Nurses play a critical role in healthcare. Going back to school to become an RN can lead to better pay, long-term job security, and high job satisfaction.

Going Back to School to Become a Registered Nurse


  • Nursing is one of the most in-demand jobs of the decade, with high potential for growth.
  • RNs work with doctors to monitor and care for patients in clinical settings like hospitals.
  • Becoming an RN requires an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing and state licensure.

If you're interested in going back to school to become a registered nurse (RN), you'd be making a great decision. RNs are in high demand, and they currently make up one of the largest sectors of the U.S. workforce.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates there are more than 3 million registered nursing jobs nationwide. According to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 4 million licensed RNs were living in the U.S. in 2018, and 83% of them held a nursing-related position.

Registered nursing is one of the most critical occupations in healthcare, especially now due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It's also one of the most meaningful and highly regarded careers anyone can have. In several Gallup polls, nursing was ranked the No. 1 profession for honesty and ethical standards.

Registered nursing is one of the most critical occupations in healthcare, especially now due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the best reasons to become an RN is the variety of specialties you get to choose from. These areas include cardiac care, orthopedics, pediatrics, oncology, mental health, surgery, geriatrics, dermatology, and more. Altogether, there are close to 100 nursing specialties. Some specialties may require advanced training or certification.

Returning to college to pursue a degree in nursing isn't an easy task. The work is challenging and requires a significant amount of studying and clinical experience. It can also be difficult to get into certain nursing programs. But as long as you're hardworking and passionate, you'll likely find the process highly rewarding.

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What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

The role of an RN varies depending on where they work and their specialty area. In general, though, RNs perform many of the same tasks, like administering medications, evaluating patients, recording medical histories, performing diagnostic tests, monitoring patients, and assisting physicians with examinations and treatment plans. RNs may also supervise licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and certified nursing assistants.

All RNs must follow a scope of practice as defined by their state's nurse practice act where they're licensed to work. This scope of practice defines what RNs are legally allowed to do with regard to patient care. Each state maintains its own set of laws governing the scope of practice.

How Do RNs Differ From Other Types of Nurses?

LPN vs. RN

While the differences between what RNs and LPNs — also known as licensed vocational nurses, or LVNs — are allowed to do vary by state, their duties often overlap. As a whole, RNs have more education, more stringent licensing requirements, and more responsibilities than LPNs. Many RNs are in charge of supervising LPNs.

Meanwhile, LPNs are primarily responsible for general patient care and aren't allowed to make independent patient medical care decisions. They also don't typically work in a particular specialty area.

APRN vs. RN

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have more education and a greater scope of patient responsibility than both RNs and LPNs. Unlike RNs, these health professionals must hold at least a master's degree and can provide primary care to patients, which often includes prescribing medications, assessing medical test results, and making diagnoses.

The main types of APRNs are nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists.

Where Do RNs Typically Work?

According to the BLS, 60% of RNs work for public and private hospitals. The remaining 40% are employed by nursing homes, ambulatory care services, extended care facilities, home healthcare agencies, private medical practices, primary care clinics, government offices, hospices, and more.

One area of healthcare that's experiencing substantial growth is telehealth, or telemedicine. The impact of COVID-19, faster federal regulatory approval, and the desire to lower healthcare costs have all helped fuel demand for online medical services.

The American Telemedicine Association predicts that more than 50% of healthcare services will be virtual by 2030 — and telehealth nursing is a key component of these services.

Do RNs Like Their Jobs?

According to a PayScale survey with about 9,000 responses, RNs rate their job satisfaction 3.8 out of 5, suggesting that most nurses are satisfied with their careers. A 2019 Medscape survey of more than 10,000 nursing professionals also found that nurses receive the most satisfaction in knowing they're helping people and making a difference in others' lives.

What Is the Job Outlook for Registered Nurses?

Nursing is one of the most stable jobs in the world. The BLS projects there will be more than 175,900 job openings for RNs each year, translating to a 7% employment growth rate between 2019 and 2029.

The BLS projects there will be over 175,900 RN job openings each year through 2029.

Demand for nurses is projected to remain high for several reasons. Most notably, people are living longer, and the majority of baby boomers are older than 65. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of Americans aged 65 or older increased from 41 million to 71 million. This aging population will become more and more reliant on healthcare services for many years to come.

An older workforce and career burnout are also expected to contribute to nursing's high demand. Currently, about 1 million RNs are above the age of 50. These nurses will be retiring in the next 10-15 years, opening the door for nurses entering the field.

How Much Does a Registered Nurse Make?

An RN's income can vary widely depending on their specialty area, location, experience level, and education. According to the BLS, the median annual RN salary is $73,300. The top 10% of this group earn more than $111,220 a year.

Having a bachelor's degree increases your chances of securing a high-paying nursing job. PayScale reports that RNs with a BSN degree average salaries of $85,310, while RNs with an associate degree earn an average of $69,610 annually.

The Pros and Cons of Becoming an RN

Pros

  • You'll help people and leave a positive impact on others' lives
  • You get to be an advocate for patients
  • You'll likely have flexible scheduling options
  • You can work in a large array of environments
  • As a whole, nurses are well respected by the general public
  • You'll vie for competitive wages
  • Nursing jobs are in high demand
  • You'll have many professional development and career advancement opportunities

Cons

  • There's a high volume of paperwork and documentation
  • You'll likely face a lot of pressure to see many patients
  • Nursing can be both physically and emotionally draining
  • The job is notoriously stressful, with long hours
  • You'll have to deal with difficult situations regarding patients' health
  • Certain patients and families may be hard to work with
  • You're potentially exposing yourself to viruses and harmful bacteria

How to Become an RN: Requirements and Skills

You may be a natural fit for nursing, but you'll need the right educational background to get started. A four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or a two-year associate of science in nursing (ASN) from an accredited program is required by most states in order to work as an RN.

You could also enroll in a two-year diploma program. The primary difference between a diploma program and an associate degree in nursing is that with an ASN, you'll take college courses whose credits can transfer should you ever want to pursue a BSN later on.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, many hospitals require RNs to hold a bachelor's degree. Furthermore, close to 90% of employers have a strong preference for BSN graduates. Many nurses who hold just an associate degree choose to go back to school through an RN-to-BSN program.

Basic Skills All Nurses Should Have

  • Empathy and compassion
  • Emotional stability
  • Excellent decision-making abilities
  • Clear sense of morality and ethics
  • Good time-management skills
  • Superior organizational skills
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Physical stamina
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Great communication skills

Nurses with a BSN earn significantly more on average than those with only an ASN. A BSN can also increase your chances of advancing into a management position. Numerous grants and nursing scholarships are available to prospective nursing students.

Once all of the educational requirements have been satisfied, nursing candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination — more commonly called the NCLEX — and then apply for state licensure. For more information on specific state licensure, rules, and regulations, review the Nurse Practice Act for the state in which you plan to work.

The enactment of the Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact in 2018 allows nurses to provide care in several participating states while holding a single multistate license. This has opened the door to more telehealth opportunities, along with increased access to care for patients.

RNs who go on to get a graduate degree and advanced practice certification can pursue more advanced careers in nursing, such as nurse practitioner, certified nurse specialist, certified registered nurse anesthetist, and certified nurse midwife. About 19% of all RNs in the U.S. hold a master's or doctoral degree.

Should You Go Back to School to Become an RN?

As the demand for nurses grows, opportunities are opening up for people of all backgrounds to enter the profession. The availability of online nursing degrees and accelerated BSN programs have helped make nursing a popular second career path for many choosing to go back to college.

Research carried out by the Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies in 2016 found that out of 14,696 newly enrolled students in professional nursing programs in the state, 47% were over the age of 25. Additionally, more than a quarter were over 30 years old. Many of these students had previously attended college or were pursuing nursing as a second career.

Research carried out in 2016 found that 47% of newly enrolled nursing students in the state of Texas were over the age of 25.

And nursing isn't just for women, either. Although the occupation continues to be dominated by women, more men are choosing to become nurses. According to the BLS, men now represent around 11% of the RN workforce — that's up from 6.6% in 2013.

For many, going back to school to get a degree in nursing is a great choice. Nursing is a promising career that offers a sense of fulfillment, job stability, flexibility, and a solid salary. Just make sure you weigh all the pros and cons before making your decision. Nursing isn't for everyone, but for those with the right skills and mindset, it can be a highly rewarding career.


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