What does it take to be a registered nurse?

Registered nurses (RNs) must be intelligent, with an aptitude for science and math. Nurses are compassionate, flexible, good communicators and critical thinkers. They must be able to problem solve and make essential decisions. In addition, nurses need the interpersonal skills to effectively care for their patients, families and communities. Nursing can be physically and mentally demanding. As a nurse, you often work long hours and make critical decisions. Caring for others, while rewarding, can be difficult. Stamina and the ability to adapt to stressful situations are important.


To become an RN, you must attend college. Nursing education is rigorous. Prerequisite coursework includes chemistry, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, psychology, sociology, math, statistics and communication skills. Generally, admission into nursing programs is competitive. There are two degree options:

Associate’s Degree (ASN, ADN or AD)
You can usually complete an associate’s degree in two to three years at a community/junior college, college or university.

Baccalaureate Degree (BSN) 
You can usually complete a baccalaureate (bachelor’s) degree in four years at a college or universityAccelerated BSN programs are available if you already hold a bachelor’s degree in another discipline.

As healthcare delivery becomes more complex and community based, there is a growing emphasis on baccalaureate preparation in the nursing profession. The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) 2010 report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, recommends that the proportion of nurses with a baccalaureate degree increase to 80% by 2020.

Graduates of both ASN and BSN programs are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX), which you must pass for licensure as a registered nurse.

Graduate Education
RNs have a variety of exciting options for advanced roles within the nursing profession. For example, clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, nurse educators, nurse managers and nurse researchers are essential in the expanding, complex healthcare environment.

For future employment and educational opportunities, consider whether your nursing program is accredited by one of the two nationally recognized nursing accrediting bodies:

Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)

Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)

Beginning clinical role

Most new RNs begin as staff nurses, providing direct patient care to individuals and families in hospitals or extended care facilities. New nurses may spend up to a year honing their skills and nursing knowledge. Growing numbers of new RNs participate in nurse residency programs that include extensive coaching and mentoring by experienced RNs.

Clinical areas

The explosion of medical science and technology has produced an abundance of specialty and sub-specialty areas of nursing practice. Clinical areas include medical-surgical, operating room, critical care, emergency, maternal-child, pediatric, gerontology, psychiatric/mental health and community health. Although RNs often begin their careers providing bedside care for patients in hospitals, professional nurses also work in clinics, rehabilitative facilities, extended care facilities, critical care transport, homes and schools.


Nursing offers more opportunities for growth and diversification than most other careers. As a licensed registered nurse (RN), you have numerous options to develop your career, depending on the career path and education you pursue. Many nurses discover a clinical area that they find particularly satisfying and pursue specialty certification. Specialty certification signifies personal growth and professional achievement; it also contributes to career advancement.

Advanced roles

Advances in healthcare practices and medical knowledge have led to increased authority and specialization within the nursing profession. Because of this, the need for nurses with advanced degrees (master’s or doctorates) is rapidly growing. Advanced roles in nursing are expected to expand significantly as healthcare reform proceeds, with nurses assuming new roles and responsibilities. Here are some advanced roles you might consider:

Advanced practice nurses

Advanced practice nurses (APRNs) provide specialized and highly skilled advanced nursing care to patients and families. APRN roles include nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist and nurse-midwife.

Nurse educators

Nurse Educators teach in colleges, universities, clinical settings and the community. They write and develop teaching materials for nursing education courses, conduct research and prepare the next generation of nurses.

Nurse administrators

Nurse Administrators provide expert leadership in hospitals and other settings. Nurse administrators work collaboratively with the entire healthcare team, managing resources to deliver quality patient care.

Nurse researchers

Nurse Researchers use the scientific process to research and develop nursing knowledge and information. Research in nursing is important due to rapidly changing technological advances and the demand for proficiency in clinical and administrative areas.