According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nursing is among the top 10 occupations with the largest job growth.
Registered nursing (RN) requires a large base of knowledge used to assess, plan and intervene to promote health, prevent disease and help patients cope with illness. When providing direct patient care, nurses observe, assess and record symptoms, reactions and progress, which provides the basis for care planning and intervention. They are health educators and advocates for patients, families and communities.
They have a unique scope of practice and can practice independently, although they also collaborate with all members of the health care team to provide the care needed by each patient as an individual.
RN roles range from direct patient care and case management to establishing nursing practice standards, developing quality assurance procedures, directing complex nursing care systems, conducting clinical research and teaching in nursing programs, as well as practicing in many other invigorating settings.
RNs also develop and manage nursing care plans, instruct patients and their families in proper care and help individuals and groups take steps to improve or maintain their health. While state laws govern the scope of nursing practice, it is usually patient needs that determine a nurse’s daily job activities.
Professional nursing responsibilities have changed considerably over time. Nurses today are highly respected and valued members of the health care team who bring their own body of knowledge to the process of health care. Nurses work in collaboration with physicians and members of other healthcare disciplines.
Some nurses choose to focus on a particular specialty. There are numerous specialty options —each of which has its own training/certification requirements and related professional network or organization. These include:
- Critical care nurse
- Emergency nurse
- Hospice/palliative care nurse
- Labor and delivery staff nurse
- Neonatal nurse
- Nephrology nurse
- Nurse educator
- Nurse executive
- Oncology nurse
- Orthopaedic nurse
- Perioperative (O.R.) nurse
- Psychiatric/mental health nurse
- School nurse
- Staff nurse
- Women’s health nurse practitioner
In addition, nursing has four advanced practice clinical professions, each of which requires a graduate degree and separate certification:
Most nurses work in healthcare facilities, although home health and public health nurses travel to their patients’ homes, schools, community centers and other sites.
RNs may spend considerable time walking and standing. They also need to be able to cope well with stress, since nursing involves direct involvement with human suffering, emergencies and other pressures.
Salary Range and Outlook
Registered nurses earn on average $64,690 a year, although compensation depends on level of education, experience, geographic location and the type of facility. Experienced registered nurses with advanced education can earn $80,000 a year or more. Find out more about nursing pay rates and how and why they vary.
You can earn a nursing diploma or associate degree in three years. Many junior and community colleges offer associate degree in nursing (ADN) programs. Many new nurses begin their education in an ADN program and then enroll in Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) or master’s degree completion programs.
If you’re going into this field, however, you should be aware that there is a growing national movement to require all nurses to hold a BSN. Recent research indicates that patients are safer and have better outcomes when they’re under the care of nurses with at least a baccalaureate-level education in nursing. Currently, 55% of the nursing workforce holds a baccalaureate degree or higher.
Your career prospects also will be better if you hold a BSN: Many employers recognize that nurses with bachelor’s degrees are better prepared for a wide range of practice settings and tend to have strong skills in critical thinking, case management and health promotion.
Conventional BSN programs take four years, but more and more schools are offering accelerated nursing programs for students who already hold a bachelor’s in another field; such programs take between 11 and 18 months to complete. Similar programs exist for an accelerated master’s degree (MSN), which can be earned in approximately three years. In addition, there are a growing number of RN-to-MSN and BSN-to-PhD programs, designed to meet the increasing demand for more highly educated nurses in the workforce.
There also are an increasing number of four-year institutions offering “articulation agreements” with community and junior colleges, to enable nurses with associate or bachelor’s degrees to seamlessly transition into BSN and MSN programs.
Graduates from all three types of entry-level programs must pass the NCLEX-RN exam administered by each state’s board of nursing before they can practice as a registered nurses.
For an overview of the various RN programs, see the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) website.
Learn More About Registered Nursing
- Watch a video profile about registered nurses (in the Health Science category).
- For more information about the many career options in nursing, see: