Going Back to School to Become a Registered Nurse

Want to change careers? See how becoming a registered nurse offers a relatively quick option for professionals to jumpstart a new, fulfilling career.
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James Mielke writes education and career-focused guides for BestColleges. Beyond higher education topics, his writing has been featured in Golfweek and Eaten Magazine. James has a history degree from Belmont University and is an unapologetic Grateful...
Updated on September 21, 2023
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  • In 2019, there were more than 3.8 million registered nurses working in the United States.
  • Registered nurses work in various healthcare settings to offer competent and compassionate medical care.
  • Registered nurses must hold an associate or bachelor's degree in the field and meet state licensure requirements.

During the COVID-19 situation, no career has been as essential as the registered nurses that work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings. And while the stress of a worldwide health crisis has put immense pressure on RNs, many of these professionals continue to offer competent and compassionate care in what is a stable and growing career.

Throughout the following guide, we spotlight vital nursing career elements and why this healthcare career is often a solid option for people wanting to go back to school. Keep reading to review RN career prospects and to see how to become a registered nurse.

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

The role of an RN varies depending on where they work and their specialty area. In general, RNs perform many of the same tasks, like administering medications, evaluating patients, and recording medical histories. They also perform diagnostic tests, monitor patients, and assist physicians with examinations and treatment plans. RNs may 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. This scope of practice defines what RNs are legally allowed to do for 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. RNs must meet more education and licensing requirements, and they have more responsibilities than LPNs. Many RNs supervise LPNs.

LPNs are primarily responsible for general patient care. They cannot make independent patient medical care decisions. They also do not typically work in a specialty area.


Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have more education and patient responsibility than both RNs and LPNs. Unlike RNs, these health professionals must hold at least a master's degree. They 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.

Related Nursing Programs for You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Where Do RNs Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 61% of RNs work for public and private hospitals. RNs often also work at nursing homes, ambulatory care services, and private medical practices. Others are employed by primary care clinics or government offices.

One healthcare area 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 the demand for online medical services.

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

What Is the Job Outlook for Registered Nurses?

Nursing is one of the most stable jobs in the world. The BLS projects the addition of more than 194,500 jobs for RNs each year on average from 2020-2030. This translates to a projected 9% employment growth rate for that time.

Demand for nurses is projected to remain high for many reasons. People are living longer, and most 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 may also contribute to nursing's high demand. As of February 2022, about 1 million RNs are above the age of 50. These nurses may retire in the next 10-15 years, opening the door for nurses entering the field.

How Much Does a Registered Nurse Make?

The earning potential for registered nurses relies on various factors, including education level, professional experience, location, and professional certifications. While the BLS reports that the median annual salary for nurses was over $75,000 in 2021, experienced nurses with advanced degrees can earn much more.

Pay by Industry
Nursing Industries Median Annual Salary
Government $85,970
Hospitals; state, local, and private $78,070
Ambulatory healthcare services $76,700
Nursing and residential care facilities $72,420
Educational services; state, local, and private $61,780

Source: The BLS

Advanced clinical nurses with graduate-level degrees often earn more than $100,000 per year. And while graduate school is one path toward higher pay, RNs can pursue various specialized certifications to enhance their resume. Time also impacts salary as experienced nurses tend to make more than those just beginning their careers.

Pay by Experience Level
Years of Experience Hourly Pay
Entry Level (<1 yr) $27.74
Early Career (1-4 yrs) $29.31
Mid Career (5-9 yrs) $32.08
Late Career (10-19 yrs) $34.75
Experienced (20+ yrs) $37.00

Source: April 2022 Payscale Data

The Pros and Cons of Becoming an RN


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


  • RNs must do a high volume of paperwork and documentation.
  • You may often face a lot of pressure to see many patients.
  • Nursing can be both physically and emotionally draining.
  • The job is notoriously stressful, often with long hours.
  • You must often 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.

Do RNs Like Their Jobs?

While nurses often reap the benefits of working in a helping profession, the COVID-19 pandemic put an unimaginable strain on nurses. As hospitals filled with nursing staff spread thin, physical and emotional burnout took its toll. A recent study revealed that as many as 11% of nurses plan on leaving their position. Additionally, 20% said they are unsure about the fate of their nursing career.

But even in the face of a worldwide health crisis, most nurses plan on continuing their careers. The hands-on nature of this helping career can result in a great deal of professional satisfaction.

What Education is Needed to Become a Registered Nurse?: Skills and Requirements

You may be a natural fit for nursing, but you'll need the right educational background to get started. Most states require a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) from an accredited program to work as an RN.

Aspiring RNs 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 ADN, students take college courses whose credits can transfer to a BSN.

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 for Nurses

  • 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 more on average than those with only an ASN. A BSN can also lead to advancement to a management position. Prospective nursing students can apply for many grants and nursing scholarships to help fund their education.

Once nursing candidates meet all of the educational requirements, they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and 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. Advanced career options include nurse practitioner, certified nurse specialist, and certified registered nurse anesthetist. According to the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, 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?

Due to nursing shortages and the BLS' projected 9% growth of nursing jobs, going back to school to pursue an RN career is a great option for those interested in a helping profession. Additionally, access to this career continues to grow due to various online and accelerated nursing programs.

While becoming an RN has its own professional benefits, there is a sizable list of nursing-related careers that learners can pursue. The BLS projects significant growth for careers like nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and respiratory therapists.

Frequently Asked Questions About Going Back to School for Nursing

Is becoming an RN hard?

The difficulty of completing an RN program varies between students. Students pursuing an ADN can finish the program in just two years. Learners who hold an unrelated bachelor's degree can complete an accelerated BSN program. Online options can offer a flexible and affordable academic option for working students.

While securing the proficiencies and certification necessary to become an RN is rigorous, it often leads to a growing and stable career. Once RNs begin their jobs, they can pursue many additional degrees and certificate programs that can expand career options and increase pay.

What is the best major for nursing?

The best major for nursing depends on various factors, including a student's academic background, career goals, and personal considerations. Schools offer nursing programs at all academic levels, including associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees. Each degree comes with its own requirements and proficiencies that can help enhance a student's resume.

Students who hold an associate or bachelor's degree can complete the classroom-based and hands-on requirements quickly. Additionally, students holding an ADN degree can complete an RN-to-BSN program in fewer than two years.

How much do nurses make?

According to BLS data, the median salary for U.S. nurses exceeded $75,000 in May 2021. While the lowest 10% of nurses made less than $59,450 per year, the top 10% earned more than $120,000 annually. Additionally, a nurse's location can have a large impact on earning potential.

Experience can also go a long way in enhancing pay. RNs can take an active role in expanding their skill set and earning potential. In addition to earning advanced degrees, nurses can secure advanced certification in areas like adult gerontology primary care, HIV/AIDS, and hospice and palliative care.

What degree is the closest to nursing?

While there are careers similar to nursing, a nursing degree typically leads to licensure and prepares graduates with the necessary skills to begin an RN career. Similar occupations include medical assistants, physician assistants, medical sonographers, and dental hygienists.

Because of the academic and professional requirements for RNs, nursing students take on a rigorous curriculum to ensure their competency. In addition to classroom learning, nursing students spend a set number of clinical hours in professional healthcare environments honing their skills.

What is above an RN?

RNs traditionally complete either an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing, but students can enhance career options through graduate-level coursework. Advanced practice registered nurses complete either a master's in nursing or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.

Graduate nursing degrees take 2-4 years to complete and require additional hands-on clinical experiences. Graduate degrees in nursing can lead to careers such as nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, and certified registered nurse anesthetist. These degrees can also lead to leadership roles and jobs in academia.

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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