy and physiology, nursing fundamentals, and the application of pharmacology. These programs allow prospective nurses to begin work quickly.

Some students choose to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. This four-year degree also includes extensive clinical education but incorporates leadership and administrative skills throughout the curriculum.

Some states, such as New York, have moved toward requiring all nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree within 10 years of becoming an RN. Many schools offer accelerated online programs that allow RNs to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree while continuing to work.

No matter which educational path you choose, always ensure that your school holds accreditation from the AACN, along with approval from the state. These designations ensure that your degree meets licensing standards and allow you to continue your education later.

Training and Certification

Once you earn your registered nurse degree, you must apply to your state board of nursing to become an RN. The application typically includes verification of your education using transcripts. Many states conduct background checks and require applicants to disclose any criminal history, particularly regarding substance abuse or abuse of a child, partner, or adult. Most states charge an application fee to process your paperwork.

The NCLEX-RN is a comprehensive exam of RN knowledge and clinical skills. It features multiple choice and short answer questions using an adaptive online test. The RN exam includes at least 75 questions but may ask test-takers as many as 265 questions. You have up to six hours to complete the exam. Pearson VUE charges $200 to register for the NCLEX-RN.

Once you pass the NCLEX-RN, you may begin working as a nurse. Some states require that nurses earn continuing education credits in order to maintain their license, and many nursing organizations offer these learning opportunities. You should be aware of the licensing requirements in your state. A nurse can choose to earn a certification in a specialty area, such as critical care or emergency nursing. Professional credentials require continued study and exams, but they are voluntary and provide opportunities to enhance your resume and employment options.

Registered Nurse Salaries and Job Growth

RNs earn a considerably higher salary than the average annual mean wage for all occupations in the U.S., earning a median 2019 salary of $73,300, according to the BLS. Nurses in California make the highest average salaries, where they earn an annual mean wage of over $113,240. The other top-paying states include Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and Oregon.

Within the umbrella of the healthcare industry, RNs work in several different sub-industries. Some of the top industries include the government, hospitals, ambulatory care services, and nursing care facilities.

The BLS projects that jobs for registered nurses will increase by 7% between 2019 and 2029. This could largely be due to the aging population in the U.S., with more and more older people requiring healthcare services.

To learn more about the outlook for nursing salaries, visit this resource.

Top Paying Careers for RNs

Sometimes RNs choose to specialize in a certain area. These opportunities may require additional training, which means nurses might need to invest more money into a course or academic program. That said, specialized nurses often earn larger salaries and qualify for more employment opportunities.

You can find six examples of highly-paid specialized nurses below. If you’re interested in learning about even more of the top registered nursing jobs, consult this list.

  • Dialysis Registered Nurse

    These professionals specifically work with patients who need dialysis treatment, or the cleaning of the blood for people with kidney disease. They work with dialysis machinery, setting it up and taking it apart before every treatment. Dialysis registered nurses earn an average median salary of $70,510.

  • Oncology Registered Nurse

    Oncology refers to the treatment of cancer, with oncology registered nurses working with cancer patients. These professionals, who bring home an average annual median pay of $71,731 may carry out chemotherapy, administer IVs, and educate cancer patients about their condition.

  • Post-Anesthetic Care Unit Registered Nurse

    When patients undergo surgery or another invasive procedure, they usually receive anesthesia to help them numb the pain. A post-anesthetic care unit registered nurse cares for patients after surgery, including monitoring vital signs to make sure that patients properly regain consciousness. These specialized registered nurses earn an average median salary of $70,568.

  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Registered Nurse

    If an infant is born premature or with concerning health issues, doctors keep them in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) before their parents can bring them home. These infants require 24-hour care, which NICU registered nurses provide. NICU RNs work during the day and night, sometimes completing up to 16-hour shifts. The median salary for this role is $66,100.

  • Travel Registered Nurse

    Travel registered nurses serve shifts in various places, usually working in areas with nursing shortages. Travel nurses typically spend weeks or even a few months in one place. Sometimes they work in remote locations without healthcare facilities, and therefore must provide mobile services without normal hospital equipment. The average median earnings for this role is about $76,730.

  • Intensive Care Unit Registered Nurse

    Intensive Care Unit (ICU) registered nurses work with patients who need critical care. Many ICU patients are in immense pain or in critical condition, and require more advanced care, sensitivity, and attention to detail than other hospital patients. Because of the high-pressure nature of this job, the nurses entering this specialty are often more experienced. ICU registered nurses make a median annual salary of 66,670.

Frequently Asked Questions About Registered Nurses

What degree do I need to become an RN?

You can become an RN with either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Students can often find ADN programs at community colleges, which full-time learners can complete within two years. In comparison, BSN programs typically follow a four-year plan of full-time study. Additionally, accelerated nursing programs allow students with a non-nursing degree to earn a BSN in 11-18 months.

Why become a registered nurse?

Individuals become RNs for several different reasons. For one, many nurses consider their careers to be personally and professionally fulfilling. They spend their days helping patients with their health and earn fair compensation. Finally, the stability and potential job growth of the career appeal to nurses, as well.

Can registered nurses prescribe medicine?

In most states, RNs cannot prescribe medication. However, 16 states grant RNs the ability to dispense some medications, such as contraceptive pills. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) can prescribe medication in most states, but these professionals need advanced degrees and additional licensure. Sometimes RNs choose to become APRNs later in their career path.

Can RNs be licensed in several states?

Yes. The Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) allows RNs to practice with their original license in any participating state. The majority of states now participate in the NLC; you can find the full list here. If your state has not signed on for the NLC, you can still apply for additional licensure in a second state.

Related Registered Nursing Career Resources

Related Registered Nursing Program Resources

Registered Nurse Resources

  • American Nurses Association Enterprise

    The ANA Enterprise leverages the combined strength of the American Nurses Association (ANA), the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), and the American Nurses Foundation (the Foundation), to promote the health, safety, and wellness of nurses in all practice environments; and provide the resources, information, and network that nurses need to excel in their practice.

  • American Society of Registered Nurses

    This national organization provides awards, grants, fellowships, and scholarships to RNs. It offers access to leading journals related to the nursing profession and scholarly research, including the Journal of Nursing and Journal of Advanced Practice Nursing. Members can take advantage of the career center’s virtual job fairs, instant interviews, and career board.


    This site helps match RNs willing to take short-term assignments around the country. Hospitals facing staff shortages or seasonal staffing needs rely on travel nursing companies to supply highly trained nurses to provide excellent patient care. The site welcomes nurses from all specializations for assignments ranging from a few weeks to six months or more.

  • Doctors Without Borders

    This global nonprofit organization provides medical aid in more than 70 countries around the world. Founded in 1971, the organization responds to humanitarian crises caused by disease, famine, and war. They offer some volunteer and internship opportunities at their New York headquarters and through field projects. The organization also offers medical and non-medical staff positions, with a need for qualified medical staff.

  • Job Search

    This online career board offers more than 200,000 job listings in many different nursing specialties. RNs can search for new jobs by specialty, location, salary, contract type, or hours. RNs can register on the site for free and gain access to career planning tools, such as email alerts and job tracking.

  • Association for Nursing Professional Development

    This organization promotes the professional development of RNs through education and certification. It offers a professional development center with recordings of convention sessions and webinars. It also provides a bookstore, live webinars, and an annual convention. The organization’s certification prep course prepares RNs for the American Nurses Credentialing generalist exam.

Reviewed by:

Nicole Galan, RN, MSN
Expert Reviewer: Nicole Galan, RN, MSN Nicole Galan is a registered nurse who started on a general medical/surgical care unit and then moved into infertility care, where she worked for almost 10 years. Additionally, she has worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students. Galan currently works as a full-time freelancer and recently earned her master’s degree in nursing education from Capella University.

Advertisement 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.

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.