What Does a Registered Nurse Do (and How Do I Become One)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Dec 23, 2021

Registered nurses work in a variety of settings to provide medical care for patients and support physicians. Learn more about this highly in-demand job.

A younger nurse wearing a face mask, blue scrubs, and stethoscope assists an older women in a yellow sweater

Registered nurses make up the largest group of employees within the health care system, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [1]. Because the job is always in high demand, those who complete RN programs can usually count on competitive wages and job security once they begin practicing.

What is a registered nurse?

A registered nurse (RN) provides and coordinates care for patients in settings like hospitals, doctor's offices, clinics, schools, home health care, nursing homes, and other medical facilities. As an RN, you’ll also work to support physicians and other medical professionals, as well as patients' families. 

Depending on what setting you work in, your day-to-day tasks might include: 

  • Administering medication

  • Dressing wounds

  • Monitoring vital signs

  • Inserting intravenous catheters

  • Creating a plan of care

  • Documenting patient information

  • Preparing patients for discharge

  • Teaching patients and their families about various illnesses and treatments 

Registered nurses may work in almost every type of medical facility, including hospitals, clinics, and medical offices, with patients from all walks of life. You may deliver babies or work with the elderly, or you might provide basic first aid or help treat serious diseases. No matter their differences, the American Nurses Association claims there is one single process with five components that all RNs follow [2]:

  • Assessment: Collect information about a patient's physical and mental health, as well as any helpful background information.

  • Diagnosis:  Use your clinical knowledge to make a judgment about actual or potential health needs. 

  • Outcome/Planning: Based on the assessment and diagnosis, make goals for the patient and create a care plan. 

  • Implementation: Document the care plan in the patient’s record to ensure continuity of care. 

  • Evaluation: Evaluate the patient's response to the care plan and make changes as necessary.  

Types of registered nurses 

There are dozens of types of registered nurses that work across almost every field of medicine. This gives you the flexibility to choose a career path based on your medical interests.

Type of registered nurseWhat you do
Cardiac registered nurseProvide care for patients with heart-related problems, including those recovering from heart surgery
Critical care registered nurseProvide care for patients in critical condition, such as those on life support or with a serious wound or injury
Dialysis registered nurseOversee dialysis treatment for patients with kidney failure
Emergency room registered nurseWork in a fast-paced emergency room, evaluating and stabilizing patients with a variety of ailments
Geriatric registered nurseProvide basic care for older adults
Obstetrics registered nurseProvide care for pregnant women during pregnancy and childbirth
Oncology registered nurseWork with cancer patients to monitor symptoms, provide education, and administer treatments
Orthopedic registered nurseProvide care for patients with injuries and disease of the joints and bones
Pediatric registered nurseProvide basic medical care for infants, children, and teenagers

How much does a registered nurse make?

The average salary for a registered nurse in the United States is $73,300 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hourly RNs make, on average, $35.24 per hour. RNs working in governmental or hospital settings tend to earn at the higher end of the pay scale [3].

How to become a registered nurse

Many registered nurses hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or an associate degree in nursing (ADN). There are also some hospital-based programs that allow you to earn a nursing diploma within one to two years. Once you graduate, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam and fulfill any other requirements in the state where you want to practice. 

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Skills you’ll need as an RN

If you enjoy working closely with people and feel passionately about helping others, a career in nursing could be a good fit. Successful RNs often have a set of technical and workplace skills in common.

Technical skills

  • Check and monitor vital signs: Registered nurses must be able to check blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature, and respiration rate. It's also important to know what normal ranges are for each specific type of patient. 

  • Basic care skills: This might include dressing a wound, inserting a catheter, or drawing blood. 

  • Patient safety and well-being: RNs must understand how to keep a patient safe. This might include getting a patient from their bed to the bathroom without falling or keeping a room sanitary so there is no risk for infection.

  • Comfort with technology: Almost everything you do requires technology, whether you're accessing patient records with a computer or using a monitor to keep a check on vital signs. 

  • Administering medication: Giving a patient the wrong medication can have serious consequences. You must know how to count and identify medications and understand what they treat.

Workplace skills

  • Communication: You’ll be working nonstop with other people, including patients, physicians, and patients' families. Because you're usually caring for people who are sick or in pain, you may need to stay calm when a patient is upset or angry. You need to be able to listen as well as provide information in a way that a patient can understand, and you'll even need to understand body language. 

  • Leadership: As an RN, you have the opportunity to set a positive example for those around you. You may also be responsible for managing nursing assistants and other staff members. 

  • Flexibility: You never know what type of patient is going to walk through the door or when a current patient's condition will change. Be ready to respond to any situation that arises. 

  • Ability to work under pressure: RNs who work in an emergency room or ICU must be able to handle stressful situations, but any registered nurse can find themselves with a patient whose life is threatened by an injury or illness. You must be able to think critically and react to stressful situations in a timely manner.  

  • Collaboration and teamwork: Throughout your career, you'll likely encounter physicians, therapists, nursing assistants, office managers, and countless other people who all have the same goal: healthy patients. Being able to collaborate on a plan of care will provide your patients with the best outcome. 

RN career path

Once you become a registered nurse, you have many paths to choose from. You can choose a specialty, such as critical care or geriatrics. You can work in a fast-paced emergency room or a more relaxed family medicine office. You can work in a school, a nursing home, or with a home health care program. 

Keep in mind that you may need to continue to take courses and advance your education to keep your license current.  

If you choose to advance your career, you can become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). This usually requires getting a master’s degree in nursing. There are four types of APRNs: 

  • Certified nurse midwives 

  • Certified nurse practitioners 

  • Certified nurse specialists

  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists 

Get Started with Coursera

If you're ready to explore one of the most in-demand and exciting career paths, get started with nursing education courses from some of the top universities in the world. Options include Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us from the University of Pennsylvania or Medical Emergencies: Airway, Breathing, and Circulation from the University of Colorado. 

If you're already a registered nurse, build upon your current education by taking courses that cover some of the latest topics that have impacted the medical field, like  COVID-19 Contact Tracing For Nursing Professionals from the University of Houston or the Nursing Informatics Leadership Specialization from the University of Minnesota.

Related articles

Article Sources

1. 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 December 7, 2021.

2. ANA. “The Nursing Process, https://www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/workforce/what-is-nursing/the-nursing-process/." Accessed December 7, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm." Accessed December 7, 2021.

4. National Cancer Institute Dictionary of Cancer terms. “Ostomy, https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/ostomy." Accessed December 7, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Dec 23, 2021

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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