How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)
1. Understand The Different Starting Points To Becoming A Registered Nurse (RN)
There are plenty of potential nursing paths that you can pursue to become a Registered Nurse. The first one is to become a Licensed Practical Nurse to see if you enjoy nursing.
The second potential route is to get a nursing diploma. These intensive programs offer diplomas to students who take experience-based classes that are aimed at teaching the basics of providing nursing care.
The third potential pathway is to obtain an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). Obtaining an Associate’s degree will help ensure that you are capable of filling a variety of positions as a nurse, but some hospitals and healthcare facilities will ask that you obtain additional education and go back to school to get a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN).
The fourth option is to start in a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing program from the start. This route is great for those individuals who have no other collegiate or university experience, and can develop their course structure around their goals of becoming a Registered Nurse.
The fifth option is for those individuals who have obtained a degree in something other than nursing, and is often referred to as a fast-track program to receive a degree in nursing.
These fast-track programs allow individuals who have obtained credit hours in other programs or universities to be applied to a nursing program, and cut down the extra-curricular courses that need to be taken.
The sixth potential route for nursing is the Master’s Degree program in Nursing (MSN). These degree programs are sometimes required for various hospitals or healthcare clinics who are looking for only the most experienced and educated Registered Nurses to join their staff.
Those who seek a Master’s Degree in Nursing are aiming to become experts in their respective field.
The seventh potential route is through the use of online degree programs. Online degree programs can sometimes be more affordable, and cater to the hectic lifestyle that so many students experience when they are also holding a full-time job or outside responsibilities.
Online education routes might differ in their requirements for students to have clinical experience, but we will talk about that later on in the respective sections.
Understanding what is the most appropriate starting route for you to consider will help make your Registered Nurse journey that much easier.
2. Determine What You Want To Concentrate On As A Registered Nurse
One great thing about being a Registered Nurse is that you not only get to become an expert in the caregiving field, but you also have the opportunity of concentrating in a field as well. There are several different types of fields to concentrate on and narrow your scope of nursing.
There are roughly 100 nursing specialties, but the concentrations can be broken down into five different fields: Critical Care, Research, Informatics, Anesthesia, and Midwifery.
These different concentrations each focus on a different aspect of nursing, and are suited for different types of individuals.
- Critical Care - critical care is suited well for those individuals who wish to work with patients that are critically ill, at a high risk for various life threatening conditions, are battling serious diseases, or have substantial health concerns that need attention at all times.
- Research - focusing on the research concentration as a Registered Nurse is great for those individuals who want to find new ways to improve patient care in a variety of ways. Focusing on a research concentration is also great for those individuals who like numbers and statistics.
- Informatics - If you’re the kind of individual who enjoys working on the computer and analyzing information, then you should consider a concentration in informatics. Nurses who concentrate in informatics typically work with big information systems and big data to determine ways to make care more efficient, and reduce cost for healthcare facilities and hospitals overall. This is a great option for those individuals who want to work indirectly with patients, and impact healthcare policies overall.
- Anesthesia - Those nurses who specialize in anesthesia are critical to the operating room success. In addition, these nurses help manage and take care of patients who are attempting to deal with pain through the use of anesthetics. This nursing concentration is great for those nurses who want to make sure that the patients they are caring for are as comfortable as they can be while dealing with their pain.
- Midwifery - A midwifery concentration is great for those individuals who want to work with pregnant women who are about to be mothers or have just given birth. Focusing on a midwifery concentration is also great for those individuals who want to work with babies, as extra education and care must be taken to ensure proper procedures are followed. Typically focusing in midwifery requires substantial nursing experience, and Registered Nurses are placed in a midwifery role after serving elsewhere for a considerable amount of time in a hospital or healthcare facility.
As one can see, there are plenty of great nursing concentrations available, and as a Registered Nurse it’s important to ensure that you follow a concentration you have a passion for, to ensure that you don’t get burned out easily over time, and you are truly happy with your profession while caring for others.
7 Potential Registered Nursing Career Paths
3. Start Out As A Licensed Practical Nurse (4 Years)
For those individuals who want to get their Registered Nurse career path started, the first option is to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. Becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse typically takes 12 months.
In order to get started in becoming an LPN, individuals have to have a high school diploma or passed the GED exam.
After receiving a high school diploma or earning a passing score on the GED exam, various programs will have additional requirements to enter each school. Some of these requirements will be focused on specific testing to get into the program, background checks, or prerequisite courses.
From there, each student needs to go through a training program centered around practical nursing. These courses and curriculums are designed to educate students on core principles in both anatomy and physiology.
In addition, courses will focus around family nursing, maternal health, child health, and team organizational skills.
Another aspect of receiving an LPN license is to go through a clinical rotation. These clinical rotations will focus around receiving hands-on experience of nursing in a real-world setting.
After going through the LPN curriculum, the next stage in the process is to get state licensure or a certification. Each state requires licensing for all practical nurses, but some states will also require that additional certifications are obtained to work in certain specialties.
If you want to get started as an LPN before working your way to an RN, the next step would be to then enroll in an LPN to RN program. These programs typically add an additional 18 months on top of the LPN program, and will bring the total timeline to around 31 months.
The LPN to RN program is centered around educating LPNs, and helping them earn an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) and an RN license.
From there, those individuals who obtain their RN license might be required to enroll in a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN), which would add another 18 months.
This means that total time to completion is roughly 4 years for those who wish to become a Licensed Practical Nurse, and then transition into a Registered Nurse later on.
The amount of time could lengthen, depending on whether or not there is a substantial amount of time gap between each program, or how many hours are taken for respective programs.
4. Earn A Nursing Diploma (2 Years) - No Degree
Nursing diplomas are increasingly becoming more prevalent in the professional hospital workforce, as hospitals are in dire need of nurses to combat the nursing shortage.
The only problem associated with nursing diplomas is that they do not typically offer a degree upon completion, only a diploma. At one point, hospitals and healthcare organizations were asking for a nursing diploma as the most preferred requirement for positions but that has since changed.
As registered nurses continually need to know more to provide the most effective and efficient care, plenty of hospitals and healthcare organizations are asking for nurses to avoid seeking a nursing diploma all together, and go straight to earning a BSN.
This ensures that hospitals and healthcare facilities are hiring the most experienced and credentialed employees.
For those individuals who still wish to pursue getting a nursing diploma, the key takeaway that the courses are focused on providing clinical experience.
Nursing diplomas focus around gettings students hands-on experience in a hospital environment, and teaching them on the job, in addition to coursework.
Students are typically asked to expand upon their skill set through the use of curriculum focused around biology, psychology, and anatomy.
Typical completion time for nursing diplomas are roughly 2 years, depending upon required coursework and the amount of credit hours taken at any given time.
5. Earn An Associate's Degree In Nursing (2 to 3 Years)
For those individuals who want to become a Registered Nurse, another career pathway to follow would be to obtain an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN).
Associate’s Degree in Nursing programs typically center around teaching potential RNs about microbiology, important nutrition, chemistry, nursing standards and procedures, anatomy, and other related subjects to providing care.
Each one of these topics are centered around educating each student in the most efficient way possible to ensure that they are well rounded and capable of providing adequate care to their patients.
A typical completion time for Associate’s Degree in Nursing is roughly two to three years, as the classes focus around providing a more well-rounded education.
For those individuals who wish to continue their education after receiving their ADN, there are plenty of universities that have bridge programs for those who wish to pursue an ADN to BSN opportunity.
Each one of these bridge programs typically adds an additional 2 to 3 years, depending upon required coursework and what transfer credits will equate to in the new BSN program.
6. Earn A Bachelor's Degree In Nursing (4 to 5 Years)
For those individuals who want to go to a university, one potential option is to enroll directly into a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing program. A Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing program focuses on educating students on a much broader basis than the other pathways mentioned above.
Students who enter into a BSN program will learn both nursing techniques, nursing procedures, in addition to various healthcare concepts and healthcare theories.
In addition, students will be given the opportunity to learn more about various medical concepts through the focus on various research courses designed to educate students on the importance of evaluating their patients before providing care.
7. Registered Nursing Bridge Program (varies)
For those nursing professionals who have chosen one of the earlier pathways we mentioned, there are bridge programs available to those professionals who wish to get a BSN.
There are several bridge programs available, such as an RN to BSN program, ADN to BSN, or LPN to BSN program.
Each one of these has their own unique requirements, and each university or college will differ in their bridge programs.
These bridge programs offer a great opportunity for those individuals who previously went down an existing nursing career pathway and would like to further their education for a variety of reasons.
One particular reason that some nursing professionals decide to go back to school is to obtain more professional opportunities.
Hospitals and healthcare facilities will offer additional signing bonuses or pay raises for those nurses on staff that have additional education in their background.
In addition, having more education or a higher degree will enable more job opportunities in the nursing realm to become available.
Both of these are great for those nurses who want to open up an additional world of possibility.
8. Earn A Master's Degree In Nursing (5 to 6 Years)
Another pathway for individuals to become a registered nurse is to pursue a Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN).
These nursing professionals take an extensive amount of coursework and clinical experience to become experts in all things related to nursing. Students have to obtain their BSN before applying to graduate nursing schools.
Graduate nursing schools often have difficult admission requirements that might include interviews to be conducted, prior work experience, or various GPA standards.
There are comparable Master’s Degree programs that can be obtained if a MSN is unavailable. Some of the most common Master’s Degree comparable programs are Master’s Degree in Public Health (MPH), Master’s in Business Administration with a Concentration in Health (MBA), or a Master’s Degree in Health Administration (MHA).
The benefit of earning your Master’s Degree in Nursing is that you truly get to focus in on a certain aspect of nursing.
Registered Nurses are tasked with doing a little bit of everything, whereas those nursing professionals who obtain an MSN get to focus on becoming experts in one of the smaller concentrations.
In addition, earning an MSN will help you understand a little bit more about how the healthcare industry and business works. This means that those individuals who want to become a Registered Nurse through an MSN will have a greater understanding of how everything is connected from the ground-up in a hospital or healthcare facility.
This insight is extremely valuable when understanding the important tasks that each member of a hospital unit has, and how each one fits together to create a high-performing unit.
Individuals who work to obtain their MSN will also receive substantially higher pay and benefits, than those who pursue the other registered nurse career pathways, as hospitals and healthcare organizations are willing to pay more for experts in the nursing field.
For those focused on obtaining a Master’s Degree in Nursing, the estimated completion time will be roughly five to six years depending upon course load and education and clinical requirements.
9. Earn An Online Registered Nurse Degree (4 to 5 Years)
For those individuals who are looking for a little more flexibility in their Registered Nurse pursuits, one of the best pathways to becoming a Registered Nurse is through an online degree program.
These programs traditionally allow students to work at their own pace, and complete courses from the comfort of their own home.
Depending upon the program, some programs will also require that students complete mandatory clinical experience in addition to the online coursework.
Online Registered Nursing Degree programs are a great way for working students to get some of their courses out of the way, and plan a schedule that accommodates them more closely than some traditional classroom or educational settings.
In addition, online registered nurse degree programs tend to be more flexible in their price range for their nursing programs. Additional research might be required to find the online nursing degree program that is right for you, as some offer more flexibility but cost more, whereas others are cheaper but have more specific requirements elsewhere.
Earning an online registered nurse degree typically takes the same amount of time as obtaining a degree from a regular institution of roughly 4 to 5 years, but can take longer depending on the amount of coursework taken each semester, and whether or not clinical experience is required for completion of the program.
10. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam
The next step to becoming a registered nurse after completing one of the above career pathways is to pass the NCLEX-RN exam.
The NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) is the state board of nursing test used to determine whether or not a nursing student is capable of starting as an entry-level nursing candidate.
These examinations are rigorous and will cover all aspects of nursing to ensure that you are truly prepared to care for and treat individual patients.
Studying for the NCLEX-RN exam should start well in advance to ensure that you don’t have to cram, and are as prepared as possible.
There are also additional options available to ensure that you are well prepared for the exam, such as external training tools and companies that will ensure you have all the materials needed to succeed when taking the exam.
The cost to take the NCLEX is $200 for each examination. So not passing it on the first attempt can get quite expensive with each failed attempt.
The NCLEX covers four categories throughout the test: Safe & Effective Care Environment, Psychosocial Integrity, Health Promotion and Maintenance, and Physiological Integrity.
Each one of these categories is broken down into a variety of sub-categories as well, with each one having an extensive list of questions to ensure that you are knowledgeable in each.
The NCLEX exam can range from 74 questions to a maximum of 265 questions for the test taken.
The test will have roughly 5 hours to complete, with only two 10 minute breaks.
This means that there are plenty of questions to hit on each specific category of care, and you should be knowledgeable in each.
The exam is then scored on the computer that you took it on, in addition to the National Council’s own testing service.
The average time for students to receive their score is roughly a month after taking the test.
In the event that you don’t pass the exam, you will receive a diagnostic outline of where you did well and what topics you need to brush up on.
This helps those students to understand what they need to work on moving forward, so that they can improve for future examinations, which can only be taken after 91 days from the previous examination.
11. Obtain State Licensure and Certifications
The next step in becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) is to obtain the required state license or certifications that might be required to be an RN in the state you wish to work in.
Each state has its own requirements, so it’s important to brush up on the necessary requirements and licensing requirements for each.
Each state has its own licensing board, which ensures that all RNs are licensed under a unique set of specifications.
This ensures that patients are only receiving care from licensed professionals, and that those licensed professionals have enough education and training to provide the best care possible.
Each state licensure will determine what an RN needs to showcase expertise in, what nursing continuing education requirements must be met over time, and how disciplinary action is handled.
It will be beneficial for you to review each state’s Registered Nursing licensing board, and stay up to date on any of the potential changes that might be implemented to ensure that you have all the required licensing.
Some states will also require additional certifications, so it is important to know what states require additional certifications to operate as an RN.
AllNursingSchools has put together a helpful list for Registered Nurses to view each individual state licensure board, and the continuing education requirements.
12. Review Potential Employer Requirements
In addition, some hospitals and healthcare facilities will require additional certifications as part of the employment contract.
You should review the job posting and employer’s requirements to ensure that you meet all the qualifications and requirements to become employed.
13. Apply For Registered Nurse Jobs
The next thing you should do on your Career Path to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) is to begin applying for jobs. Be sure to check out Registered Nurse (RN) jobs on HospitalCareers, as we have plenty of open positions for nursing professionals.