The American healthcare industry is expanding at a rapid pace, creating an immediate need for medical professionals. Registered nurses are currently in high demand for many reasons, including the development of new technology, an aging population, and current nurses retiring. When viewing all of these factors alongside the satisfaction that comes from helping people, the benefits of become a registered nurse have never been better. This guide delves into what it’s like to be a registered nurse, outlines available educational paths, highlights skills needed to succeed, reviews current salaries, and provides an interview with a professional currently working in the field.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 2.7 million registered nurses are employed in the United States, and approximately 60 percent work in hospitals. RNs may also find themselves in clinics, physicians’ offices, home health care settings, critical and long-term care facilities, governmental organizations, the military, schools, and rehabilitation agencies. The demand for registered nurses is expected to continue growing swiftly.
Duties of a registered nurse vary depending upon where they work, but often include providing direct care to patients, assisting physicians in medical procedures, offering guidance to family members, and leading public health education campaigns. RNs may also operate medical monitoring equipment and administer medications. With concentrated training or certifications, RNs can focus on a medical specialty, such as geriatric, pediatric, neonatal, surgical, or emergency care.
Registered nurses work in shifts that run around the clock, which may be on rotating or permanent schedules. Overtime and emergency hours can also be unpredictable. In addition to passing the NCLEX-RN, registered nurses are required to complete ongoing education to maintain licensure. For those with a nursing diploma or associate degree, returning to school to complete a bachelor’s or master’s level degree will allow them to move into advanced nursing practice roles or health care administration.
The increased educational and training requirements of a registered nurse compared to a licensed practical or vocational nurse is significant, but so is the bump in pay. According Payscale, a registered nurse makes about 40 percent more than a licensed practical or vocational nurse.
The compensation for registered nurses reflects high demand, as well as the advanced levels of training and education required. Many individuals choose to become nurses for reasons other than financial, but an national average median salary of $66,640 in 2014 does make registered nursing an attractive career for those looking at the bottom line.
The geographical location and cost of living also affect the income of nurses. Below is a list of five states with the highest average wage for registered nurses:
Tremendous job growth is expected for registered nurses, with a 19 percent expansion expected between 2012 to 2022. Several reasons for this exist, including an aging population, wider healthcare availability through the Affordable Care Act, and the fact that one-third of registered nurses currently working are nearing retirement. Nurses will be needed to educate patients on chronic health problems, such as arthritis, obesity, and dementia. It is expected that the increased demand for registered nurses will come from facilities other than hospitals, such as outpatient and long-term care centers.
As can be expected, the job growth is not necessarily even across the nation. The below table lists the top 10 states where growth is expected to be the highest from 2012 to 2022.
In order to become a registered nurse, students must graduate from an accredited program. Several options are available, including nursing diplomas, associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees.
An associate degree in nursing typically takes two years to complete, though accelerated programs can shorten this timeframe. A bachelor’s degree in nursing takes about four years of full-time study, or two years for those in an associate-to-bachelor’s RN program. Another expedited option is to attend a school that offers a “second degree” program for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. Students may also decide to complete a four-year bachelor’s program at the start of their education, allowing them to move into administration, advanced nursing, nursing consulting, teaching, or research roles.
Bachelor’s degree programs require students to complete general education classes in addition to their nursing coursework. While many of the same topics taught at the associate level are covered in a bachelor’s degree, a four-year program will provide a more in-depth set of knowledge and skills. As the field of nursing becomes more competitive, more employers are requiring newly appointed RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree.
Common nursing coursework includes the following topics:
Registered nursing programs should help prepare students to pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Upon graduation, aspiring RNs should register with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing to sign up for the exams. Candidates will receive an Authorization to Test notification when it is time to sign up for the examination.
This computerized test has an average of 119 questions and must be completed within six hours. Those who do not pass must wait at least 45 days to re-take the exam. The national average NCLEX-RN passage rate is around 70-75 percent.
Every US state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia, requires employed registered nurses to have proper licensure. Mandates vary by state, so students should contact their state board of nursing to see if there are any additional steps, such as a background check.
Registered nurses are in high demand, so recent graduates from RN programs often have multiple options when it comes to deciding where they would like to work. Students should remember that much of what it takes to be a registered nurse or any other medical professional is learned with actual experience.
If a registered nurse decides to become an advanced practice registered nurse and specialize their knowledge, a master’s degree will be needed. After completing this education, graduates can apply for roles as certified nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives. Those who want to go further might choose to enter a doctoral program. DNP or PhD programs are appealing to those aspiring to positions as scientific researchers or university professors in the nursing sciences. RNs may also undertake further certifications in areas such as critical care, acute care, or nursing management.
In order to become a registered nurse, students must obtain a degree or nursing diploma, with the most common avenues being associate or bachelor’s programs. A nursing diploma is less popular due to the fact that it still takes two years to complete but does not provide a degree upon completion. Additionally, many nursing organizations and associations are calling for the diploma to be phased out completely, encouraging aspiring nurses to opt for a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree in nursing is also available, and is usually obtained by registered nurses who wish to specialize their knowledge or take the first step in receiving a doctorate level nursing degree.
Nursing diplomas are hospital-based programs providing intensive hands-on training alongside nursing coursework. Students are also required to take a number of co-requisite classes in areas such as anatomy, biology and psychology at a traditional educational institution. This experiential style of learning provides students with knowledge of basic nursing care; they will also receive a supplementary education in math and science topics. The chart below provides a snapshot of a typical nursing diploma curriculum.
Basics of human systems will be covered, as well as identification of human body components. Areas include cell metabolism and the circulatory, nervous, and muscular systems.
Students will be introduced to the basic principles of the human mind and behavior. Topics include personality, motivation, learning, perception, and mental disorders
Teaches fundamentals of the nursing profession by introducing students to theories forming the basis for patient assessment, laboratory testing, and medical safety.
Through clinical practice, students will demonstrate their nursing competencies, study nursing and medical literature, and explore future trends in the field.
While the curriculum of an associate degree in nursing shares similarities with vocational nursing and nursing diploma programs, the breadth and depth of material covered is significantly different. General education requirements of an associate degree provide a more holistic educational experience, while advanced nursing classes and additional clinical experience equip graduates with a nuanced understanding of the field. The table below reviews common classes and highlights how topics covered translate to nursing practice.
This course involves the study of microorganisms and how they affect human health.
Students learn about the nursing care process and how it is used to treat patients throughout their lives. Special emphasis is placed on increasingly complex medical issues seen in patients, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Patient management techniques will be covered, preparing students to effectively serve patients with a wide range of medical issues while maintaining a high level of care.
Students will be exposed to recurring and potential nursing issues, such as legal and ethical dilemmas, healthcare leadership conflicts, and healthcare policies.
A bachelor’s degree in nursing builds on the associate degree curriculum by exposing students to an even wider range of nursing and healthcare-related concepts and theories. Emphasis is placed on research and related medical concepts, equipping students with a broader theoretical foundation.
Students who already hold a non-nursing undergraduate degree can undertake an accelerated program to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Another popular option allows professionals already working in a nursing position to obtain their bachelor’s degree in less time by taking into account existing experience and education.
Examples of classes often found in a bachelor’s program are listed below.
Commonly encountered issues in women’s health are addressed in this course, with added emphasis on reproductive concepts and pregnant patients.
Research related concepts and practice methods are covered. Topics such as scientific methods and statistical analysis will be explained.
This course focuses on the delivery of medical care to communities and to different populations. Public health and nursing theories will also be discussed.
The basic scientific principles for effective nurse anesthesia will be taught in this course. Chemistry and physics concepts forming the basis of anesthesiology will also be reviewed.
A master’s degree in nursing allows RNs to specialize in a particular area or take the first step in achieving a nursing degree at the doctoral level. While undergraduate degrees and programs prepare students to be registered nurses, master’s level degrees emphasize a nursing specialty. Below is a brief list of skills students can expect to possess upon graduation.
During the course of their studies, students will develop a complex understanding of how and why medical care is provided in a certain way. They will know learn why specific medical techniques or treatments are used over others, with consideration given to prevailing societal, cultural, political, and business influences.
A major reason many nurses choose to pursue a master’s degree is to learn a specialization. The use of medical tools and techniques specific to that concentration will be taught at the graduate level. For example, a registered nurse specializing in pediatric care will develop a detailed understanding of incubators found in neonatal intensive care units.
Many medical care technologies and methodologies originated from historical research and subsequent discoveries, and recent medical developments always revolve around research. Graduate level nurses learn about a spectrum of research methods with great depth, allowing them to effectively analyze data or design and undertake independent research projects.
Providing effective medical care is a team effort, and successful nurses understand how to balance providing excellent care to multiple patients while working with a variety of healthcare professionals. A master’s degree in nursing offers guidance to help nurses provide more efficient care, move into leadership roles, and manage others.
Most registered nurses choose to specialize in one particular area of healthcare, such as emergency care, geriatrics, informatics, or neonatal. The following table highlights numerous concentrations available to registered nurses.
|I want to work with the critically ill and patients who are at high risk for life-threatening conditions, diseases, and health problems.|
|I want to work with pregnant women, those trying to get pregnant, or patients who have just given birth.|
|I would like to help patients reduce or manage pain and keep them as comfortable as possible during their medical care.|
|I like working with computers as much as I like working with people. I would also like to help run computer and information systems that monitor and manage patient care.|
|I like numbers, statistics, and the development of new medical discoveries that help patients.|
Though the majority of RN classes were administered through traditional campus-based programs in the past, today a large number of institutions offer online nursing degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In most cases, students should expect their online programs to be equally as rigorous and respected as those being taught at brick-and-mortar institutions. When researching potential online programs, students should look for a few specific components, including:
What is the school’s reputation, especially at local hospitals and medical facilities? Does the online degree have brand recognition on a regional or national level? Depending on future goals, the marketability of a nursing degree may be a serious factor to consider.
The quality of a degree depends not only on the level of student commitment, but also the effectiveness of their professors. Teachers with terminal degrees in their specialty, recent clinical experience and a widely published oeuvre are much more likely to be dynamic and knowledgeable educators.
Before students can become active registered nurses, they must first pass the NCLEX-RN examination, so selecting a program that properly equips graduates is a crucial step. Does the school offer adequate preparation for students? Outside of logistical and financial considerations, a school’s ability to groom students for successful licensure is the most important factor when selecting an RN program.
Another crucial factor in selecting a program is its licensure passage rate. Most schools will list these statistics on their website, but they can also be accessed by calling the school’s admissions department. The national average is around 70-75 percent; a school posting results lower than these figures should be carefully researched to understand the reason.
Aside from passing the NCLEX-RN examination, there are numerous other credentials or certifications available to registered nurses. The American Nurses Credentialing Center provides many certification programs, some of which are listed below:
Depending on the certification and the organization it is offered by, most must be renewed after a certain period of time, usually every few years.
|Medical Instruments||Stethoscope, pulse oximeter, syringes and lancets, thermometer, defibrillator, forceps, hemostats, medical suction equipment, catheters, and automated IV pumps|
|Medical software||IDX Systems database software, Misys Healthcare Systems medical software, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Kronos Workforce Timekeeper|
Mary A. Osborne, BA, BSN, RN, and award winning author of Alchemy’s Daughter has provided the following insight into what it’s like to be a registered nurse.
As a first-time college student I had no definite career path in mind, but I wanted a job that would allow me to make a positive difference in people’s lives. With the thought of working as a health care professional in some capacity, I earned my first my first bachelor’s degree in chemistry while also pursuing studies in creative writing. As my love for writing grew, I ultimately came to the conclusion that becoming an RN would lead to a solid career path while also allowing me the flexibility to pursue my artistic ambitions.
Two years after earning my BA in chemistry from Knox College, I enrolled at the Rush University College of Nursing. Because I had already completed a bachelor’s degree at Knox, only two additional years of study were required to earn my bachelor’s of science in nursing.
The program at the Rush has changed since I was a student, and now offers a “Direct Entry Masters” program. This program offers non-nurses with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in nursing and to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination in just two years. The advanced degree offers a clear advantage because employers are looking for nurses who can take on more responsibility in today’s world of complex health care.
In nursing school I was fascinated by pharmacology classes. I loved learning the biochemistry or chemical pathways that make drugs work in the specific way that they do in the human body. I also enjoyed the skills lab, where we students practiced our newly learned nursing skills, such as taking blood pressure or listening to lung sounds, on one another or on mannequins, which were forgiving of our early mistakes.
As a nurse care manager for an eldercare company, I help manage the complex medical care of older adults who wish to remain at home as well as those who are in assisted living or skilled nursing facilities. I conduct nursing assessments to determine the specific needs of our clients, develop professional plans of care, and communicate with physicians. I also supervise and instruct nursing assistants, who help our clients with their activities of daily living. As a per diem nurse care manager, I decide when I am available to work (and when I write my novels). Typically, I provide coverage during busy periods. Per diem nurse jobs are available in a variety of health care settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and rehab centers.
Nursing is a rewarding profession that can provide life-long job satisfaction and job security. Nurses with bachelor’s degrees have a wide variety of job opportunities, and master’s prepared nurses have the ability to move directly into leadership roles after graduation.
By now, interested individuals know there are other health care professions related to registered nursing. However, what type of education is required? Is the growth rate expected to be better or worse than that of registered nurses? The table below will help answer those questions.
There are other careers similar to registered nursing that may be of interest to those looking to work in the healthcare field. The chart below lists a few related occupations as well as their salaries.
Looking to become a registered nurse? The search tool below provides students with a tailored list of schools based on their individual needs and goals.