Registered Nurses (RN)

I. What They Do

It takes a special type of person to work as an RN. Staff nurses must be highly skilled and adaptive in order to manage and coordinate medical care and provide explanations, advice and emotional support to patients and their families during difficult times.

Daily Responsibilities

  • Maintain accurate, detailed reports and records
  • Administer medicines and treatments
  • Set up plans for patient care
  • Observe patients and record observations
  • Help perform diagnostic tests and analyze results
  • Teach patients and their families how to manage illnesses or injuries
  • Explain what to do after treatments and arrange follow-up care

Ideal Candidates

  • Employ listening skills and empathy to connect with patients
  • Focus on service
  • Think critically and problem solve
  • Maintain excellent speaking and writing skills
  • Excel in environments that require an intense amount of quick, decisive decisions

Work Environment

  • Hospitals
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Home healthcare services
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Correctional facilities
  • Schools
  • Community clinics
  • Military bases and hospitals

II. Career Outlook

As patient populations get older and access to healthcare expands under the ACA, the demand for RNs is on the rise. Not only is the number of open nursing positions increasing, but average annual salaries are rising as well.

Job Growth

Projected job growth between 2012-22: 19%; faster than the 11% average for all sectors.

Projected Job Growth for RNs, 2012-2022

Job Growth Percent Change for Registered Nurses vs Other U.S. Occupations

Metro Areas with the Highest Number of RNs Employed
Metro Area Number of RNs Employed
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics. Accessed May 2014.
New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ Metropolitan Division 94,230
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA Metropolitan Division 69,610
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL Metropolitan Division 69,050
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 44,450
Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA 42,690
Industries Employing the Highest Number of RNs
Industry Number of RNs
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics. Accessed May 2014.
General and Surgical Hospitals 1,553,080
Physician Offices 178,810
Home Health Care Services 166,910
Skilled Nursing Facilities 142,490
Outpatient Care Centers 102,410

RN Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for RNs has been steadily climbing since 2007.

Average Annual RN Salaries Since 2007
Year Average Annual Salary
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Annual Occupation Profiles. Accessed May 2014.
2007 $62,480
2008 $65,130
2009 $66,530
2010 $67,720
2011 $69,110
2012 $67,930
2013 $68,910

States with the Highest Average Salaries for RNs in 2013

III. How to Become One

Educational Requirements

Most RNs follow one of the following three educational pathways:

  1. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): 4 years
  2. Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): 2-3 years
  3. A certificate or diploma from an accredited nursing program: 1-2 years

You don’t have to hold your BSN to become a registered nurse, but it certainly helps.

RN to BSN programs are a fast track option for nurses who want to leverage their experience and enhance their career mobility with a degree. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), more employers prefer or require new nurses to hold their bachelor’s degree in nursing. AACN’s 2012 national employer surveys indicate:

  • 43.7% of hospitals and healthcare providers require new nurses to hold a BSN
  • 78.6% of employers express a strong preference for new nurses to hold a BSN

Students of any nursing program can expect to take courses in:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Social sciences

Any nursing program accredited by the AACN will also require a practical component, during which students gain hands-on experience at a clinic, hospital, or other medical facility.

Certification and Licensing Requirements

Regardless of where they work or the tasks they perform on a regular basis, all RNs must pass the standardized National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) in order to become registered and work as a professional nurse in the U.S.

Once you’ve completed your nursing program, you must apply to take this licensing exam in the state you wish to work. Before you take your NCLEX, you’ll need to:

  1. Check to make sure you meet the eligibility requirements of your state’s Board of Nursing.
  2. Register to take your exam with Pearson VUE. You’ll need to pay a $200 registration fee to sit for the exam — VISA, MasterCard, American Express credit, debit and prepaid cards are accepted.
  3. Once these steps have been completed, the applicant will receive an Authorization to Test notice. From there, all that is left is to prepare.

If you’ve completed your nursing certificate, ADN or BSN, you will be prepared to pass this exam: In 2013, 83.04% of all first-time exam-takers who were educated in the U.S. received a passing score on the NCLEX-RN.

The NCLEX-RN is administered in a computer-adaptive test (CAT) format. The 2013 exam was structured using the following template:

  • Safe and Effective Care Environment:
    • Management of Care: 17-23%
    • Safety and Infection Control: 9-15%
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance: 6-12%
  • Psychosocial Integrity: 6-12%
  • Physiological Integrity:
    • Basic Care and Comfort: 6-12%
    • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies: 12-18%
    • Reduction of Risk Potential: 9-15%
    • Physiological Adaptation: 11-17%

A license will be required for practicing nurses in each U.S. state and territory (including the District of Columbia). Additional requirements for receiving and maintaining licensure as a registered nurse will vary by state. In some cases, nurses are responsible for covering the costs of exam registrations and continuing education coursework.

For more information about specific RN requirements, please find information on nursing in your state here.