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How to Become a Nurse (RN) in 2021 [Complete Guide]

Posted September 15, 2020

If you are looking to become a Registered Nurse (RN), then you’re in the right place! In this article, we will discuss the responsibilities of a registered nurse, qualities that make up a great RN, cost of receiving a nursing degree, how to become a nurse, nursing degree options, high demand nursing specialties, average salary, and how to land your first nursing job.

The job outlook for registered nurses is growing at a 7% rate through 2029. This is faster than most occupations. Healthcare has entered the spotlight over the last year due to COVID-19 and the high demand for care. This influx in patients has also increased the wages nurses are seeing. We’ll get more into that later.

With an ever growing aging population, an increased emphasis on preventive care and an upward slope in the diagnosis of chronic diseases and infectious diseases, nursing is a highly demanded career choice. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into the world of nursing and how to become a nurse!

This article contains:

Responsibilities of a Registered Nurse (RN)
Qualities of a Phenomenal Registered Nurse 
Nursing Degree Costs
Steps to Become a Registered Nurse 
Registered Nurse Degree Options
Nursing Specialty Options
Landing Your First Nursing Job

Responsibilities of a Registered Nurse

Being a registered nurse is such a rewarding and fulfilling career path. One of the many great things about a career as a nurse is the variety of specialties available. Your day-to-day workflow will depend on the specialty you choose to focus on.


In general, registered nurses are responsible for monitoring, recording and diagnosing patient symptoms.


Nurses need to have a high attention to detail. A significant part of their job requires maintaining accurate patient reports, reviewing medical history, administering medications and developing patient care plans.

Registered nurses are also responsible for educating their patients on their medical conditions and treatment plans. More than likely, authorized family members will also need the same type of education regarding the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. If you’re looking to make an impact in the lives of others, this career path is the ticket for you.

Qualities of a Phenomenal Registered Nurse

You might be wondering if you have what it takes to be an awesome registered nurse. There are certain traits that are important to have to make it successfully as a nurse. We believe that there are eight qualities that make up a phenomenal nurse.

1. Caring Demeanor

Not only are you a nurse, but you are human as well. Bringing that element into your job is crucial. You are caring for people in their most vulnerable states. Not only do you need to perform your nursing duties at the top level, but you need to bring in the human element as well. On paper you might be the best nurse around. However, if you lack a caring and compassionate side, your other skills will fall to the wayside.

2. Strong communication skills

Being able to communicate effectively is extremely important as a nurse. A patient’s life is in your hands, so communicating effectively with other attending nurses and doctors is key for a positive patient outcome. In most cases, you are the speaker between the patient and his/her family members too. It is your job to not only educate the patient on their diagnosis, but their family as well.

3. Empathy

As a registered nurse, your patients come for a variety of circumstances and situations. This will demand empathy. Being an empathetic nurse will require you to listen, understand and try to relate to the patient. It is your responsibility to ensure that the patient feels supported while in your care.

4. High attention to detail

There are many moving parts while caring for a patient. If any details are overlooked it could be catastrophic. It is critical that you are following the patient care plan, documenting everything and administering accurate doses of necessary medications. Great issues can stem from small mistakes. Mistakes not only affect the patient, but for the rest of the medical team overseeing the patient’s care.

5. Problem solving skills

Thinking and acting quickly is the name of the game. Nurses work in a fast-paced environment and juggle many patients at one time. A great nurse will adapt to unforeseen situations. They can also make calm decisions that are in the best interest of the patient.

6. Respect

The old saying, “treat others how you would like to be treated” should be the national nurse moto. The respect you give is the respect you’ll get. This goes not only for your coworkers, but for your patients and their families as well. Nurses have a challenging job helping people during their most vulnerable times. The more grace you show others the better the outcomes will be for everyone involved.

7. Self-Awareness

To make the most out of your nursing career, look internally at yourself. Reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of your personality. If you love high-adrenaline and fast-paced environments, then finding a position in the emergency room is the perfect fit for you. Yet, if you enjoy a steady work load with a variety of patients throughout the day, then a clinic position might be what you’re looking for. The beauty of working in the nursing field is the variety of specialties. You can choose from exactly what will suit your personality.

8. Desire to keep learning

The healthcare field is constantly changing and advancing. A great nurse will always see the importance of continuous training and education. It is a vital part of your role to better your skills and learn new techniques.

Nursing Degree Costs

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Cost

On average, a student pursuing an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) can expect their tuition bill to run anywhere from $6,000 to $40,000. This degree typically takes two years to receive. It is important to keep in mind that the total cost will depend on the state you live in and the type of college you choose.

Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) Cost

If you are looking to obtain your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) you can plan on the total cost running anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000. This degree typically takes four years to receive. Again, keep in mind that the total cost will depend on the state you live in and the type of college you choose.

Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) Cost

If you’re looking to further your education after you receive your BSN degree, then a Master’s of Science in Nursing is the next step. The cost of obtaining this type of degree can range anywhere from $35,000 to $60,000. Cost depends on the state you’re located in and university you choose. Keep in mind that this degree is not required for you to work as a registered nurse. It is an option to advance your career path though.

Steps on How to Become a Nurse

Becoming a registered nurse is quite the adventure, but definitely one worth taking. There are various steps you need to take in order to start your dream job as a nurse. Let’s walk through the steps together.

Step 1: Complete an accredited RN program

Do your research and find an accredited nursing program. Choose one that matches your wants and needs. Typically it is quite easy to determine if a college is accredited or not. Simply look at their website and usually it will be directly on the homepage for all to see. If you are questioning their accreditation at all, you should call the school and inquire. There are several degree options available for aspiring RNs. Some of these include; nursing diplomas, associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree.

The most common degree paths to choose are an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. An associate’s degree will typically take you two years to complete. A bachelor’s degree will take about four years. An associate’s degree in nursing will bypass the general study courses and take you right into your main studies. A bachelor’s degree requires about two years of general coursework with an additional two years of nursing coursework and clinicals. Whatever path you decide to take, ensure that the program is accredited.

Step 2: Take and pass the NCLEX Exam

Once you have graduated from your accredited nursing program, you will be ready to take the NCLEX exam. Breathe. Don’t stress too much about the exam. Remember that your studies in college have prepared you for this test. To schedule your exams, visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

You will have six hours to complete the exam, so be sure to set your own pace and take time to answer each question.  If you do not pass the exam on the first try, you can take it again.

Step 3: Obtain State License

Each state requires practicing nurses to have proper licensure.  You must contact the board of nursing in your specific state to ensure you meet all requirements needed to receive your license.

Registered Nurse Degree Options

When you are deciding which degree option to take there are a few things to consider. Firstly, consider the amount of time it takes to get your degree. Secondly, know the job options available to you after you earn your particular degree. The degree options listed below are from the least amount of education required to the most. The more education you have, the more job opportunities available to you.

Option 1: Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Degree: Associate’s Degree in Nursing  

Education length: 2 years  

Average Salary: $51,000-$70,000

This is the quickest route to obtain a nursing degree. The coursework takes approximately two years to complete. a ADN will land you in the nursing field much quicker. If you are looking to advance your career in the future, you can go back for your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). There are bridge programs that you can enroll in to complete that path. The beauty of taking this route is that you can start working as a nurse sooner. Also, you can begin earning income before you jump into a BSN program. While some nursing positions may require a BSN, there are plenty of job opportunities available for ADN nurses. You may not be able to land your dream nursing job right away, but you’ll definitely gain experience in the field.

Option 2: Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Degree: Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing  

Education length: 4 years   

Average Salary: $55,000-$77,000

This degree path typically takes four years to complete. As you can imagine, this path is more comprehensive than the two year program discussed above. A bachelor’s degree in nursing places more emphasis on nursing theory. It will also make you more marketable during the job hunt. Receiving this type of degree will help you land your first position, and set the stage for future promotions. If you are looking to expand your knowledge in the future, a bachelor’s degree is a stepping stone. The next step would be obtaining a Master’s of Science in Nursing.

Option 3: Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Degree: Master’s of Science in Nursing  

Education length: 2 years     

Average Salary: $70,000-$100,000+

If you are looking to gain more knowledge and expertise in a specific area of nursing, a Master’s of Science in Nursing is the ticket for you. Not only will this type of degree deepen your education in a particular area of nursing, but it will also give you knowledge in leadership, management, policies and finance. It will take about two years to complete the necessary coursework. Having this type of degree will open doors to the “other” side of nursing. You can enter the world of management, research, education, or continue to work on the floor. The sky is the limit.

Nursing Specialty Options

One of the best things about nursing is the variety of specialties available to you. It’s important to reflect on the type of nursing path that best suits your strengths. Just because one specialty may pay more doesn’t mean it is the best. Take your time to research areas in nursing that peak your interest and is the best fit for you. To get your wheels turning, we’ve listed out a few of the high demand nursing specialties and included requirements, responsibilities and average salaries for each. This is not a comprehensive list of every nursing specialty, so we encourage you to conduct your own research to find the one that best suits you.

Travel Nurse

Requirements Needed for Travel Nurses

Travel nursing is such an exciting realm of the nursing profession.  You will need to get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing.  Along with that must pass your NCLEX exam and obtain a nursing license in each state that you want to work in. You can also receive a compact state license which allows you to work in a variety of states with ease.

Responsibilities of Travel Nurses

The responsibilities of a travel nurse will vary depending on the specialty you currently have experience in. Most facilities require at least one year of experience in a specialty within the last two years. If you like to experience a variety of hospital settings in different cities, then this is the career for you. You have the option to choose 13-week contracts wherever you please.

Another perk with this route is that you can avoid hospital politics and the typical drama from a permanent position. Consequently, you will need to have thick skin for this type of role. It can be challenging to walk into a hospital with established work relationships. However more than likely you will find other travel nurses at the facility in the same boat.

Average Salary for Travel Nurses

As for compensation, the amount of money you take home will vary on location, specialty, hospital and the type of benefits you utilize. On average, a travel nurse earns about $76,000/year; however, salary will vary greatly depending on the factors listed above.

You can set yourself up for success by getting a specialty that is in high demand. High demand specialties for travel nurses include: operating room, critical care unit, medical-surgical/telemetry, emergency room, and labor and delivery. These specialties are the highest in demand and the highest paid.

With COVID-19, hospital systems are paying top dollar for traveling nurses. Travel nurses can make as much as $200,000+ if they are only working crisis contracts back-to-back.

Pediatric Nurse

Requirements Needed for Pediatric Nurses

Working as a pediatric nurse requires you to receive an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. You must also pass the NCLEX exam and obtain your license to work in your desired state. You can also receive a voluntary certification from the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. 

Responsibilities of Pediatric Nurses

Pediatric nurses are responsible for assessing a child’s symptoms and providing initial patient care. You also educate the child’s family on how to handle a specific illness or injury along with promoting a well-balanced diet and evaluating age specific milestones. A pediatric nurse works closely with the attending physician to develop an appropriate care plan for the child.

Average Salary for Pediatric Nurses

In this type of role, you can work in a clinic, hospital or outpatient care center.  On average, a pediatric nurse will earn approximately $73,000/year. Your specific salary will depend on years of experience, location and the facility you work at.

Neonatal Nurse

Requirements Needed for Neonatal Nurses

Neonatal nurses need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. They also need to pass the NCLEX exam. The next step is to obtain a license to work in your desired state. If you choose to do so you can receive a Neonatal Nursing Certification from the NCC to further your education in your specialty.

Responsibilities of Neonatal Nurses

There are three different levels of nurseries that neonatal nurses can work in.  Level one is for healthy newborns. Level two is for babies that require supplemental oxygen and/or care. Finally level three is known as the neonatal intensive care unit.  You will find NICU nurseries at larger hospitals which are designed for newborns that are premature. Neonatal nurses are responsible for using specialized equipment, such as incubators and ventilators. You would also be in charge of administering proper medication doses, performing tests and developing patient’s care plan.

Average Salary for Neonatal Nurses

On average, a neonatal nurse can expect to earn approximately $99,000/year. Keep in mind that your salary will vary depending on your region, experience and hospital you work at.

Flight Nurse

Requirements Needed for Flight Nurses

Flight nurses need to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. They also must pass the NCLEX exam in order to obtain state licensure. Most employers will require some experience in the emergency room or critical care unit before hiring you as a flight nurse.  There may also be extra certifications needed to move forward in this specialty.

Responsibilities of Flight Nurses

Flight nurses provide care to patients that need to be transported via helicopter. They assess the injuries or medical issues and develop a treatment plan in order to get the patient to the hospital safely. This type of nursing is definitely geared towards the adrenaline junky. Often times you and your team are responding to traumatic situations. These require swift medical treatment.

Average Salary for Flight Nurses

On average a flight nurse can expect to earn approximately $87,000/year. Your specific salary will depend on years of experience, location and the facility you work at.

Psychiatric Nurse

Requirements Needed for Psychiatric Nurses

To find a job as a psych RN, you will need to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. You will also have to pass your NCLEX exam. It is required that you have a license to work in your desired state.

Responsibilities of Psychiatric Nurses

As for job responsibilities, psych RNs help patients cope with their current state. They also assist in developing proper coping mechanisms. This is a very delicate time for a patient. Providing emotional support while maintaining a safe and effective treatment plan is vital for patient success.

Average Salary for Psychiatric Nurses

In the United States, a psychiatric RN can anticipate to earn on average $79,000/year. Your specific salary will depend on years of experience, location and the facility you are employed by.

School Nurse

Requirements Needed for School Nurses

A school nurse needs an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. However, most nurses will pursue their MSN degree to stay competitive in the marketplace.  It is also required that you pass your NCLEX exam and obtain a license to practice in your desired state. School nurses will often receive the National Certified School Nurse credential through the National Board for Certification of School Nurses.

Responsibilities of School Nurses

A school nurse plays a vital role in a child’s educational experience. A school nurse is responsible for medication administration, health-related education for students and staff, monitoring immunizations and structuring the school environment to ensure safety. School nurses potentially play a role in anti-bullying/school violence campaigns.  The role of a school nurse will vary depending on the district.

Average Salary for School Nurse

On average, a school nurse will make approximately $60,000/year. Please note that your specific salary will vary based on years of experience, certifications, and the city and state in which you work.

Virtual Nurse

Requirements Needed for Virtual Nurses

This specialty of nursing requires either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. They must also pass the NCLEX exam and then apply for state licensure. If you are looking for further certification, virtual care nurses may decide to receive their ambulatory care nurse certification from the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing. There is a specific test that focuses on telephone triage. This would greatly advance your knowledge base.

Responsibilities of Virtual Nurses

Virtual nurses do not have direct physical contact with patients. That doesn’t mean the position is any less demanding. these nurses consult patients over the phone or through a video chat platform to assess the severity of symptoms and give medical advice. Time is of the essence in these situations. The nurse must recommend a plan of attack based on the patient’s ailments.  Virtual care nurses have the ability to work in a wide variety of settings; which include hospitals, clinics or their own home.

Average Salary for Virtual Nurses

On average, virtual nurses can expect to earn approximately $60,000/year.  Keep in mind, your annual salary is dependent on your experience, location and where you are employed.

Nurse Midwife

Requirements Needed for Nurse Midwives

Aspiring Nurse Midwives should highly consider earning a bachelor’s degree as a nurse and eventually move toward an MSN degree from a nurse-midwifery program. After completing your bachelor’s degree you must pass your NCLEX exam and obtain state licensure.  Once you complete your master’s in nurse midwifery, you can take the American Midwifery Certification Board exam to become a Certified Nurse Midwife.

Responsibilities of Nurse Midwives

The responsibilities of a nurse midwife vary from day to day; however, the typical duties include the following: prenatal and postnatal care, delivering babies, addressing reproductive health issues, developing treatment plans and educating patients throughout their reproductive stage.

Average Salary for Nurse Midwives

On average, you can expect a $98,000/year salary. Your salary may differ depending on your experience, location and the facility you provide care in. 

Geriatric Nurse

Requirements Needed for Geriatric Nurses

Geriatric nurses must have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing, pass the NCLEX exam, and obtain a license to work in their desired state. There is the option to receive a certification in geriatric nursing through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. It will depend on the facility you are applying to if they require that certification for employment or not.

Responsibilities of Geriatric Nurses

As a geriatric nurse, you are responsible for medication management, bedside care, implementing care plans and overseeing aides and assistants as they assist you with the patient’s day-to-day needs. You will also work closely with attending doctors. Another responsibility is educating patient’s family members on the patient’s care plan.

Average Salary for Geriatric Nurses

Geriatric nurses can expect an average salary of $72,000/year. Your specific salary will depend on years of experience, location and the facility.

Critical Care Nurse

Requirements Needed for Critical Care Nurses

To secure a position as a Critical Care RN, you must have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing, pass the NCLEX exam and obtain a license to work in your desired state.  In addition, you can further your education by receiving your Certified Critical Care Nurse credential.

Responsibilities of Critical Care Nurses

Being a critical care RN involves numerous components throughout your shift. You are responsible for evaluating the patient’s progress, following the correct process if the patient’s condition changes, helping physicians with medical procedures, and ensuring all equipment is functioning correctly while taking care of the patient. Along with that you need to dispense the necessary medication in a fast-paced, highly stressful environment. The demands of the position can be taxing, but also very fulfilling when your patient pulls through.

Average Salary for Critical Care Nurses

With high demands come high salaries. On average, critical care nurses make approximately $95,000/year. Your specific salary will depend on years of experience, location and the facility.

Landing Your First Nursing Job

You’ve graduated from your nursing program, passed your NCLEX exam and have a state license to work as a nurse. Now it’s time to put your skills to the test!  You might be feeling overwhelmed on where to even begin when applying for your first nursing job. Take a deep breath and remember the value you will bring to the field.  Put your best foot forward by utilizing your network, writing a solid resume and cover letter, researching the healthcare field, and taking the time to prepare for your interview.

Network

As you begin searching for your first nursing position, you might notice that certain positions require experience.  Try not to get too down when reading this requirement and instead think proactively. One of the best tools you have post-graduation is your college. Be sure to reach out to your connections there to see if they have any partnerships with local hospitals.  This could be a great way to get your “in” for your first nursing job. You could also reach out to facilities you are interested in working at and see if there are any opportunities to intern or job shadow. The more connections you can make the better!

Write

Don’t be afraid to gloat when you’re writing your resume and cover letter.  Your resume should consist of details surrounding your credentials, license information, skills and any relevant experience related to the field.  Your cover letter will explain in detail why you are a great candidate for the position and why you want to work at that specific facility. You should always create a different cover letter for each position you are applying to.  Once you submit your resume and cover letter, waiting for an interview can be the hardest part. Be confident in your skills and know that you have been adequately trained to excel in this profession.

Research

Don’t go into your interview unprepared. Do your research on recent news regarding the healthcare field and your specialty, because you never know what questions will arise. Also, remember that you aren’t the only one who should be answering question. Ask some yourself!  Maybe you want to know about the facility culture or what kind of training is provided. Write your questions down in advance and bring them along on the interview, as you need to make sure this is the right fit for you too.

Practice

Securing an interview is exciting and also incredibly nerve-racking.  It’s difficult to anticipate all of the questions and scenarios that can happen during the interview, so instead of stressing about it – practice!  Be proactive. Ask a friend, family member or spouse to practice an interview with you. This will allow you to articulate your skills and experiences while managing your nervous jitters. 

Being a registered nurse is an exciting, rewarding and challenging profession.  It takes a special person to go down this career path. We wish you the very best if you decide this is right for you!

Article resources

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