What Does a Registered Nurse Do? Your 2024 Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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.

Three nurses, two female and one male all wearing blue scrubs, smile in a hospital.

Registered nurses (RNs) provide patient care and support other medical professionals, such as physicians, as they work to improve patient outcomes. RNs 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 in such high demand, those who complete nursing programs can usually count on competitive wages and job security.

In this article, you'll learn more about registered nurses, what they do, their salary and job outlook, and how to become one. At the end, you'll also explore cost-effective, online courses to help you gain job-relevant skills today.

What is a registered nurse?

A registered nurse provides and coordinates care for patients in hospitals, doctor's offices, clinics, schools, nursing homes, and other medical facilities. As an RN, you’ll also support physicians and other medical professionals, as well as communicate with patients' families about their progress. 

While your exact responsibilities will likely vary from day-to-day, some of the most common duties you will likely perform as an RN include: 

  • Administering medication

  • Dressing wounds

  • Monitoring vital signs

  • Inserting intravenous (IV) 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 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]:

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

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

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

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

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

Where do registered nurses work?

Registered nurses work in almost every type of medical facility, including hospitals, clinics, and medical offices.


RN salary and job outlook

On average, a registered nurse in the United States can expect to make $77,600 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). RNs working in governmental or hospital settings tend to earn at the higher end of the pay scale [3].

Registered nurses are projected see 6 percent job growth between 2021 and 2031, resulting in about 203,200 job openings each year throughout the decade [3].

Skills needed to become an RN

If you enjoy working closely with people and feel passionate 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 work hard to keep patients 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: Whether you're accessing patient records with a computer or using a monitor to keep a check on vital signs, you'll likely need to use technology. Being savvy with devices and systems is a key skill for nurses.

  • 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. 

Registered nurse jobs: RN types

Registered nurses work across many fields of medicine. This gives you the flexibility to choose a career based on your medical interests. These are the types you could be if you decide to go down this path.

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 to become a registered nurse

Many registered nurses go to nursing school to learn the fundamentals of becoming a nurse. They may hold a nursing degree such as 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: How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

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 relaxed family practice. You can work in a school, a nursing home, or with a home health care program. There's a wide variety of paths for a registered nurse, so make sure to take the time to consider the one that best matches your goals and personality type.

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

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. A nurse practitioner is an APRN that has received a master's plus training in a specialty area. There are four types of APRNs: 

  • Certified nurse midwives 

  • Certified nurse practitioners 

  • Certified nurse specialists

  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Get Started with Coursera

Ready to explore one of the most in-demand and exciting career paths out there today? Get started with nursing education courses from some of the top universities in the world. Options include the University of Pennsylvania's Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us and the University of Colorado's Medical Emergencies: Airway, Breathing, and Circulation

If you're already a registered nurse, consider building 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 University of Minnesota's Nursing Informatics Leadership Specialization.

Article sources


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 22, 2022.

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