How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Written by Coursera • Updated on

These are the steps you need to take in order to become a registered nurse.

[Featured Image]: A woman with curly hair, wearing blue scrubs, a mask and a stethoscope around her neck is reading a chart. Doctors and nurses are in the background.

Demand for health care workers is growing for many reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging baby boomer population. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health care jobs are expected to grow 16 percent between 2020 and 2030 [1]. 

Within the health care industry, registered nurses (RNs) are needed to take care of the aging and immunocompromised populations, particularly during and after COVID-19. Registered nurses also make up the largest group of employees in the health care system [2].

Becoming a registered nurse can lead to a fulfilling and well-paid career serving people who need health care. Here’s a guide to getting started.

What is a registered nurse (RN)?

Registered nurses provide care for patients and support doctors and other medical professionals. They can work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, travel clinics, nursing homes, schools, in people’s homes, and more.

Tasks for an RN might typically involve administering prescribed medications, inserting catheters, monitoring vital signs, creating patient care plans, documenting patient information, and much more.

Learn more: What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Benefits, salary, and job outlook

In this in-demand and big-hearted career, there are plenty of perks, including a good salary and a bright future. Here are just a few of the many benefits of becoming a registered nurse.

  • Work in shifts: Nurses don’t work a typical 9-to-5 workday. Often, RNs have 12-hour shifts three days per week. Your time off can be spent doing other things that you love, like spending time with family or enjoying a hobby.

  • Job security: Hospitals and clinics are always hiring nurses. This need is projected to increase in the coming years.

  • Flexibility: Nurses, like doctors, are needed nearly everywhere. While you may not be licensed or certified in other countries, you do have the option to do so, and working as a travel nurse can be a lucrative career.

  • Active lifestyle: As a nurse, you’ll be on your feet often, rather than sitting at a desk all day. This can be a huge positive for those who cannot fathom sitting still for eight hours a day.

  • Make a difference: Nursing can be a very rewarding career in helping people. If you’re a people person, you might be drawn to this field of work that allows you to have meaningful interactions with patients.

On average, registered nurses in the US can make $77,600 per year, according to BLS, while the job growth outlook for RNs is 9 percent, just slightly above the national average for jobs [3]. Typically, RNs who work in government or hospital settings can earn higher pay [3]. 

Travel nurse demand surges during COVID-19

During the pandemic, travel nurses could make up to $8,000 to $10,000 per week. These nurses are recruited by travel nurse staffing agencies, and their salaries increased between 2020 and 2021 as a result of federally funded initiatives CARES Act Provider-Relief Funds and the American Rescue Plan [4].

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How to become a registered nurse

To become an RN, you may need to complete additional education and training. However, it’s never too late to start or switch to this career. Depending on your background, it can take approximately two to four years to be a fully registered nurse.

1. Complete an accredited nursing program.

As a first step, you’ll typically want to enroll in a program where you’ll learn the basic fundamentals of nursing. In these programs, you’ll learn subjects like chemistry, psychology, and anatomy and physiology, as well as courses that teach wound care and other applied learning. There are several education pathways to choose from.

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): An accredited BSN is the most common degree and the traditional path to becoming a nurse. Typically offered by colleges and universities, these programs take up to four years to complete*. 

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): You may opt for an associate degree, typically offered by technical or community colleges, which takes about two or three years to complete.

  • Diploma program: ​​Less common than BSNs and ADNs, diploma programs tend to be offered by hospitals. Like an ADN, these may also take two or three years to complete.

*If you already completed a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, you may want to look into accelerated nursing programs that can be completed in 16 to 24 months.

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

2. Take (and pass) the nurse licensing exam.

Once you’ve completed your coursework, you can register to take the nurse licensing exam. The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) and acts as part of the standardized procedure to becoming a nurse. State regulatory boards use the exam results to determine whether candidates are ready to obtain a nursing license [5]. 

Most candidates apply for licensure and register for the NCLEX-RN six weeks before graduating from nursing school. To apply, the applicant must meet all the eligibility requirements and apply through their local nurse regulatory body. Then, candidates register on the Pearson VUE website or by phone, which generates an authorization email that provides test dates and information.

The NCLEX-RN costs $200 for the licensure registration fee in the US, but fees are charged for changing the type of exam, nursing regulatory body, or exam language. Many nurses-to-be take the NCLEX-RN one month after graduation.

The exam is administered on the computer and requires test takers to complete a minimum of 75 (out of 205) questions. It can take up to six hours to finish the exam. The NCLEX-RN focuses on supervising and managing care to patients, covering four “client needs” categories: safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. 

To prepare for this important exam, applicants may want to take a practice exam, available on the NCSBN website. If you don’t pass the NCLEX-RN exam the first time, you must wait 45 days until you can take it again.

3. Get licensed where you want to practice.

Congrats! After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you will need to obtain a nursing license from the state in which you would like to practice. If you hope to work in multiple states (or countries), you’ll need to be licensed in each state. 

In 2018, the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) was implemented. This legislation allows RNs to have one multi-state license, so that nurses can practice in person or through telehealth in up to 38 (and counting) states in the US [6].

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Travel nursing has also become quite popular during the pandemic, where RNs with at least 18 months of hospital-based experience can be recruited to work elsewhere for eight to 26 weeks. On average, travel nurses can make $3,000 per week plus stipends, but that number escalated during the pandemic [7].

Each state has unique requirements, so check with your state board website to learn more about becoming an RN.

4. Grow in your practice with a specialization or an advanced degree.

After you become a registered nurse, you may want to specialize in a specific area or pursue an advanced degree. 

Board certification: To qualify for board certification, RNs usually need two or more years of clinical experience in a specialty focus and to pass an exam. Popular specializations include oncology, pediatrics, neonatal, gerontology, cardiac nursing, and more. Earning certifications can give you a salary boost and make you a more marketable nurse.

Advanced degree: To become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or nurse practitioner, or a clinical nurse leader, you’ll most likely need to earn a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). Advancing and investing further in your education can lead to a substantial increase in your paycheck, while you might also achieve more fulfillment by advancing in your nursing career.

Explore health care with Coursera

Get started on a fulfilling and in-demand career as a registered nurse with courses from top universities. You may be interested in Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us from the University of Pennsylvania or Integrative Nursing Specialization from the University of Minnesota.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Healthcare Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered nurses have highest employment in healthcare occupations; anesthesiologists earn the most, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2015/registered-nurses-have-highest-employment-in-healthcare-occupations-anesthesiologists-earn-the-most.htm.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

4. The New York Times. “Nurses Have Finally Learned What They’re Worth, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/15/magazine/traveling-nurses.html.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

5. Nurse Journal. “A Guide to the NCLEX Exam, https://nursejournal.org/resources/nclex/guide/.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

6. Nurse License Map. “Nurse Licensure Compact, https://nursinglicensemap.com/resources/nursing-licensure-compact/.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

7. Nurse.org. “What Does a Travel Nurse Do & How Can You Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse?, https://nurse.org/articles/how-to-make-the-most-money-as-a-travel-nurse/.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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