Registered Nurse Career Overview

There are three basic options for fulfilling the educational requirements for registered nursing: diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree from an approved nursing program. Advanced practice nursing roles such as nurses anesthetist, nurse practitioner, nurse-midwife, and clinical nurse specialists require a master’s degree.

There are more than 3 million registered nurses in the U.S., making nursing the largest healthcare occupation. Close to 60 percent of registered nursing jobs are in hospitals. Job opportunities are expected to vary by employment and geographic setting, but overall, job opportunities are expected to be excellent.

Registered Nurse Job Duties

Registered nurses (RNs) work to treat and educate patients and the public about various medical conditions, as well as provide advice and emotional support to a patient’s family members.

Providing support during care

They help perform

  • Diagnostic tests and analyze results
  • Record patients’ medical histories and symptoms
  • Administer treatment and medications
  • Operate medical machinery
  • Help out with patient follow-up and rehabilitation

Providing after-treatment care

Registered nurses explain post-treatment home care needs and:

  • Teach patients and their families how to manage their illnesses
  • Conduct diet
  • Nutrition and exercise programs
  • Self-administration of medication and physical therapy.

Supporting public health

Registered nurses might run general public health screenings, public seminars, blood drives, or immunization clinics. Some work to promote general health by educating the public on the symptoms of diseases.

Medication support

Registered nurses either establish a new care plan or contribute to existing plans, including:

  • Starting, maintaining, and discontinuing intravenous (IV) lines
  • Administering therapies and treatments
  • Careful checking of medication dosages
  • Observing the patient and recording those observations
  • Consulting with physicians and other healthcare clinicians

Supervising other nurses

In some cases, registered nurses will supervise nursing aides and licensed practical nurses regarding patient care. They may perform therapeutic and diagnostic procedures if they have advanced educational preparation and training.

What Defines Registered General Nurse Duties?

The responsibilities of a registered general nurse vary with each position. Work title and duties are usually decided based on the patient population served or work setting. They may specialize in four ways:

  • Work in a particular type of treatment or setting
  • Concentrate on certain health conditions
  • Work with one or more organs or body system types
  • Focusing on a well-defined population.

In some cases, registered nurses combine specialties.

Registered Nurse Specialties

A registered nurse who specializes in a work setting or type of treatment has many career options available to them.

Ambulatory care nurses

Ambulatory care nurses treat patients and administer preventative care to patients with a variety of illnesses and injuries in a clinic or physician’s office.

Emergency nursing

Emergency nurses are employed in a hospital or stand-alone emergency departments to provide care and initial assessments to patients with life-threatening conditions.

Holistic nursing

Besides treating a patient’s physical health, holistic nurses treat a patient’s mental and spiritual health through massage, acupuncture, and aromatherapy.

Dermatology nursing

Some nurses may work in dermatology offices providing care to patients in doctor’s offices for skin-related care, often assisting dermatologists.

Neonatology nursing

Those working with infants and newborns may work in a neonatology ward within a hospital setting or acute care facility providing round-the-clock support to infants with health complications.

Home healthcare nurses

A home healthcare nurse works with patients who have recently been discharged from a hospital or long-term care, skilled nursing facility, or rehabilitation.

Work setting specialties

Registered nurses who specialize in a particular ailment, disease, or other condition may be employed in basically all work settings. For example, intellectual and developmental disabilities nurses care for patients with mental, physical, or behavioral disabilities. Genetics nurses provide counseling and treatment of patients with genetic disorders as well as administer early detection screenings. Oncology nurses work with cancer patients and may assist in providing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Typically, a registered nurse who focuses on a treatment of a particular organ or body system is employed in specialty clinics, critical care units, and outpatient facilities. For example, dermatology nurses provide care to those with disorders of the skin. Cardiovascular nurses care for patients who had heart surgery or coronary heart disease. Gynecology nurses treat women with disorders of the reproductive system. Orthopedic nurses treat patients with skeletal or muscular problems.

Many registered nurses are employed in comfortable, well-lit healthcare facilities. However, public and home health nurses travel to schools, patients’ homes, community centers, schools, and other sites. Registered nurses who work in nursing care facilities or hospitals may work weekends, nights, and holidays and also may be on call, while nurses who work in schools, offices, or other settings that do not require 24-hour care usually work regular business hours.

Population specialties

RNs who specialize by population provide preventive and acute care in all healthcare settings to the segment of the population in which they specialize. Specializations include newborns (neonatology), children and adolescents (pediatrics), adults, and the elderly (gerontology or geriatrics). RNs also may provide basic healthcare to patients outside of healthcare settings in such venues as including correctional facilities, schools, summer camps, and the military. Some RNs travel around the United States and throughout the world, providing care to patients in areas with shortages of healthcare workers.

What Is an Advanced Practice Nurse?

Registered nurses may choose to become advanced practice nurses who may provide primary care services in addition to working independently or in collaboration with physicians. They may also prescribe medication to patients in all states. For example, nurse anesthetists offer anesthesia and related care prior to and after surgical, diagnostic, and therapeutic procedures. Nurse-midwives offer preliminary care services to women. A nurse practitioner works as a primary or specialty care provider in adult practices, family practices, pediatrics, women’s health, and geriatrics.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Registered Nurses

A nurse may choose to obtain a bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN), an associate degree in nursing (ADN), or a diploma. ADN programs usually take about two years to complete and are typically offered by junior or community colleges, while BSN programs last about four years and are offered at colleges and universities. A diploma program is provided by hospitals and typically last three years. Requirements for most entry-level staff nursing positions include a license and graduation from any of the three types of educational programs.

ADN vs. BSN programs

There are many more ADN or BSN programs than there are diploma programs. Registered nurses who receive their BN, as opposed to a diploma or ADN, have better chances for advancement, so those considering a career in nursing should think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of joining each program.

BSN holders receive a greater amount of training in leadership, critical thinking, and communication, which are all important aspects of the nursing practice. They also offer more clinical experience in settings outside of a hospital.

ADN holders may choose to go back to school after they obtain an entry-level position in order to take advantage of tuition reimbursement. Most administrative, research, teaching, and consulting positions require a bachelor’s degree or higher. An accelerated master’s degree program usually takes three to four years to complete and grants students with both a BSN and MSN.

Accelerated BSN programs

Accelerated BSN programs are reserved for aspiring nurses who have a bachelor’s degree in another field. They usually last 12 to 18 months. Accelerated MSN programs are reserved for those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher in another field.

Education for nursing students

Nursing students take a combination of academic classes in the sciences in combination with supervised clinical experience provided by hospital departments in psychiatry, maternity, pediatrics, and surgery.

Licensing Requirements for Registered Nurses

All states and US territories require that registered nursing students graduate from an approved nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) in order to obtain licensure. There may be other eligibility requirements varying by state. Continuing education is usually required to maintain licensure, as technological and medical advances are constantly occurring.

Registered nurses may choose to become credentialed in specialties such as informatics, gerontology, pediatrics, ambulatory care, and many others. Although credentialing is voluntary, employers prefer it. Nurses may obtain credentials from the American Nursing Credentialing Center, the National League for Nursing, and other organizations.

What to expect on the Job

As registered nurses gain experience as staff nurses in hospitals, they are promoted to positions with more responsibilities. Management-level positions usually require registered nurses with advanced degrees in nursing or health services administration.

Other registered nurses may move on to become advanced practice nurses who mainly work in primary care services independently or under the supervision of physicians. There are four specializations for advanced practice nurses: nurse anesthetics, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse-midwives. At least a master’s degree is required for all four types of advanced practice nurses. The authority for advanced practice nurses to prescribe medicine varies by state.

Another common advancement for registered nurses is to move into healthcare management because they have expertise that they can translate to managing acute, home-based, ambulatory, or chronic care facilities. Registered nurses are needed for development and health planning, consulting, marketing, quality assurance, and policy development. Some nurses become employed in a college, university, or research facility.

Employment and Job Outlook for Registered Nurses

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that, in 2021, 3,130,600 people worked as registered nurses in the U.S. From 2021 to 2031, there is an expected need for an additional 195,400 people working as registered nurses, which is about a 6% increase.

The BLS also states that about 60% of all nurses work in state, local, or private hospitals. In addition, 18% work in ambulatory healthcare services, 6% work in nursing and residential care facilities, 6% work for the government, and 3% work in education services.

What’s Changing in the Health Sector for Nurses?

Technological advances in patient care and increased importance placed on preventative care will drive job growth for registered nurses. As the number of older people who will need nursing care continues to increase, so will the demand for registered nurses.

Employment Growth for Nurses

In hospitals, employment growth is supposed to move slowly. Although the intensity of care is likely to increase, causing the need for more nurses per patient, the number of patients who stay in the hospital for more than 24 hours will stay similar. However, hospital outpatient facilities should expect rapid growth.

The number of sophisticated procedures that were only being performed in hospitals are now being performed in physician’s offices and emergency centers, causing employment growth as general healthcare expands.

Registered nurses in nursing care facilities should see employment growth because of the large number of baby boomers who are aging and will require long-term care. More admission to residential and nursing care facilities will also cause job growth. Registered nurses should also expect employment growth in specialized long-term rehabilitation centers such as for head injury and stroke patients.

Home healthcare employment is also expected to increase due to the growing number of older persons with functional disabilities, technological advances, and the patient’s preference to live at home. Registered nurses who work in home healthcare will be required to perform complex procedures.

Innovative Employment Education Options

Another change being introduced to the health sector is a redesign of healthcare workforce development. Innovative companies like WorkFirst Healthcare are offering healthcare professionals the option to first find employment. After that, they can attend a university to enhance their credentials and hone their profession. All while still being employed by the healthcare organization.

Registered Nurse Salary

The BLS reports that, in 2021, the median pay for a registered nurse was $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour.

Those working in government received the highest pay at $85,970, while those working in hospitals earned $78,070. Those working in ambulatory healthcare services earned a median pay of $76,700, while those working in nursing and residential facilities earned $72,420. Those working at any level of educational services earned $61,780.

Featured Programs

Grand Canyon University

Cost: $340 per credit hour


  • Numerous specialization course options are available
  • Various past-master certification program options are available
  • RN to BSN program streamlines education
  • Pre-Med program available
  • Online, hybrid, and evening course options to fit schedules

Liberty University

Cost: For online programs, it is $390 per credit hour for full-time students and $455 per credit hour for part-time


  • NCLEX Exam pass rate of 98% (first-time students)
  • CCNE accredited
  • UP to 75% of previously earned accredited courses can transfer
  • Some programs provide 600 hours of clinical training and hands-on experience
  • Several fast track programs for those who wish to complete their education faster

Purdue University Global

Cost: $371 per credit hour


  • CCNE accreditation
  • Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing Member
  • Ongoing student support services provided
  • Online and hybrid educational opportunities are available
  • Flexible scheduling of courses

Southern New Hampshire University

Cost: $320 per credit hour


  • Can be completed online
  • Does not require SAT/ACT scores or application fees
  • CCNE accredited
  • Programs completed in as soon as 1 year
  • Accelerated paths for RN – MSN
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