RNs are an important part of the healthcare system. Given the wide range of possibilities for them in the field, as well as their broad scope of practice, RNs are a valuable addition to any healthcare team.

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There are many different types of nurses, but registered nurses (RNs) are often considered the backbone of the nursing system.

Registered nurses can work in any specialty and in various healthcare settings, including home healthcare. They provide patient care, education, and assist other healthcare professionals. In this article, we’ll cover what a registered nurse is — and how to become one.

RNs provide and coordinate patient care. They also provide education to patients and the public about illnesses, diseases, and health conditions. They’re licensed medical professionals who work with patients, doctors, and other health care workers.

RNs can provide a high level of direct care to patients, while nurses like licensed practical nurses are more focused on assisting RNs or doctors. RNs play an important role in coordinating healthcare, as well as ensuring that everything is running smoothly overall in patient care.

To become a registered nurse, you must complete the following requirements.


There are multiple educational pathways to becoming a registered nurse. Education for an RN can include:

  • a Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), which typically takes 4 years
  • an Associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or an Associate of Science in nursing (ASN), which usually take about 2 to 3 years
  • a diploma in nursing from a hospital or medical center (these aren’t as common as they used to be), which typically takes 2 to 3 years

These programs include classes in:

  • anatomy and physiology
  • social and behavioral sciences
  • psychology
  • microbiology

Nursing education should not only teach the basics for nursing-specific knowledge and skills, but also those for quality care. Sometimes, an RN with an ADN, ASN, or diploma goes back to school for a BSN. There are many RN-to-BSN programs available.


All nursing programs include supervised clinical experience where nursing students work alongside licensed nurses, work with patients, and get hands-on experience.


All RNs are licensed by the state where they work. Licensure involves first graduating from an approved program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination. Other requirements vary by state.

RNs who work in certain specialties may become certified through the professional association for the specialty. This is usually not required, but it does convey a certain level of mastery and competence, and some employers prefer it.

Examples of advanced practice registered nurses include nurse midwives and nurse practitioners. These positions require a Master’s degree.

Nurses can work in a wide variety of specialties with many different patient populations. They can also work in a variety of settings, including:

  • schools
  • camps
  • prisons
  • nursing care facilities
  • hospitals
  • operating rooms
  • home healthcare
  • doctor’s offices

Different specialties and units nurses may focus on can include:

  • pediatrics
  • neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or pediatric intensive care unit (PICU)
  • labor and delivery
  • perinatal, encompassing pregnancy, birth, and the first few months of infanthood
  • developmental disability, helping people with developmental disabilities like Down syndrome or autism
  • endocrinology, focusing on endocrine disorders like thyroid issues and diabetes
  • forensics, working with crime victims
  • emergency room
  • operating room
  • oncology, working with those who have cancer
  • dialysis, working with patients going through dialysis and providing education
  • cardiovascular, focusing on the heart and blood vessel disorders
  • pain management, helping those with acute or chronic pain
  • infection control, focusing on preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria, similar to a public health nurse
  • psychiatric nurse, treating patients with mental health disorders
  • refugee nurse, who often works with Doctors Without Borders or other organizations

Nurses can be involved in almost any area of healthcare or medicine. There may be specialized training and certifications you can get, depending on your employer’s requirements.

According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics in May 2020, the median annual salary for registered nurses was $75,330. The lowest 10 percent earned about $53,410, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $116,230.

Salaries can vary based on the setting you work in, as well as your geographical location. Certain specialties may pay more, and hospital or government settings tend to pay more than educational settings.

According to Nurse Journal, the top 5 states where nurses can earn the most in 2021, include:

  1. California
  2. Washington
  3. New York
  4. Texas
  5. Arizona

Additionally, job growth looks good for nurses, with a 7 percent increase in jobs projected between 2019 and 2029.

The schedule of a registered nurse can vary, depending on the work environment and specialty.

Nurses who work in hospitals or care facilities typically do shift work. This is so that around-the-clock care can be given, including on holidays, nights, and weekends. They generally work shifts of 10 to 12 hours at a time and three to four shifts per week.

Between long shifts and call availability, sometimes nurses can work 24- or 36-hour shifts.

Nurses who work in schools or offices tend to work normal weekday business hours, while some may be on call at night. Those in home healthcare may have varying shifts or work schedules, depending on the agency and scheduling needs.

RNs are an important part of the healthcare system. Given the wide range of possibilities for them in the field, as well as their broad scope of practice, RNs are a valuable addition to any healthcare team.