How to Get Your RN Degree

Overview

RN checking on a patient in a hospital bed

Registered nurses (RNs) are a highly diverse group of professionals who share a common goal: to ease and prevent human suffering due to injury and illness. Modern RNs work in many different roles, from bedside care to patient advocacy to legal consultation. Their efforts ensure that all people have access to the safe, high-quality healthcare they need to live healthy, productive lives.

According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), RNs make up the largest segment of the nation’s healthcare workforce. Their typical duties include:

  • Serving as frontline providers who monitor and meet patient needs
  • Working with physicians to deliver well-rounded, responsive care
  • Educating patients, families and the public 
  • Performing and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment
  • Coordinating care among a team of professionals
  • Offering emotional support to patients and families

Given the current legislative push toward healthcare reform, the responsibilities of RNs will likely expand in coming years. Under the supervision of physicians, nurses are expected to play a greater role in primary care and the management of complex medical conditions. This shift may help to control rising healthcare costs and could provide better access for people who are currently underserved by the healthcare system.

Work Environment

RNs work in almost all facilities that provide healthcare, including:

  • Hospitals (most common)
  • Physician offices
  • Nursing homes and long-term care facilities
  • Hospice and palliative care services
  • Home healthcare agencies
  • Schools
  • Community health agencies
  • Correctional facilities

Not all RNs work directly with patients. In fact, a growing number are found in non-traditional fields such as healthcare administration, informatics, teaching, research and consulting. These non-clinical nurses work in a wide variety of settings, including:

  • Health care organizations (in administrative roles)
  • Private corporations (especially those in the medical field, such as pharmaceutical or equipment companies)
  • Law firms
  • Universities 
  • Government agencies
  • Insurance companies
  • Consulting firms
  • Publishers (as medical writers and editors)

About 80 percent of RNs work full time. Those in inpatient settings typically work rotating shifts that include weekends, nights and holidays. Nurses in outpatient and non-clinical settings are more likely to work regular business hours and are sometimes on call evenings and weekends.

Requirements

Education

The first step to becoming an RN is to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing from a state-approved training program. Associate’s degrees in nursing (ASNs) take two years to complete and are available through community colleges, career centers and hospital-based programs. Bachelor’s degrees in nursing (BSNs) require at least four years of full-time study at an accredited college or university.

Nursing programs cover core classes in English, math and science as well as classroom and practical instruction in nursing. In addition, bachelor’s degree candidates take a variety of classes in the humanities, arts and sciences. Bachelor’s programs also offer upper-level nursing classes on topics such as research and leadership.

According to the National Organization for Associate Degree Nursing, there are over 1,000 ASN programs nationwide. Most of these are available through community colleges and career centers, as hospital-based programs are becoming less common.

The number of BSN programs is increasing in response to demand from the healthcare industry. The Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing report calls for 80 percent of RNs to hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree by 2020. This will prepare RNs to work in new professional roles and take on greater responsibility for primary care.

Specialized bridge programs help a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a nurse with an associate degree to pursue a bachelor’s or graduate degree. In many cases, these programs award credit or waive prerequisites based on a candidate's prior education and work experience. Bridge programs take 1-4 years to complete depending on the candidate’s education level and target degree.

A career changer who holds a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing discipline is often eligible to enroll in an accelerated BSN or master’s degree (MSN) program. This option is highly intensive and requires a significant time commitment. Most candidates earn a bachelor’s degree in 1-2 years or a master’s in 2-3 years.

Training

All nursing education programs include extensive, supervised clinical training. In addition, many students work part time as nursing assistants or in related positions to gain on-the-job experience. First-time RNs receive on-the-job training specific to their practice area.

Licensing and/or Certification

All RNs must be licensed by the state in which they practice. This requires an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and a passing score on the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Some states have additional requirements such as mandatory training or a criminal background check.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Aspiring RNs should be critical thinkers and excellent communicators. Because they spend long periods on their feet and are called upon to lift patients, candidates should be in good health and physically fit. Emotional stability, compassion and patience will help them to work effectively with challenging patients and family members. Finally, future RNs should be team players who will enjoy collaborating with nursing colleagues and other healthcare professionals.

Opportunities for Advancement

Experienced RNs are often promoted to supervisory or administrative roles. Some seek certification as advanced practice nurses (APRNs) in order to specialize in a field of interest or take on greater responsibility for patient care. Nurses with doctoral degrees often move into research positions or teach at the university level.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a registered nurse, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that the median salary for registered nurses was $64,690 in May 2010. The lowest-paid 10% received less than $44,000 while the top 10% earned over $95,000. Salaries varied by region, workplace, role and experience level. Nurses working in inpatient hospitals tended to command the highest salaries. Earnings generally increase with education, experience and supervisory responsibility.

Job Outlook

Employment of RNs is expected to grow by 26% from 2010 to 2020, which is considered faster than average for all occupations. This is largely due to:

  • A rapidly aging population that is increasing demand for all types of healthcare services
  • Growing emphasis on prevention within the healthcare industry
  • Rapid advances in technology and medicine that are creating new treatments and extending human lifespans
  • The large number of nurses set to retire in the near future

While demand for nurses is expected to increase across all settings, competition is high for positions with regular, daytime hours. A nurse with a bachelor’s degrees and clinical experience will continue to have a competitive edge in the job market. Advanced practice nurses will also be in high demand.

Related Careers

Also, check out our Health Careers page for more career guides.

Further Reading

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