Registered Nurse

In most healthcare settings, registered nurses (RNs) are the first medical providers patients have contact with. Nurses can assess patients’ conditions, take vitals, provide emotional support, and assist with procedures. Not only are they critical to the healthcare field because of the support role they provide for doctors, but they are the most trusted profession in the US, according to a 2020 Gallup poll

In the US, there are nearly three million nurses employed in a variety of fields. Over 60 percent of nurses work in hospitals providing care for patients, assisting with surgeries, and administering treatments. Nurses are also employed by clinics, outpatient centers, long-term care facilities, government agencies, and schools.

A nursing license can be obtained with just an associate of science in nursing and passing state-required exams. However, most employers prefer nurses to have earned at least a bachelor of science (BSN) in nursing. There are numerous specializations in nursing that can be earned through additional education, such as a master’s (MSN) or doctorate (DNP), and further examinations. 

Registered nurses earn on average $75,330 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2020). The profession is expected to grow 7 percent nationally between 2019 and 2029, adding over 221,900 new jobs. This growth is largely driven by an aging population’s increase in demand for health care services and the increasing need for long-term care facilities. 

Registered Nurse Specializations & Degree Types

There are three main degrees for registered nurses (RN): an associate of science in nursing (ASN), a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), or a master’s of science in nursing (MSN). Most employers prefer that RNs have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree. There are numerous specializations RNs can pursue including:

  • Neonatal
  • Oncology
  • Geriatric
  • Midwife
  • Critical Care
  • Dialysis
  • Trauma
  • Psychiatric
  • Public Health
  • Nurse Practitioner (MSN or DNP)
  • Nurse Anesthetist (MSN or DNP)

Some of these specializations require additional education and certification. 

Admissions Requirements for Registered Nurse Programs

Associate of science in nursing (ASN) programs require that prospective students have completed high school or a GED. Often, these programs require work experience in a clinical care setting, particularly if the program is offered online. 

Additionally, many programs require prerequisite courses in anatomy, science, and math. It is typical to submit a resume, references, and a letter of intent along with an online application. More competitive programs may require students to attend on-campus interviews as well. 

Bachelor’s (BSN) and master’s (MSN) programs have additional requirements, including test scores, interviews, a personal statement, and proof of qualifying coursework.

Registered Nurse Program Accreditation

There are two main accrediting bodies for nursing programs: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). 

While ACEN accredits all levels of programs, the CCNE only accredits programs issuing bachelor’s degrees or higher. Both accreditation agencies ensure programs meet national standards for nursing education. Students should ensure the program they enroll in is accredited as it guarantees a minimum standard of educational quality. In addition, there is more ease of transferring credits to other programs and the ability to pursue further education.

On-Campus Registered Nurse Degree Programs

Duke University – School of Nursing

Students who have already completed an associate degree and have met the prerequisite course requirements are eligible to apply for Duke University’s School of Nursing accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN). This top-rated program places an emphasis on leadership, evidence-based practices, and disease prevention. 

Over the course of the program, students complete 58 credits of study along with over 800 hours of clinical experience. Clinical hours are completed amongst diverse populations including immigrants, Latinos, refugees, the homeless, and the elderly. Students also have the opportunity to complete a two-week international immersion experience. The accelerated format allows students to obtain a BSN in only 16 months. Graduates of this program are eligible for licensure as registered nurses. 

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: 16 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $23,241 per semester

University of Illinois – College of Nursing

Hands-on experience is at the core of the traditional bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) at the University of Illinois College of Nursing. With seven clinical rotations, students have the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of clinical settings including surgery, mental health, pediatrics, community health, and acute care. 

This program can be completed in four semesters over the course of two years. Students are required to complete 63 credits of coursework including classes such as concepts in pharmacology, nursing care in mental and behavioral health, and nursing care for children and families. Applications for admission are due once per year in January. Students must have already completed at least 57 credits of college coursework in specific courses either at UIC or another institution. 

  • Location: Chicago, IL 
  • Duration: Two years or more
  • Accreditation:  Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $11,307 per semester

University of California, Los Angeles – School of Nursing

The UCLA School of Nursing graduated its first class in 1954. Since then they have grown and added several degree programs including a bachelor’s of science in nursing, a master’s of science in nursing, and a doctor of nursing practice. The BSN program is a traditional, on-campus program that starts during a student’s freshman year. A limited number of students are admitted as junior year transfers. 

Research is a primary emphasis of this program and all students will have the opportunity to participate in ongoing projects on campus. Graduates of the BSN program are eligible to sit for the NCLEX exam and work as entry-level nurses. This program also prepares students for additional studies such as an MSN or DNP, should a student wish to pursue additional education. 

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $45,932.40 per year

Emory University – Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing

There are several education paths for aspiring nurses at Emory University Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. These include a bachelor’s of science in nursing, an accelerated bachelor’s,  a master’s of science in nursing, a doctor of nursing practice, a nurse anesthesia degree. Incoming freshmen can enroll in the on-campus bachelor’s of science degree to complete their prerequisite coursework, and then they must apply to the nursing school for their junior and senior years. 

Admission requirements for the BSN program at Emory include prerequisite coursework in chemistry, biology, math, and anatomy and physiology. Since admissions are competitive students should consider completing the recommended prerequisite coursework in microbiology and nutrition. 

  • Location: Atlanta, GA 
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $26,535 per semester

University of Pennsylvania – School of Nursing

The School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania is ranked number one in the world, according to a survey by QS World University. In addition to outstanding education, students in the bachelor’s of science nursing program have access to all the amenities Penn State offers such as student clubs, dining facilities, residential housing, athletics, and study abroad. 

Clinical rotations for nursing students happen at various locations including the two teaching hospitals affiliated with the school. The BSN is a direct entry program, so incoming freshmen will start their nursing studies their first semester. This school also offers a nursing and health care management coordinated dual-degree for students looking to work on the administrative side of healthcare.  

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) 
  • Tuition: $53,166 per year 

Online or Hybrid Registered Nurse  Degree Programs

Excelsior College

One of the few fully online associates of science in nursing (ASN) programs is offered at Excelsior College. Students in this program are able to complete their coursework at their own pace while still receiving support from faculty and advisors via email or through phone calls. Graduates of this program can seamlessly transition to the BSN program also offered here if they wish to pursue more education.  

A strong emphasis on decision making, holistic care, advocacy, and professionalism are cornerstones of this degree. This program is designed for students who already have experience in a clinical setting so verification of clinical experience is required in order to be eligible for admission. This can be in a clinic, as a paramedic, or even in the military. 

  • Location: Albany, NY
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $510 per credit

Utah Valley University – College of Health and Public Service 

Students who wish to pursue a BSN will find the program at Utah Valley University very flexible. Upon obtaining an ASN degree on campus or through another institution, students have the opportunity to complete their BSN degree online, on campus, or a hybrid of the two. Clinical hour requirements can be fulfilled in the student’s own community, allowing students to complete their bachelor’s without having to relocate. 

Graduates of this program will have strong critical thinking skills and quick decision-making abilities in order to provide optimal health outcomes for patients. Required coursework includes palliative care in nursing, clinical assessment and reasoning, and nursing in the global perspective. 

Admissions are open in the spring and fall. Prospective applicants are required to submit transcripts with proof of prerequisite coursework, proof of immunizations, and letters of recommendation. 

  • Location: Orem, UT 
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $1,224 per credit

Sampson Community College

Licensed practical nurses who wish to become RNs can complete the hybrid associate of science in nursing program at Sampson Community College. Most classes are offered online providing students with the flexibility to complete their coursework on their own schedule. Students will have to travel to campus for orientation and tests. 

In order to be eligible for admission to this program, applicants must be licensed LPN in North Carolina or a compact state. Other admission requirements include at least 2,000 hours of work experience as an LPN, CPR certification, prerequisite coursework, and proof of computer literacy through recent coursework or an assessment. Only ten students are admitted to this program each year. 

  • Location: Clinton, NC 
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $268 per credit

Rasmussen University – School of Nursing 

In just 18 months students can earn an associate’s degree in nursing through the Rasmussen University School of Nursing. This distance learning program offers the majority of its coursework online. Students are required to travel to campus for lab simulations and must attend in-person clinical experiences. Required coursework students complete include nursing care for older adult, behavioral health nursing, and maternal-child nursing. 

This program is offered at 19 campuses in five different states, affording students a lot of flexibility. With no prerequisite coursework and no waiting lists on several campuses, admission to this program is relatively easy. Rasmussen offers a variety of other online nursing programs including  BSN, MSN, and DNP programs. If a prospective student is already an LPN they can complete the bridge to RN program in just one year. 

  • Location: Offered on 19 campuses in Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, Florida and Wisconsin
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $395 per credit

The Ohio State University – College of Nursing

Registered nurses who want to earn their bachelor’s in nursing can complete their studies online through The Ohio State University College of Nursing. Highly quality coursework, outstanding clinical rotations, and top tier faculty have landed this program at number four in the nation according to US News & World Report. Other features of this program include a low students to teacher ratios, an emphasis on evidence based practices, and the option to complete studies on a full time or part time basis.  

Required coursework for this program includes classes such as science of human nutrition, cultural competence in health care, and health care informatics. Candidates for admission to this program must already be a registered nurse, have completed prerequisite coursework, hold an associate’s degree, and reside in an authorized state. 

  • Location: Columbus, OH 
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $1,224 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

It takes two to four years after completing high school to become a registered nurse. The timeline varies based on the degree type chosen and the course of study.

How To Become a Registered Nurse  – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

In order to enroll in a nursing program, students must first graduate from high school or complete a GED. Nursing programs can be competitive so students should strive to maintain a high GPA and take challenging courses such as advanced placement classes. Sitting for AP tests can also earn students college credit while still in high school, decreasing the course load required to complete a degree. 

Step 2: Complete a Nursing Program (One to Four Years)

The quickest way to become an RN is to complete an associate of science in nursing. These programs can be completed in as little as a year if it is an accelerated format, but typically take two years. 

Many who pursue a nursing career choose to complete a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which takes four years to complete. Students should ensure their program is accredited by the CCNE or ACNE to guarantee the program meets a specific quality. 

Step 3: Pass State Required Test (Timelines Vary)

Upon successful completion of an ASN or BSN students should contact their state’s board of nursing to determine what tests are required to apply for a nursing license. While requirements vary by state, all states require some form of a test. The most common test is the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). 

Step 4: Apply for State Licensure (Timelines Varies)

Once all the state nursing regulatory board licensing requirements have been met, prospective nurses can apply for licensure. For some states licensing is only valid in the state of issue. However, there are some states that offer reciprocity through the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC).  

Step 5: Obtain Entry-Level Work (Timelines Vary)

Newly licensed RNs can find entry-level work in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, and government agencies. Sites such as Nursing Job Finder and Indeed have extensive lists of jobs perfect for brand new RNs.

What Do Registered Nurses Do?

Registered nurses are the backbone of clinics, hospitals, and care facilities. Not only do they perform much of the patient care, but they also offer emotional support and provide advice to patients and their families. While job duties vary based on the location of employment, general job duties of nurses include:

  • Administering medications and vaccines per doctor’s orders
  • Assessing a patient’s condition
  • Taking patient’s vital signs 
  • Keeping patient medical records
  • Observing patients
  • Assisting with medical procedures or surgery
  • Collaborating with doctors, social workers, and clinic or hospital staff 
  • Educating patients and families on medical conditions
  • Providing patient with instructions for follow up care or at-home treatment
  • Performing diagnostic tests

Registered Nurse Certifications & Licensure

Registered nurses are required to be licensed in all 50 states. Licenses are issued by each state’s nursing regulatory body and requirements for licensure vary. 

There are over 180 different certificates nurses can earn in everything from pediatric care to emergency medicine to gerontology. Some of these certifications require additional education such as becoming a nurse-midwife or nurse practitioner. Other certifications can be earned through test-taking or work experience.

How Much Do Registered Nurses Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statics (May 2020), the 2,986,500 registered nurses in the United States earn $80,010 per year on average. They had the following salary percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $53,410
  • 25th percentile: $61,630
  • 50th  percentile (median): $75,330
  • 75th percentile: $93,590
  • 90th percentile: $116,230

Registered Nurse Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a registered nurse: 

Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have completed additional education and training. In many states they can provide the same level of care to patients as a physician, including prescribing medications. Some nurse practitioners are primary care providers while others are nurse anesthetists, midwives, or oncology care providers. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)

Become A Registered Respiratory Therapist

Breathing therapy and support for clients with respiratory diseases, disorders, or injuries are provided by registered respiratory therapists. They provide diagnostic tests to evaluate lung function, provide chest physiotherapy, and administer prescribed medications. Also, they can intubate patients and monitor ventilation settings. 

  • Typical Education: 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: 

Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants are medical care providers who can perform many of the same duties as physicians. Unlike doctors, physician assistants do not attend medical school. Rather they earn a master’s of physician assistant studies (MPAS), a master’s of health services (MHS), or a master’s of medical science (MMSc). These degrees only take approximately three years to complete. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of physician assistant studies (MPAS), a master’s of health services (MHS), or a master’s of medical science (MMSc)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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