To become an RN, you must first earn a nursing diploma or degree. Then you need to pass a national licensing examination, the NCLEX-RN. Once you pass this exam, you will have earned a registered nursing (RN) license. The RN designation refers to a professional license rather than graduation from a specific degree program.
- What is an RN?
- How to Become an RN Online
- Online RN Programs
- Changing Careers to Become a Nurse
- RN Licensure & Certification
- Online BSN & MSN Programs
- Choosing a Nursing Degree Specialty
- Career Outlook
- RN Salary
What is a Registered Nurse?
A registered nurse is a healthcare professional who has graduated from a nursing program, possibly online, and passed the the national licensing exam.
A registered nurse, often referred to as an RN, treats patients and helps educate the public about health. They are front-line providers who give emotional support to patients and their families. RNs also monitor patients’ medical symptoms, perform diagnostic tests and help with patient follow-up and rehabilitation.
RNs provide direct patient care or, with advanced experience and education, take on the following roles:
- case management
- clinical research
- develop patient care procedures
- teach in nursing programs.
A registered nurse’s primary responsibilities are to provide care and educational resources to patients and their families.
Registered nurses often work in teams with other physicians and medical specialists in a wide range of healthcare settings including hospitals, homes, schools, community centers, or other non-medical environments. RNs often supervise other nursing professionals like licensed practical nurses (LPNs), unlicensed assistive personnel and nursing students.
Nursing is considered to be a very stressful job because of the direct involvement with suffering, high-pressure situations, emergencies and life or death decision making.
The field of nursing is growing exponentially and the occupational outlook for nursing jobs in the United States is excellent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many states are currently experiencing a shortage in nurses, while other states have a surplus.
Because of changes in the American healthcare system due to the Affordable Care Act, many new patients are expected to enter the system. The extended lifespan of the Baby Boomer generation is also increasing the need for more nursing and medical professionals.
Special preference may be shown to registered nurses who:
- are fluent in another language
- have years of professional experience
- specialize in certain kinds of care, diseases, age ranges, or parts of the body
- have earned a master’s in nursing.
How to Become an RN Online
- Complete the minimum required nursing education—usually a certificate or diploma.
- Work at a healthcare facility under an RN to gain supervised clinical experience.
- Pass the national RN examination (NCLX-RN exam).
Online RN Programs
More than one online nursing degree program can help you become an RN and prepare you to sit for the licensing exam.
RNs may follow one of three educational paths:
- Earn a diploma or certificate from an approved nursing program
- Complete an associate degree in nursing (ADN)
- Earn a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree (BSN)
Many RNs launch their careers by earning nursing diplomas or certificates. Some opt for an online associate nursing program first.
Changing Careers to Become a Nurse
If you have no nursing experience and want to enter this field, nursing school at a local community college may be your best option. Many community colleges offer hybrid or blended online nursing aide programs, nursing diplomas and associate’s in nursing that prepare students to be a Licensed Nurse Practitioner (LPN).
Online LPN programs prepare students to sit for the NCLEX-NP exam and lay the foundation for future education needed for an RN designation.
LPN programs, generally offered at community college nursing schools, combine nursing theory courses with local supervised placements inside hospitals and nursing homes.
Sometimes online LPN programs include coursework required to sit for the the NCLEX-RN exam. These programs allow students to gain different levels of licensure as they work their way through the program.
Nursing students must complete clinical hours and take exams in person, but can complete many core courses, such as anatomy, online. Many online nursing classes also use virtual simulation to enrich learning.
Similarly, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) gain on-the-job experience and lower levels of licensure before pursuing an RN degree online.
Online LPN programs take, on average, one year to complete. LPN to RN bridge and associate nursing degree programs take two years.
- Dallas Nursing Institute Vocational Nursing Program
- Lake Area Technical Institute Practical Nursing E-Degree
- Allegany College of Maryland LPN-RN Online Program
- Lincoln Land Community College LPN to ADN Transition
- Lamar Community College Nursing A.A.S.
- Minnesota West Community and Technical College Nursing A.S. (RN)
- Black River Technical College Associates of Applied Science in Registered Nursing (LPN/LPTN/LVN to RN Transition)
For those who have a bachelor's degree, but their major was not in nursing, there are special programs that allow career changers to earn a RN degree online. These special nursing degrees are often referred to as online accelerated BSN programs or second degree BSN.
Online bachelor’s in nursing are the fastest route to a BSN for career changers who already hold a bachelor’s degree with a non-nursing major. Few online nursing degree programs, however, admit nurses who do not already hold a valid RN license.
Online master’s in nursing are sometimes open to individuals who hold a bachelor’s in a field other than nursing. Explore an online nursing degree at the master’s level if you already hold a bachelor’s and want to move into nursing without repeating a formal new nursing bachelor’s degree online.
RN Licensure and Certification
Once an individual has completed education and clinical requirements, they must pursue licensure to become a registered nurse.
Though licensure requirements do vary by state, passage of a state-approved training program and the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) are almost always needed.
The NCLEX-RN exam covers:
- psychosocial and physiological integrity
- health promotion
- infection control
- fundamental nursing skills.
RNs can advance their careers by earning certifications in specialty areas. The American Nurses Credentialing Center, a subsidiary of the American Nurses Association, offers a variety of certifications and specialties ranging from General Nursing practice to Public Health Nursing and Pediatric Nursing.
Online BSN & MSN Programs
After becoming employed in nursing as a health aide or LPN, you may enter an online BSN program.
Be forewarned, though, that most online BSN programs offer only the online RN to BSN degree option, meaning you must already hold a valid RN license to gain admission. There are more than 20 online RN to BSN programs.
An accelerated BSN is the best choice If a nurse has already earned some level of nursing licensure or certification and wishes to advance his or her career.
- Capella University BSN - RN-to-BSN Completion (CCNE-accredited)
- Western Governors University B.S. Nursing (RN to BSN)
- Liberty University Bachelor of Science in Nursing for the Registered Nurse
There are also many accredited online MSN nursing programs. The flexibility of earning a nursing master’s online allows nurses to complete their practical requirements in their home region or current workplace.
An online M.S. in Nursing degree can be earned in around two years.
These programs generally offer either a generalized degree or an advanced practice nursing concentration or specialty. Specialities include:
- clinical nurse specialists
- nurse anesthetists
- nurse practitioners.
A registered nurse can use their pursuit of a master’s degree (or eventually a doctoral degree) to leverage advancement into administrative positions in nursing fields like healthcare education, nursing research, and management.
- Western Governors University M.S. Nursing—Education (RN to MSN Option)
- Northwestern State University of Louisiana MSN Administrator
- Fort Hays State University Master of Science in Nursing / Nursing Administration
- Capella University Doctor of Nursing Practice (BSN to DNP)
Nurses must also complete continuing education credits (CECs) to maintain licensure.
Choosing a Nursing Degree Specialty
A nurse or prospective nurse should choose their nursing concentration and specialty field according to their own personal interests and career goals. Tremendous opportunities exists for RNs with special interests who can combine these interests to create new and very interesting career paths.
For example, an RN who enjoys writing may specialize in medical writing or editing and should consider pursuing a master’s degree in medical transcription.
A nurse could also become a nurse educator working with HIV/AIDS patients. Public health RNs can also specialize as nurse educators and work for a government health department.
RNs who feel the calling to work with patients in substance abuse rehabilitation facilities should consider a Certified Addictions Registered Nurse certification, or, if he or she has already earned their master’s degree in nursing, a certification as Certified Addictions Registered Nurse - Advance Practice.
When looking to start or advance a career as a registered nurse, employment demand in a geographic area and your specific interests should guide your choice of specialty.
Registered Nurse Career Outlook
Registered nurses represent one of the top 10 in-demand careers in the United States. In 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were over 2.7 million nurses, making it one of the largest healthcare job niches.
Jobs are expected to grow 19 percent—faster than average—through 2022, with almost 600,000 new nursing jobs expected to be created between 2012 and 2022.
Physician’s offices and home health agencies will offer the greatest demand. Employment is expected to grow more slowly in hospitals, which are discharging patients earlier and performing more procedures on an outpatient basis.
RNs who hold bachelor's or master's degrees will enjoy the best prospects and highest salaries. Advanced practice specialties like clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, midwives and nurse anesthetists will experience extremely high demand.
Nurses will be needed to care for the aging Baby Boomer population who increasingly suffer from chronic conditions like arthritis, dementia, diabetes and obesity. Long term care facilities that provide rehabilitation for patients, as well as hospice care and residential care facilities will also need nurses to care for their aging and chronically ill patients.
Because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, people who had not previously sought out healthcare or medical attention will have the opportunity due to their increased coverage. The growth of outpatients care centers where patients are discharged quickly will also directly affect the need for nurses of all levels.
The median annual salary for registered nurses is $65,470 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered nurses who work for the government make $68,540 a year and those who work in the offices of physicians make $58,420 yearly.
A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) makes about a third less than an Registered Nurses (RN). The salary of a nurse who has a BSN is generally lower than a nurse with a master’s.
Positions such as advanced practice registered nurses and nursing midwives, generally require a master’s level education and therefore earn more money than their bachelor’s level counterparts.
Other nursing positions that require graduate educations include: nurse anesthetists and nurse practitioners who make $157,690 and $95,070 a year respectively according to the Nurse Journal.
Online Accelerated BSN Programs: Second Degree BSN for Career Change
Masters in Nursing Online: How to Choose One
MHA vs. MBA: What's the Difference?
Healthcare & Nursing Career Center
National League for Nursing (NLN)
About the Author
S.E. Curtis is a copywriter, editor, and essayist based in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has written and edited extensively on issues concerning post-secondary education in the traditional and online environments. Ms. Curtis earned her Bachelor of Arts in Literature from Mary Baldwin College. She enjoys growing food, drinking coffee, and reading books about the South.