What does it take to be a registered nurse?

Registered nursing combines science, technology and vital human touch to care for people who are ill or healthy, young or old. Registered nurses (RNs) attend to patients’ physical, emotional and social needs, promoting health and coordinating care as an essential member of the interprofessional healthcare team. They provide important patient education, guiding consumers to make healthy choices. In an increasingly complex healthcare environment, registered nurses must interpret patient information and data to make critical decisions. Nurses also conduct research to improve patient care and advance nursing practice.


To become an RN, you must attend college. Nursing education is rigorous and requires an aptitude for math and science. 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) and Baccalaureate Degree (BSN). 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.

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

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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 registered nurses 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, radiology 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, you have numerous options to develop your career, depending on the career path and education you pursue. Many RNs 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 and graduate education

RNs have a variety of exciting options for advanced roles with a master’s or doctorate degree. Evolving healthcare practices and medical knowledge have led to increased authority and specialization within the nursing profession. Because of this, the need for nurses with graduate degrees 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.