Have you always known that you wanted to become a nurse and make a difference in the lives of others? Are you currently working in a different field altogether, but interested in making a career switch into nursing? Whatever the case, if you are interested in pursuing a career in nursing, it’s easy to understand that you might feel overwhelmed about all of the possibilities.

For many, becoming a registered nurse (RN) is a logical entry point into the field. Working as an RN will allow you to gain experience and confidence as a nurse while you consider whether or not you’d like to advance to a more senior position (such as becoming a nurse practitioner or clinical nurse leader).

Below, we explore the role and responsibilities of RNs and outline the key steps that you’ll need to follow in order to make your dream into a reality.

What Does a Registered Nurse do?

Registered nurses play an important role within the healthcare community. While their exact role and responsibilities can vary significantly depending on the size of their team and the environment in which they work (for example, in a hospital, doctor’s office, school, etc.), they typically include the following:

  • Observing patients and conducting assessments
  • Recording patient medical information and symptoms
  • Updating patient files as appropriate
  • Create a patient care plan with the broader medical team
  • Administering treatments and medications
  • Performing care of wounds
  • Collecting blood, urine, stool, and other samples for lab work
  • Educating patients and their families throughout the course of treatment

In exchange for performing these duties, registered nurses typically enjoy high levels of job stability and an impressive salary. In fact, in 2019 the median annual salary for RNs working in the United States was $73,300, or approximately $35.24 per hour. This figure does, of course, vary by level of experience as well as the region in which a nurse practices.

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Steps to Become a Registered Nurse

After you’ve decided that you would like to pursue a career in nursing, the steps to becoming a registered nurse are fairly straightforward. First, you must earn the appropriate degree. Then, you must pass the NCLEX Exam. And finally, you must obtain a license in the state that you wish to practice in.

Below, we explore each of these steps in more detail.

1. Earn your Degree

In order to become a registered nurse, you will need to earn a degree from an accredited institution. Ultimately, which degree you will be required to earn and how long it takes will depend on where you intend to work.

In some states, RNs simply need to earn their associate’s degree in nursing in order to practice. In recent years, however, more and more states have made the decision to require RNs hold at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) in order to obtain their license. Additionally, even in states that do not require a bachelor’s degree for licensure, individual employers may require a bachelor’s degree to consider a new hire.

For this reason, it is typically recommended that if you would like to work as a registered nurse, earning your BSN is likely the best path toward doing so. The best programs will place significant emphasis on clinical experience and will be taught by faculty with real, hands-on experience in the field.

There are many different options for earning your BSN. If you are a first-time college student, then a traditional four-year BSN is likely the right choice for you. If you have already earned your associate’s degree in nursing, you may instead opt to pursue an RN-to-BS Completion Program, which can be completed in as little as 12 to 14 months. Similarly, if you have already earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, there are other accelerated nursing programs that can be completed in as little as 16 months or 24 months.

2. Pass the NCLEX Exam

Once you’ve completed your degree, the next step is to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, otherwise known as the NCLEX or NCLEX-RN.

The NCLEX is designed to test your knowledge in key areas of the field of nursing to ensure that you are prepared for the challenges of the job. In order to obtain your state license, you will need to pass the exam. If you don’t pass the NCLEX the first time you take it, you will need to wait 45 days before you can take it again.

“When you're exploring nursing programs, first and foremost, you want to see what the program’s NCLEX pass rate is,” says Donna Glynn, PhD, RN, ANP, and associate dean of pre-licensure nursing at Regis College, notes. “That information is available throughout the country at each individual state board of nursing.”

Some colleges will also publish this information right on their websites. For example, you can see information about Regis College’s NCLEX pass rate here.

“Another thing you want to ask the program that's preparing you as an RN is what resources they use to ensure success on the NCLEX,” says Glynn. “There are many specific platforms that the schools can use that help bolster success.”

3. Obtain State Licensure

After you’ve successfully passed the NCLEX, you’ll need to obtain a nursing license in the state that you wish to practice in. If you live in a border area or would otherwise like to work in multiple states, you will need to obtain a license from each state, unless the states specifically honor the license of those other jurisdictions.

Each state will have its own unique requirements, so be sure to check with the appropriate board. For example, you can learn more about becoming an RN in Massachusetts here.

4. Seek Advanced Training (optional)

Once you have received your state license, you will officially be a registered nurse. Congratulations! That does not mean, however, that your journey has to be over. There are a plethora of different opportunities to advance within your career.

One route you may decide to take is to earn a nursing certification that signifies your ability in a specific field. Some popular options include gerontology, oncology, neonatal, pediatrics, and more. Earning these certifications can help you increase your salary and appeal to a wider range of employers.

Similarly, you might choose to pursue an advanced degree in order to become a nurse practitioner or clinical nurse leader. Achieving these goals will typically require earning either your master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). Each of these can come with a substantial boost in pay.

Take the First Step on Your Path to Becoming a Registered Nurse

If you are interested in becoming a registered nurse, you should feel excited and proud about the journey you are about to embark on. Not only will you make a real, direct, and lasting difference in the lives of your patients; you’ll also enjoy significant job stability and competitive salary for your work.

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