How to Become a Registered Nurse

To become a registered nurse, you’ll need to complete either a Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), or a diploma from an accredited nursing program. You need a license to practice as a nurse.


If you’re pursuing a nursing degree, it’s very likely that you will need to take classes in anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, physiology in addition to social and behavioral sciences and possibly liberal arts. You need to attend 4 years of college to receive a Bachelor’s in Nursing whereas an associate’s degree in nursing and diploma programs only take about 2-3 years to finish. Hospitals or medical centers usually offer diploma programs, but there are significantly fewer diploma programs compared to degrees in nursing. Regardless of which program you choose, you will earn supervised clinical experience.

When earning a Bachelor’s degree in nursing, you will likely need to take courses in social sciences, communication, leadership, and language in addition to the physical sciences. BSN degrees provide greater clinical knowledge in nonhospital settings, which is ideal for those seeking employment in administration, research, consultation, or education.

Typically, graduates of any of the three possible licensing programs qualify for entry-level nursing positions. However, employment in hospitals may require a BSN.

Registered nurses who possess an ADN or diploma have the possibility of returning to school to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing through an RN to BSN program. Some institutions also provide master’s degree programs in nursing, combined bachelor’s and master’s programs, as well as accelerated programs for people desiring to enter nursing but possess a bachelor’s degree in a separate field. Some employers also offer tuition reimbursement.

To become a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) you must earn a master’s degree in nursing and possess at least 1 year of work experience as an RN or in a similar field. CNSs who want to conduct research will need to earn a doctoral degree.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

To practice nursing in any state, U.S. territory, or the District of Columbia, you must possess a nursing license. To obtain a nursing license you must graduate from an accredited nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Additional requirements can vary by each state such as needing to pass a background check or obtain further licensing to practice. Each state’s board of nursing have certain requirements before you can practice.

Nurses may earn certification through professional association in medical areas such as emergency medicine, pediatrics, gynecology, to name a few. While certification is typically voluntary, some employers may require it.

Registered nurses often need to obtain additional certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support (BLS) and/or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS).

CNSs need to meet additional state licensing requirements, like specialty certifications. You can find a list of requirements by visiting or contacting the state board of nursing.

Important Qualities

Critical-thinking skills – Registered nurses are expected to be able to utilize critical thinking while caring for patients especially in the event of a sudden change in the health status of patients, which can include making the quick yet appropriate course of action or by knowing when to seek the assistance of surrounding medical professionals.

Communication skills – Registered nurses need to communicate effectively with patients to explain any pertinent medical information such as the severity of their illness or why a medical procedure is necessary for the patient. Nurses also need to clearly explain to patients how to manage their condition such as how and when to take medication. Nurses must be able to work in a team with other medical professionals and communicate the needs of the patient.

Compassion Registered nurses are assessing the health conditions of patients, they should be empathetic and sincere when addressing the health of patients.

Detail oriented – Registered nurses must demonstrate responsibility by being detail-oriented as they treat patients. For example, a nurse should read the patient’s chart and notice that the patient is allergic to morphine and inform doctors or other nurses that this patient cannot be administered morphine.  

Emotional stability – Registered nurses should possess the emotional fortitude to be able to manage emotions when coping with stress such as emergencies, suffering, or death.

Organizational skills – Registered nurses typically treat multiple patients with various conditions and optional health requirements. Nurses need to be able to ensure that each patient is provided with the correct and necessary treatment.  

Physical stamina – Registered nurses often work long and demanding shifts of 8, 12 or more hours. They are constantly on their feet and often moving patients and carrying medical supplies.  Nurses need to possess enough physical stamina to complete these frequent and demanding tasks.


Registered nurses usually begin their careers as staff nurses in hospitals or community health facilities. With a combination of experience, work performance, and continuous education, nurses can move to other areas or be promoted to higher earning positions with greater responsibility.

Assistant clinical nurse managers can be promoted to charge nurse or head nurse to more upper-level administrative roles, such as the assistant director or director of nursing, vice president of nursing, or chief nursing officer. Management nursing positions often require a graduate degree in nursing or health services administration. Administrative positions require leadership, effective communication and negotiation skills, and unbiased judgment.

A lot of nurses pursue the business side of healthcare. Thanks to their nursing experience they can confidently manage ambulatory, acute, home-based, and chronic care businesses. Employers such as hospitals, insurance agencies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and managed care organizations, to name a few, need registered nurses for jobs in health planning and development, marketing, consulting, policy development, and quality assurance.

Several RNs may become nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, or nurse practitioners, which, along with clinical nurse specialists, are types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). APRN positions require a master’s degree, and several possess doctoral degrees. APRNs may provide primary and specialty care and prescribe medications (varies by state).

Other nurses decide to pursue education as postsecondary teachers or researchers in colleges and universities, which often requires a Ph.D.  Visit to learn more about the nursing profession.