How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Registered nurses are integral health care professional that provide patients with the care they need. Learn the steps you need to take to join this impactful profession.

[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.

Registered nurses (RNs) provide care to patients and assist other health care professionals, such as physicians, to ensure they have the support they need to do the best possible job. Over the coming years, demand for health care workers is growing. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health care jobs are expected to grow 13 percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in about 1.9 million job opening per year throughout the decade [1]. Among health care workers, registered nurses make up the largest group of employees in the health care system [2].

If you want to enter an impactful health care career with a bright job outlook, then you might consider a career as an RN. In this article, you'll learn what you need to do to become an RN, find out more about the profession, and explore their pay and job outlook. At the end, you'll also find suggested courses that can help you learn job-relevant skills today.

What is a registered nurse (RN)?

Registered nurses provide care for patients and support doctors and other medical professionals in their day-to-day duties. Some common tasks RNs perform include administering prescribed medications, inserting catheters, monitoring vital signs, creating patient care plans, and documenting patient information.

Read More: What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Where do nurses work?

RNs can work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, travel clinics, nursing homes, schools, and even within airplanes. In effect, there are many different types of RN, including psychiatric nurses who specializing in mental health work, flight nurses who work in helicopters and airplanes, and oncology nurses who specifically work with cancer patients.


Salary and job outlook

RNs make a higher than average salary in the United States and have a positive job outlook over the coming years.

According to the US BLS, the median annual pay for registered nurses was $77,600 a year as of May 2021. As a result, RNs make an annual salary that is comfortably higher than the median for all jobs in the United States, which the US BLS pinned at $45,760 during the same year [3].

Much like other health care professions, registered nurses can expect an increase in job openings over the next decade. According to the US BLS, the number of job openings for RNs is expected to grow by six percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in approximately 203,200 new job openings each year [3].


A higher than average salary and in-demand skillset are just some of the perks of being a registered nurse. Here are just some of the other benefits you can expect by joining this big-hearted, in-demand career:

  • Work in shifts: Nurses don’t work a typical 9-to-5 workday. Often, RNs work 12-hour shifts three days per week, meaning that your time off can be spent doing other things that you love like being 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 prefer to not sit for eight hours a day.

  • Make a difference: Nursing is all about helping people. If you’re a people person, then you might be drawn to this field of work where you'll be able to have meaningful interactions with patients every day.

How to become a registered nurse

RNs are highly-trained health care professionals tasked with helping patients and ensuring they receive the care they need. As a result, the path to becoming a registered nurse is one defined by training, certification, and specialization.

Here's what you can expect to do as you work toward joining this impactful health care career:

1. Complete an accredited nursing program.

To qualify for your nursing certification, you'll need to first enroll in and complete a nursing program. Taking anywhere from two to four years, nursing programs prepare students for a career in the field by covering such important topics as chemistry, psychology, anatomy, physiology, and applied learning courses like how to care for wounds.

In the United States, there are three types of programs that you can take to qualify for the nursing exam. These programs are:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): An accredited bachelor's degree is the most common degree pursued to becoming a nurse today. Typically offered by colleges and universities, these programs usually take up to four years to complete, but can be completed in less time by those who already possess a prior nursing credential. A BSN is often the most competitive degree for entry-level nursing positions and a requirement to becoming a more advanced nurse.

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): Many technical and community colleges offer an associate degree in nursing, which typically takes about two to three years to complete.

  • Diploma program: ​​Diploma programs are the traditional way that many in the past joined the nursing profession. Though they are less common than BSNs and ADNs today, some hospitals do still offer nursing diploma programs, which typically take two to three years to complete.

Read more: How to Get Into Nursing School: Your Guide to a Degree

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

Once you’ve completed your coursework, you can register for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), the NCLEX is the exam used by state regulatory boards to determine whether candidates are ready to obtain a nursing license [4]. 

Many nurses-to-be take the NCLEX-RN one month after graduation. In order to take the exam, applicants must meet all the eligibility requirements and apply through their local nurse regulatory body. Afterwards, 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. Administered on the computer, the exam requires test takers to complete a minimum of 75 (out of 205) questions and can take up to six hours to finish. Topics covered on the test include 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.

After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you will need to obtain a nursing license from the state in which you would like to practice. The exact requirements for obtaining licensure will vary from one state to another, so make sure to check with your state's regulatory board to ensure that you meet all of them. If you hope to work in multiple states (or countries), you’ll need to be licensed in each state. 

Explore multi-state licensure

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 [5].

Multi-state licensure is particularly helpful for travel nurses. On average, travel nurses can make $3,000 per week plus stipends [6].


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. There are several ways you gain the required training and qualifications you'll need to advance your career:

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), such as a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse leader, you’ll 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.

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Explore health care with Coursera

Get started on a fulfilling and in-demand career as a registered nurse with courses from top universities. In the University of Pennsylvania's Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us, you'll explore the anatomy and physiology underlying the vital signs so that you will develop a systematic, integrated understanding of how the body functions.

In the University of Minnesota's Integrative Nursing Specialization, meanwhile, you'll identify ways to implement integrative nursing at work in alignment with research-based evidence and safety and quality considerations.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Healthcare Occupations,” Accessed January 9, 2023.

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