Registered nurses can be found in every clinical setting, from doctors' offices to research laboratories, and their duties range from changing bandages to providing anesthesia or delivering babies. Every registered nurse must hold at least an associate degree or the equivalent, but many spend additional years in college earning higher degrees.
An associate degree in nursing, or the equivalent diploma program from a training hospital, is the minimum educational standard for a registered nurse. These degrees typically involve two years of classroom and laboratory instruction, like other associate degrees, with a third year of supervised clinical experience. The curriculum includes a grounding in the basic sciences as well as nursing-oriented coursework covering patient care, medical terminology and the nurse's legal and ethical responsibilities. Graduates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, or NCLEX-RN, and then apply for a license from their state's board of nursing.
Although an associate degree is the minimum requirement to become a registered nurse, not every nurse -- or every employer -- is satisfied with meeting a minimum requirement. Many nurses opt instead to earn a full four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. Students in a BSN program complete the same coursework and clinical rotations as their colleagues in associate degree programs, but that core curriculum is complemented by additional scientific, leadership and administrative credits. This contributes to faster advancement through the profession. Like their peers in associate degree programs, a nurse with a BSN must pass the NCLEX-RN and be licensed by her state.
Reaching the profession's highest levels requires a commitment to further education. Becoming an advanced practice nurse, such as a nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist, requires at least a master's degree. Other career paths in academia, research or public policy might require a doctorate in nursing. Nurses with a talent for organization and administration are in high demand for management positions and can benefit from a graduate degree in either business or healthcare administration. Some nurses rise to become senior management, or even executives, in their organizations.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that registered nurses will account for more new jobs than any other profession in the country between 2010 and 2020. Just as importantly, they're good jobs. Of the 20 fastest-growing jobs on the Bureau's list, only registered nurses and postsecondary teachers earn average salaries above $60,000 per year. This combination of high job numbers, rapid growth and good pay makes registered nursing a strong career option.
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