Requirements for a Career in Nursing

Discover the requirements to become a registered nurse, including earning a degree, passing nursing exams, and obtaining a state license.

portrait of Heather Mullinix
by Heather Mullinix

Published September 28, 2022

Edited by Jennifer Cuellar
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Requirements for a Career in Nursing
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More than 3.8 million registered nurses work in the United States, making it the largest sector within the healthcare industry. Nurses work in hospitals, physicians' offices, outpatient health centers, schools, and government agencies. Registered nurses typically earn high five-figure salaries, but nurses with additional education and certification can earn much more.

Nursing careers include certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, or nurse practitioners. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an aging population, nurses will likely remain in demand for many years. The requirements to become a registered nurse include earning a minimum of an associate's degree, passing nursing exams, and securing a state nursing license.

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What Do Registered Nurses Do?

Nurses assist physicians with direct patient care. They check vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate. They also administer medications or vaccinations and take blood or other tissue samples for testing. Nurses keep careful notes documenting patient care.

Nurses also play a crucial role in educating patients about better health. They review at-home treatment for injuries or illnesses and ensure patients know when to seek additional medical care.

Nurses can also promote good health and wellness community-wide. They may do this through public health campaigns or working with nonprofit organizations or schools.

Most nurses — 61% — work in hospitals, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, nurses also find employment in physicians' offices, long-term care facilities, and other healthcare locations. They may also work in government agencies or schools. These professionals often work long hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays. The work can also be physically taxing.

Deciding on a Nursing Specialization

Nursing programs prepare graduates for general nursing careers. However, students can gain experience or further understanding of a specific field of medicine through elective courses, clinical rotations, or nursing internships.

After entering the workforce, nurses may pursue professional credentials in a nursing specialty. Though states do not require professional credentials, these certifications complement a nursing license. Popular options include:

Numerous organizations offer nursing certifications. Requirements vary but may include a valid RN license, relevant clinical experience, a nursing exam, and a nursing resume review. Verify that the National Commission for Certifying Agencies recognizes the organization granting your professional credential.

Nurses can also pursue advanced practice licensing to become nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, or nurse midwives. These specializations require a minimum of a graduate degree and additional state licensing.

Required Degree

Certified Nurse Assistants (CNAs) may need only a few weeks of training, often provided by a hospital or potential employer. Becoming a Licensed Practice Nurse (LPN) takes about a year. Career colleges or trade schools may offer LPN training.

RNs must earn at least an associate degree in nursing to meet educational requirements for a nursing license. This degree program takes at least two years to complete. Many community colleges offer associate nursing degrees.

However, many nurses choose to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing — the BSN. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 52% of registered nurses have a bachelor's degree. These nurses may find more career opportunities and qualify for leadership positions.

The typical nursing curriculum combines classroom instruction with hands-on training in clinical settings. Many nursing schools require applicants to have a foundation in chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physiology. Nurses also study pharmacology, psychology, and communications.

Many colleges offer bridge programs that allow RNs to earn their BSN. These programs sometimes offer online classes.

Required Exams

Passing the National Council Licensure Examinations (NCLEX) is among the requirements to become a registered nurse in the United States. Graduates of nursing programs must take the NCLEX-RN exam before applying for a license from the state board of nursing.

Questions About the NCLEX

  • How much is the NCLEX? The NCLEX-RN charges test takers $200. The multiple-choice exam includes 75-145 questions administered via computer. Topics include patient care, pharmacology, and risk reduction.
  • How long does it take to get NCLEX results? The state nursing board sends out score reports about six weeks after the exam. However, some states allow test-takers access to "unofficial" results 48 hours after the exam. This service requires an additional fee.
  • How many times can you take the NCLEX? Individuals who fail the NCLEX can retake the nursing exams after waiting 45 days, up to eight times a year.

State and Speciality Licenses

All states regulate the nursing profession. States issue licenses for CNAs, LPNs, RNs, and advanced practice nurses. Nurses must have a license before practicing in a state.

Licensing requires passing the appropriate nursing exams for the license, such as the NCLEX-PN for LPNs or the state CNA exam. Other requirements include a criminal background check and verification of education.

Nurses may also take their license across state lines with the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). So far, 39 states have approved or have legislation pending authorizing the NLC. Participating states have adopted uniform licensure requirements. These standard requirements make it easier for nurses to work in multiple states or take travel nursing positions.

For example, Tennessee's board of nursing — an NLC participating state — requires registered nurses to complete an approved nursing program, pass the appropriate NCLEX nurse's exam, and complete a background check. Nurses cannot qualify for the NLC if they have disciplinary action against them or if they are participating in an alternative licensing program.

RNs must renew licenses periodically. This process includes verification of part-time or full-time work as an RN and proof of continuing education classes.

State nursing boards also oversee specialty licenses for advanced practice nurses. This license requires an active RN license and graduate education.

Pros and Cons of a Nursing Internship vs. Clinical Practicum

Hands-on clinical practice serves as a cornerstone of most nursing programs. These field experiences allow student nurses to practice under the careful supervision of experienced nurses or faculty members. Students gain confidence as they perform entry-level nursing skills. Their nurse supervisors can also serve as mentors.

Nursing programs must provide students with a minimum number of clinical practicum hours to meet state licensing requirements. Nursing students complete multiple clinical rotations that complement coursework. Examples include women's health nursing, mental health nursing, and pediatric nursing. Students earn a grade for their practicum work, but they are not paid.

Internships are field experiences beyond the required clinical practicum. These opportunities may be paid or unpaid. Nurse interns still must practice under the supervision of a licensed nurse. Students may find internship opportunities at hospitals, long-term care facilities, physician offices, or clinics. Schools may help students find internships.

What to Include in Your Nursing Resume

A nursing resume includes education, professional experience, and specialty certifications. Nurses should include information about their state nursing license, contact information, and work availability.

A nursing student's resume may not include extensive professional nursing experience. However, students and new grad nursing resumes can highlight clinical experience and education. Be sure to include certifications such as CPR. Nursing students may include honors or academic recognition and membership in professional organizations. These details can help a nursing grad's resume stand out.

A nursing student's resume may highlight related work in healthcare, such as work as a CNA or LPN. Volunteer activities can also supplement professional experience. Examples may include:

Use keywords from the job posting and tailor the resume to a specific job. Remember to highlight relevant skills like patient education or electronic health records. Many companies use automated applicant tracking systems to screen applicants. Ensure your resume uses a clear format and addresses essential skills for the position.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Career in Nursing

How long does it take to become a nurse?

Becoming a registered nurse requires a minimum of an associate degree from an approved nursing school. These programs require two years to complete, combining classwork and clinical practice. About 30% of RNs have an associate degree, according to the U.S Department of Labor.

However, many nurses opt for a bachelor's degree. BSN graduates may find greater career opportunities or qualify for leadership positions. About 54% of registered nurses have a bachelor's degree. RNs can explore online BSN programs to continue their education.

What is the highest-paid nursing job?

Advanced practice nurses report the highest pay among nurses. These nurses include nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners. These professionals earned a median salary of $123,780 in May 2021, according to the BLS.

Becoming an advanced practice nurse requires a minimum of a master's degree with training in a specialty area. In some states, nurse practitioners can practice independently of a physician. Other states require these nurses to work with a medical doctor. The BLS projects 40% growth for advanced practice nurses from 2021-2031.

What type of nurse is most in demand?

Healthcare providers across the country report a need for nurses. The BLS estimates 195,400 job openings for RNs between 2021 and 2031. While the BLS projects higher growth for advanced practice nurses — 40% — the organization estimates about 118,600 job openings for these positions by 2031.

Demand for nurses grew in 2020 as the population aged and demand for healthcare services grew. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for nurses to care for patients.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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