What Does a Registered Nurse (RN) Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a registered nurse: Assess and evaluate patients’ needs, Administer medications as ordered, Create a plan of care for patients

The Balance / Nusha Ashjaee

An "RN"—short for registered nurse—treats patients and provides advice and emotional support to them and their families. Some educate patients, as well as the public, about medical conditions.

There are many nursing specialties available, including critical care, addiction, oncology, neonatology, geriatrics, and pediatrics. Some RNs work in multiple specialties, such as pediatric oncology. There are also registered nurses who provide primary or specialty care to patients. They are clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives.

There were approximately 3 million registered nurses working in the U.S. in 2016.

Registered Nurse Duties & Responsibilities

You can expect to regularly perform at least some of the following tasks if you want to work in this profession.

  • Implement physicians’ orders, administer medications, start IVs, perform treatments, procedures and special tests, and document treatment as required by company policy and local/state/federal rules and regulations.
  • Order, interpret, and evaluate diagnostic tests to identify and assess patients' conditions.
  • Assess and evaluate patients' needs for, and responses to, care rendered.
  • Apply sound nursing judgment in patient care management decisions.
  • Provide primary and emergency care for occupational and non-occupational injuries and illnesses.
  • Administer over-the-counter and prescription medications as ordered.
  • Collaborate with the nursing team to create a Plan of Care for all patients.
  • Direct and guide ancillary personnel and maintain standards of professional nursing.

Registered nurses are often the key monitor of patients' health through observing and assessing their records, symptoms, and reactions to treatment and care. They often have extensive interaction with patients' families as well, guiding and instructing them in aftercare measures. Their exact duties can depend on where they work and the needs of the particular patients they care for.

Registered Nurse Salary

A registered nurse's salary can vary depending on whether he works for a hospital, a private physician, the government, or a school.

  • Median Annual Salary: $71,730 ($34.48/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $106,530 ($51.22/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $50,800 ($24.42/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training & Certification

Education and licensing requirements can vary by state, but they generally follow these guidelines:

  • Education: You'll need a bachelor's of science degree in nursing (BSN), an associate degree in nursing (ADN), or a diploma in nursing. Some colleges and universities offer BSN programs that generally take four years to complete. ADN programs are available at some community and junior colleges. They take two to three years to complete. Diploma programs are usually three years long and are administered by hospitals. They are relatively rare compared to BSN and ADN programs.
  • Licensing: Regardless of the state in which you want to practice, you must have graduated from a program that has been accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). All states require graduates of approved nursing programs to pass a national licensing exam, the National Council Licensure Examination-RN, or NCLEX-RN, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing ( NCSBN).

Other licensing requirements vary by state. Use the Licensed Occupations Tool on CareerOneStop to find out specifically what your state requires.

You can also contact the individual state boards of nursing which you can find on the NCSBN website.

Registered Nurse Skills & Competencies

You'll need the following soft skills and personal characteristics to succeed in this occupation:

  • Compassion: You must feel and be able to demonstrate concern for others' well-being.
  • Organizational skills and attention to detail: Being well organized and detail-oriented will help you correctly follow all procedures and ensure the safety of yourself, your patients, and your coworkers.
  • Critical thinking skills: This skill set will allow you to evaluate problems and take the necessary actions to solve them.
  • Emotional stability and patience: Both these qualities will help you deal with difficult situations that are commonplace in this field.
  • Listening and speaking skills: You must be able to communicate effectively with patients and other healthcare workers. You should be able to collaborate with team members.
  • Excellent bedside manner: This goes hand-in-hand with compassion and communication skills.
  • Mum's the word: You must be able to maintain a high degree of confidentiality concerning health service records and information
  • Multitasking: You should have the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously and without error.

Job Outlook

RNs can look forward to an excellent job outlook, according to predictions by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This government agency designates nursing as a "Bright Outlook" occupation because this career is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026, by about 15%.

Additionally, an increase in outpatient care centers is expected during this time period, and this has the potential for adding new jobs.

Work Environment

More than 60% of all RNs were employed by hospitals in 2016, but others had jobs in doctor's offices, outpatient facilities, and nursing care facilities. Still, other employers include home health care services, schools, and correctional facilities.

While registered nurses are in high demand and the pay in this field is quite good, there are nonetheless some negative aspects to nursing. Like all healthcare professionals, RNs can be exposed to communicable diseases as they provide hands-on care. They're also at risk for sustaining injuries from the physical demands of lifting and moving patients. They must take care to follow procedures that mitigate these risks.

Work Schedule

RNs must be flexible and able to work irregular schedules, as well as on weekends and holidays due to staffing and census fluctuations. Those who are employed in hospitals and nursing care facilities typically work around the clock, usually on rotating shifts. They might also be on call when they're not actually on duty, ready and able to report to work on short notice in emergencies.

Nurses who work in physicians' offices and schools tend to have much more regular hours.

How to Get the Job


Nurse.com and NurseRecruiter offer targeted job boards for nursing job seekers. Health eCareers is another popular job board for the medical field.


Learn more about frequently asked interview questions for nursing jobs here.


Learn more about the proper way to write and format a resume for nursing jobs with these sample nursing resumes.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Some alternate careers might require different schooling, training, or licensure and certification.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018