Learn exactly step-by-step how to become a nurse with this comprehensive guide. Nursing is one of the most rewarding and in-demand careers with a huge variety of specialties and opportunities. This article is designed as a general guide, or as a starting point, on how to become a registered nurse, detailing what you can do to get into nursing as a career. We will answer commonly asked questions, such as how long does it take to become a nurse, what kind of salary can be expected, how to become a nurse practitioner, the pros and cons of a nursing career, how long is nursing school and more. You may also find some of our nurse specialization articles helpful, such as:
- how to become a travel nurse
- how to become a pediatric nurse
- how to become a labor and delivery nurse
- how to become a neonatal nurse
Now let’s dig in and find out exactly how you can launch a career in nursing!
What Does a Nurse Do?
A nurse is a highly skilled and expertly trained healthcare professional, who is qualified to provide a comprehensive menu of medical services to patients seeking preventive or therapeutic care. Working in close coordination with physicians and other trained medical professionals, nurses are employed by hospitals, clinics, private practices, schools, home environments, nursing care facilities, hospices, public health agencies, and by individuals who require in-home treatment.
Nurses provide all types of healthcare services, although most will specialize in a specific category of medicine. Among their varied and ever-changing duties, nurses are trained to offer basic first-aid services, make simple diagnoses, administer medications and a broad range of treatments, take and record medical histories, assist with surgery, operate medical equipment, perform testing and evaluation procedures, and educate patients about their conditions and what they must do to recover. A nurse will often act as a liaison between doctors and patients, to make sure both are fully informed about all relevant facts related to treatment and recovery.
How Much Does a Nurse Make?
In 2019, the annual mean wage for a registered nurse working in the United States was $73,300. Nurses employed in the two highest-paying states—California and Hawaii—earned mean salaries in excess of $100,000 per year. In general, registered nurses are paid the highest wages in the Western, Northeastern, and Upper Midwestern regions of the country.
The demand for registered nurses is expected to be vigorous over the next several years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that available jobs for nurses will increase by seven percent between 2019 and 2029, which is nearly double the projected growth rate for all occupations combined.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse?
How long does it take to become a registered nurse after high school? It will take about 4 or 4.5 years to become a nurse. Most of this time is spent as a university student, and can vary somewhat depending on your specialty, though in general you will be able to seek employment soon after graduating from college.
How long is nursing school? For most people it will be 4 years. You can complete a program in less or more time if you increase or decrease your class load or take summer courses.
You may also wonder how long does it take to become a nurse practitioner? Generally you can become a nurse practitioner after a total of 6 to 8 years, including time in graduate school.
How to Become a Nurse: A Step-by-Step Guide
If you are interested in pursuing this career path here is our step-by-step guide mapping out how to become an RN (Registered Nurse).
Step 1: Select a Nursing Specialty
Specialization is now a defining factor in the nursing profession. The Nurse Journal lists more than 100 specialties or concentrations that are currently available for prospective nurses, which includes broad categories that employ large numbers, niche categories that offer more limited job opportunities, and advanced specializations that require master’s degrees or doctoral degrees to pursue.
Some of the specialty nursing categories that are likely to be most in demand in the coming years include:
- Neonatal Nurse
- Pediatric Nurse
- Oncology Nurse
- Geriatric Nurse
- Labor and Delivery Nurse
- Psychiatric Nurse
- Cardiac Nurse
- Dialysis Nurse
- ER Nurse
- Trauma Nurse
- Clinical Nurse
- Critical Care Nurse
- Orthopedic Nurse
- Travel Nurse
- Public Health Nurse
- School Nurse
Your choice of specialty should be motivated primarily by personal interest. While some specialties will require more personnel in the coming years than others, qualified nurses with refined skills will always find opportunities, regardless of the uniqueness of their training and past experience.
Step 2: Complete a Bachelor of Science Degree Program in Nursing
It is still possible to find a nursing job with an associate degree in the subject. But this is getting harder to do all the time, and your chances of finding a suitable or attractive job as a nurse will be diminished if you decide to enter the field with only two years of education.
A bachelor’s of science program in nursing will provide you with the intensive preparation you need to qualify for any entry-level nursing position. Your curriculum will include general education courses, science courses relevant to a nursing career, and specialized classes that cover important topics related to human biology and physiology, physical and mental health, healthcare services, and running a medical practice.
The most essential element of a nursing degree program is clinical experience. Internships and externships will provide you with intensive and comprehensive practical experience, as you offer diverse health and medical care services to real patients in an authentic clinical setting. Nursing schools can help you find internship and externships in the local area, but aspiring nurses are needed everywhere and you may be able to secure an exciting on-the-job training opportunity through your own initiative.
In most university-level internships and externships, you’ll be expected to complete approximately three practice hours for every one hour you spend learning in a classroom environment. Naturally, you should choose an internship or externship that is relevant to your preferred specialty.
Step 3: Take the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX) for Registered Nurses
Once you’ve graduated from college with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, you’ll be eligible to take the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses (the NCLEX-RN). Regardless of your specialty, you’ll need to pass this exam to qualify for your nursing license, and you’ll have to possess such a license before you can be hired as an entry-level nurse or nursing resident.
Registered nurses must renew their licenses every two years. In most states, you’ll need to accumulate between 24 and 30 hours of continuing education credits to be eligible for renewal.
Step 4: Acquire Mandatory Certifications (if Required)
Most certificates for nurses represent advanced status and are reserved for those who’ve gained extensive professional experience.
However, there are some basic certifications you may need to possess before you can be hired to an entry-level nursing position. Alternatively, you may be required to acquire them within your first few months on the job.
The two most commonly required entry-level credentials are the Basic Life Support (BLS) and the Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) certifications. The majority of currently practicing registered nurses have completed the coursework and exams necessary to obtain these credentials, either on their own initiative or at the request of a prospective employer.
If you plan to work with infants or very young children, there’s a high likelihood you’ll be required to complete the Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP), the Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS), and Electronic Fetal Monitoring (EFM) certification courses as a condition of employment.
Step 5: Seek an Entry-Level Job or Residency Position as a Registered Nurse
Your bachelor’s degree program in nursing, plus your registered nursing license and any required certification, will leave you well-prepared to serve as an entry-level nurse in your chosen specialty.
You can find employment as a beginning nurse in hospitals, clinics, private physician’s offices, community health organizations, and with other institutions that need skilled nurses who can administer essential healthcare services to their clientele.
As an alternative to a traditional entry-level job, you could seek a position as a nursing resident. Residency programs for nurses usually last between six months and one year, and will prepare you to apply for entry-level or intermediate-level nursing jobs in the relevant specialty.
Step 6: Acquire Additional Certifications that Can Boost Your Career Prospects
Once they’ve completed a reasonable amount of service as a full-time employee, nurses will normally seek coveted certifications that testify to their expertise and overall qualifications. Nursing certifications are not mandatory, but they will undoubtedly help you if you decide to pursue promotions or hope to qualify for more advanced positions in the future.
Requirements vary, but in general you’ll need between one and three years of experience in a relevant specialty to qualify for certification. You’ll have to take and pass a certification exam to receive your desired certification, and in most instances your initial certificate will be valid for three or four years before you’ll have to apply to have your credentials renewed.
Renewal of a nursing certificate is not automatic. You’ll have to prove you’ve been actively working as a registered nurse in a licensed healthcare facility, with the bulk of your duties relating somehow to your chosen specialty. With most certificates, you’ll also have to complete a certain number of continuing education hours as well to qualify for renewal. These requirements add legitimacy to your certification, since renewal will only be possible if you’ve continued to sharpen your skills and increase your knowledge in clinical and classroom settings.
Certifications are available for all specialties and for a significant number of subspecialties. Depending on your interests and working experience, you could apply to be certified in:
- Acute care
- Family medicine
- Psychiatry and mental health
- Emergency care
- Correctional institutional care
- Pediatric oncology
- Hospice and palliative care
- Blood and marrow transplant
- Continence care
- Urologic care
- Forensic nursing
- Diabetes management
This is just a sampling of the certifications that are open for registered nurses with real-world working experience. At the Nurse.org website, they list 183 certifications that practicing registered nurses can test for, if they have the required experience.
Step 7: Pursue a Graduate Degree and More Advanced Certification
After practicing for a while, some registered nurses choose to enroll in masters or doctorate degree programs to prepare for high-demand, higher-salaried nursing-related positions.
Most who complete graduate degree programs do so intending to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). The available categories of APRN include:
- Nurse Practitioner (NP)
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
- Certified Nursing Midwife (CNM)
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Two other career options that also require an advanced degree are nurse case manager and nurse educator.
As an APRN, or other type of advanced practitioner, you would have the opportunity to increase your work responsibilities and boost your pay level. Depending on your specific designation, you may be qualified to diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatments, supervise the activities of other healthcare workers, become involved in the administrative or educational sides of medical practice, or provide more technically advanced or medically specialized services than you were allowed to offer before.
Regardless of your specific career ambitions, with a master’s or doctorate degree in nursing you would have an excellent opportunity to pursue high-end jobs in the nursing profession.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Nurse
Pros of Becoming a Nurse
Nurses are drawn to the profession by the opportunity to help people in need, and they are able to do that on a daily basis. This brings fulfillment and a great sense of accomplishment, along with the gratitude of patients and their families. Nurses are well-liked, respected, and trusted, and often form relationships with patients that are more intimate and friendly than the relationships between patients and doctors. With an abundance of specialties now available, registered nurses can choose their patients, working conditions, and to some extent their salaries, filling attractive niches that always have openings for skilled professionals. The nursing profession pays well, and offers opportunities to make more than the average for those who are willing to work overtime or take extra shifts.
Cons of Becoming a Nurse
While the successes are gratifying, poor patient outcomes are a fact of life that all medical professionals must accept. The setbacks and the losses can take an emotional toll on nurses, who chose their careers based on a desire to help men, women, and children recover from injuries or illness. Nursing can be a stressful job, since nurses are often called on to perform their duties in hectic, tense environments where people are anxious, frightened, or in pain. Nurses are often required to work long hours, and their jobs can sometimes be quite physically demanding. They may spend many hours on their feet, and they may be asked to move or lift physical objects and also support or lift patients who struggle to move about on their own.
Important Characteristics of a Successful Nurse
Nurses are inevitably cast into the role of experts or authority figures. Consequently, they must be self-assured and confident, and project an aura of calm that will impress patients and their family members, who will know that they are in caring and qualified hands. Nurses must be able to maintain their steadiness and composure even when stressful situations arise, or when they’re dealing with patients or others who are anxious, upset, overly demanding, or hostile. Great nurses can deftly defuse tensions, and they fully accept the necessity of doing so on occasion.
To perform their duties effectively, efficiently, and professionally, nurses must have well-developed communication skills. Nurses are immersed in people-rich environments, constantly interacting with colleagues, patients, and their family members, all while providing vital care services to human beings experiencing a broad and diverse range of emotions and concerns. Nurses frequently manage multiple lines of communication simultaneously, which tests their capacity to speak clearly, listen carefully, and thoughtfully respond to co-workers and patients alike.
Nurses must be compassionate at all times, even in stressful circumstances or when dealing with patients (or their loved ones) who are uncooperative or uncommunicative. They must preserve their empathy despite the relentless demands of the job, responding to each individual patient with patience and understanding. The best nurses radiate concern and sympathy, and that makes their patients feel comfortable and validated.
Nursing is a detail-oriented profession, and the top nurses are prepared to rise to the challenge this reality entails. Nurses must be diligent and committed in their studies and during training, to make sure they learn all the intricacies of human physiology, illness, and proper medical care. In their work they deal with unique individuals with distinct life histories and medical ailments, and they must pay close attention to make sure they understand their patients’ complaints and are providing the best in customized, personalized, evidence-based medical care. In medicine mistakes can be catastrophic, but the best nurses avoid mistakes by staying focused and being thorough at all times.
We hope we have completely answered your questions of how to become a nurse, how long does it take to become an RN and that this has helped you to make a decision and progress in your career journey. Whether you decide to pursue nursing or not is your choice, and we hope we have brought you closer to making that choice and helping you map out your future. In the future we plan to add related guides, such as how to become a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) and how to become an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse). We support your dreams and wish you all the best in whatever profession you pursue and path you take!
Not your path? How about learning how to become a physician assistant?