How to Become a Registered Nurse

With an aging population and the anticipated retirement of much of the industry’s workforce, nursing professionals are needed now more than ever. Luckily, those looking to enter the field can look forward to job stability, a competitive salary, and the opportunity to build a career helping others.

How to Become a Registered Nurse

The process of becoming a registered nurse begins with earning a degree through an accredited nursing program. Nurses may obtain associate, bachelor’s, graduate, post-graduate, and doctoral degrees. Each level of nursing education opens a new field of opportunities. Once you have earned your chosen degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) exam, and then apply for a license from the state board where you plan to work.

Before you commit to a particular nursing program, make sure it is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission of College Nursing Education (CCNE). If your program is not accredited, you may not be able to obtain your nursing license, even after completing your course of study.


Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

While some students pursue a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, others choose a shorter path to a nursing job by earning an associate degree. An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) costs less than a four-year BSN program and takes two years to complete. ADN graduates can take the NCLEX-RN exam, get their license, and enter the workforce. Since ADN programs require education in subjects beyond nursing, the degree is believed to provide a more holistic educational experience than a nursing diploma program.

ADN programs typically require 60 credit hours of coursework. Students learn the foundations of nursing with classes like anatomy, microbiology, behavioral health, and pharmacology. Employers generally prefer graduates with an ADN over those with a nursing diploma because ADN programs can be accredited by organizations like the ACEN or the CCNE.

If earned through a community college, students can drastically cut or even eliminate the cost of their nursing education. Financial aid, low tuition costs, and financial assistance from universities are all more readily available at this level of study. In addition, if students wish to further their education after an ADN and licensing exam, earning a two-year degree makes it easier to transfer to four-year institutions with matriculation agreements.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A BSN degree is desirable among healthcare employers who want to hire medical professionals with more extensive education. This degree takes twice as long as an ADN, requiring 120 credit hours of work, and builds upon the foundations already laid by early level or ADN coursework. Earning a BSN is often the next right career step for someone who has already completed their ADN degree.

BSN graduates have the opportunity to enter jobs with increased levels of responsibility and better pay. For those who are already working as a nurse and want to enhance their skills, enrolling in an online nursing degree program is a popular option for career advancement.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

If you choose to continue building on your expertise and earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, your professional opportunities will grow. For example, some MSN students choose to specialize in areas such as anesthesiology, acute care, pediatrics, or gerontology. Specialization usually requires additional training.

RNs who are working in the field can usually qualify for RN to MSN programs. This format can help shorten the time it takes to obtain your degree. Students who have an ADN will usually be able to complete their program in three to four years. Students with a BSN can complete the program in half that time. Practicum hours (hands-on training) are required for any MSN program. You should expect to log about 500 hours in the field before you complete your degree.

Jobs open to those with an MSN might include clinical nurse specialist (CNS), nurse educator, nurse administrator, or clinical nurse specialist.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Ph.D. in Nursing

The doctorate study of nursing is the highest level available for study. Students have two degree options: a Ph.D. in nursing, or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The Ph.D. path takes four to six years to complete and focuses on the academic, research-based aspects of the nursing profession. The DNP route, on the other hand, prepares students to operate at the highest levels of nursing practice, such as serving in a directorship role at a hospital.

Students pursuing a doctorate level degree will enroll in coursework pertaining to their specialty. DNP students complete an evidence-based practice project, while Ph.D. students will need to write a dissertation. BSN to DNP and Ph.D. programs are an option for those with a bachelor’s degree, and they require the student to complete a minimum of 60 credit hours paired with 1,000 hours of practicum work. MSN to DNP or Ph.D. students need to log 500 practicum hours.

Again, these degrees open up higher-earning options. Those holding a DNP or Ph.D. are qualified to work in advanced practice positions like certified registered nurse anesthetist or nurse researcher.

Exam and Licensing

All nursing program graduates must apply for their nursing license and take the NCLEX-RN exam.

This test covers four areas, called categories of needs:

  1. A safe, effective care environment that takes steps to control infection
  2. Psychological integrity: coping and adaptation
  3. Health maintenance and promotion: preventing rather than curing avoidable health issues
  4. Physiological integrity: making sure patients are comfortable and cared for properly

Make sure that you read the requirements for licensing and the appropriate steps to take in your state, as they vary by location.

However you choose to pursue your nursing career, advanced education can help improve your skills, enhance your salary, and help you meet your full professional potential.

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