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How to Become a Nurse

nurses
Employment for licensed and registered nurses is expected to grow significantly over the next several years.
Credit: Minerva Studio | Shutterstock

Nursing requires a great deal of compassion, patience, and critical thinking. Nurses often work as part of a team with doctors and other healthcare staff to assure that patients receive the best possible care.

There are many routes to becoming a nurse and a variety of different career opportunities for nurses to pursue once they have completed their education. Keep reading to discover more about a nurse’s responsibilities, where nurses typically work and what qualifications you’ll need to get a job in the field.

What nurses do

There are several different types of nurses licensed to work in the United States. Registered nurses (RNs) are responsible for caring for patients, which includes recording medical histories, dispensing medicines, consulting with doctors, operating medical equipment and performing diagnostic tests.

Some RNs are responsible for overseeing licensed practical or vocational nurses (LPNs or LVNs). LPNs and LVNs monitor patients’ health and administer basic nursing care like changing bandages and inserting catheters. Licensed nurses may also help patients with routine tasks such as dressing, bathing or eating.

For registered nurses, duties and responsibilities typically depend on where they work or the kinds of patients with whom they work. For example, some RNs specialize in a specific health condition like diabetes or a specific part of the body, such as dermatology nurses. Some nurses work with a specific demographic of people, such as geriatric nurses or provide care within a particular setting, like an emergency room or a school.

Advanced practice registered nurses, such as nurse anesthetists or nurse-midwives, must obtain a higher degree and are often allowed to prescribe medicine and provide other primary care services.

Where nurses work

According to the Occupation Outlook Handbook, the majority of registered nurses worked in private medical and surgical hospitals, as of 2010. Less than 10 percent of RNs work in physicians' offices, nursing care facilities or for home health care services. There are also RNs working in correctional facilities, schools, camps, and for the military.

As of 2010, most LVNs and LPNs worked for nursing care facilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 15 percent of licensed nurses work in private hospitals or in physicians’ offices, and less than 10 percent work for home health care services or in community care facilities for the elderly.

Because nurses spend most of the work day on their feet and may also need to move patients who have trouble sitting up, getting out of bed, or walking, they often suffer from back pain or back injuries. Nurses also spend a lot of time around people who have infectious diseases, and as a result they follow very strict guidelines to protect themselves from disease.

Nurses often work around the clock in rotating shifts. They may work nights, weekends, and holidays and may also need to remain on call, even while off-duty.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, LVNs and LPNs made an average of $40,380 annually as of 2010. RNs had a median annual wage of $64,690 in that same year. Employment for licensed and registered nurses is expected to grow significantly over the next several years because of the aging baby boomer population and an increased emphasis on preventive care

Becoming a nurse

The routes to becoming a nurse are different depending on the type of nursing one wishes to practice. Registered nurses can choose to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing or obtain an associate’s degree or diploma in nursing from an approved nursing program, which typically takes two to three years.

There are also master’s degree programs in nursing and programs for those who wish to become nurses but hold a degree in another field.

Nursing programs include a core curriculum in nursing, anatomy, and sciences. And all programs require students to gain clinical experience in hospitals or clinics.

LVNs and LPNs must complete an accredited program in a technical school or community college, which typically takes about one year. Such programs combine basic nursing and science classes with supervised clinical experience.

In order to gain employment, prospective registered and practical nurses must pass their respective National Council Licensure Examinations and may also have to fulfill other requirements depending on the state in which they wish to work. 

Registered nurses who wish to seek employment in any of the four advanced practice registered nurse roles must obtain certification in their respective field.

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