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What does a registered nurse do?

CareerBuilder | January 5, 2021

The contributions registered nurses make to healthcare cannot be underestimated. These professionals care for their patients' physical and mental well-being, performing basic procedures, monitoring, and even a shoulder to cry on when things get tough.

What can you expect from a registered nurse job?

Registered nurses work with a variety of patients, from the ill and injured to people who are healthy and hoping to stay that way. Many nurses specialize and work only with particular types of patients, such as newborn babies, or patients with particular medical conditions, such as cancer.

Registered Nurse photo in a hospital


You're probably wondering "What does a registered nurse do?" As a registered nurse, you will be the person most patients deal with on a daily basis. It's your job to administer medical care, answer patient questions, and communicate any concerns to your nurse supervisor. Specific responsibilities associated with your role can vary, depending on your specialty and work environment, but they may include the following:

  • Observing and recording patient behavior
  • Performing physical exams and diagnostic tests
  • Collecting patient health histories
  • Counseling patients and their families
  • Educating patients about treatment plans
  • Administering medications, wound care, and other treatment options
  • Interpreting patient information and making decisions about necessary actions, where appropriate
  • Consulting with nurse supervisors and physicians to determine best treatment plans for patients
  • Directing and supervising the care of other healthcare professionals, including licensed practical nurses, certified nurse assistants, and nurse aides
  • Conducting research to improve patient outcomes and healthcare processes

Find Registered Nurse Jobs Near You.

Work environment

Most U.S. registered nurses work in the nation's hospitals. The remainder are employed by other healthcare providers including physicians' offices, nursing care facilities, and home healthcare services, along with government agencies, educational services, and support services.

Registered nurses typically work within healthcare facilities. However, some registered nurses work in schools, community centers, offices, and the homes of their patients. Some registered nurses, known as travel nurses, have no fixed workplace environment. Instead they travel to areas where registered nurses are in short supply. These locations may be within the United States or abroad.


Registered nurses working in hospitals and surgeries typically work in rotating shifts to ensure patients receive 24-hour care. The number of shifts a registered nurse will work and the duration of these shifts may vary according to the facility's needs. These registered nurses regularly work outside traditional business hours. Night shifts, weekend work, and public holiday shifts are all common. Some registered nurses may also be on call during specified hours.

Registered nurses working in physicians' offices, community health centers, schools, and some other work environments enjoy a more regular working schedule, with shifts typically scheduled during regular business hours.

What qualifications are required to be a registered nurse?


Registered nurses must hold one of the following qualifications:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing
  • Associate Degree in Nursing
  • Nursing diploma from an accredited and approved nursing program

Nursing students learn about the following topics:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Psychology
  • Patient care
  • Nutrition
  • Health care law and ethical conduct
  • Health care policies
  • Statistics

While a registered nurse can hold any of these qualifications, more and more employers require their new registered nurses to hold a bachelor's degree, as a four-year program provides the most in-depth education.

In addition, all registered nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. Your coursework will teach you what you need to know to pass this exam. Some U.S. states also have extra educational requirements.


While a solid education is important, experience as a registered nurse shouldn't be underestimated. Many elements of nursing are taught on the job, and most registered nurses feel their skills improve with more time in the industry.

Data shows that 27 percent of registered nurses have between 6 and 10 years of experience in their roles. Twenty percent have between 11 and 15 years of experience and 14 percent have between 16 and 20 years of experience. Just 8 percent of registered nurses have 2 years' experience or less and 13 percent have between 3 and 5 years of experience. Nineteen percent of registered nurses have more than 20 years of experience.

Once you have established yourself as a registered nurse, you can take advantage of ample opportunities within this job or pursue further education to secure a higher paying nursing position.


Registered nurses require a variety of skills to deliver the best care to patients and thrive in fast-paced healthcare environments. Here are some of the skills that employers look for in prospective registered nurses:

  • Compassion – Registered nurses must be a sympathetic to the needs of their patients. Their compassion helps them deal with patients in various states of trauma and pain, as well as the often distressed or worried family members and friends of these patients.
  • Patience – Some patients may be resistant to treatment, nervous about medical procedures, or generally ill-tempered. Registered nurses must rely on their patience to give the best care under these circumstances.
  • Communication skills – Registered nurses must communicate directly with patients and their loved ones, who may be worried, in pain, shocked, or scared. These people will likely have questions about their treatment. Registered nurses must answer these questions calmly and in terms people without medical training can understand. They rely on their communication skills to listen to the concerns of patients and their loved ones and address these without inciting panic.
  • Critical thinking - Registered nurses must assess a patient's health and symptoms and note any changes in their condition. Their critical thinking skills help them diagnose problems and determine when medical intervention is required.
  • Attention to detail – Administering the correct dosage of medication, assisting in operations, and working with specific treatments all require a keen attention to detail. Without this, registered nurses could make mistakes that could put their patients' health or lives at risk.
  • Organization skills – At any one time, registered nurses are responsible for the well-being of several different patients, all with various health conditions, needs, and risk factors. Their organizational skills help them give the right care to the right patients and prioritize which patients need the most urgent attention.
  • Physical endurance – Working as a registered nurse is physically demanding. Registered nurses spend most of their shifts on their feet and on the go. They may be required to support the weight of patients unsteady on their feet or push their beds and equipment to other locations. All of these tasks require a good level of physical fitness.
  • Ability to work under pressure – Registered nurses often work in fast-paced environments. Often their patients face medical emergencies, where the wrong decision could mean the difference between life and death. Being able to perform well and make the best decisions in these high-pressure situations is crucial for any registered nurse.
  • Ability to cope with stress – Working as a registered nurse can be very stressful and demanding. All registered nurses must be able to withstand the stress they face to ensure longevity in the profession.

Salary expectations

How much do registered nurses make? Entry level registered nurses typically earn about $63,900 per year. As they gain experience, registered nurses can expect to earn closer to the average annual salary of $76,500. Experienced registered nurses can earn significantly more in certain markets. For example, the average annual salary for a registered nurse is $90,817 in Los Angeles, CA; $84,806 in New York City, NY; and $79,754 in Phoenix, AZ.

Job outlook for registered nurses

Projected growth

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of registered nurses in the nation to rise by 16 percent thru 2024, leading to an additional 439,300 jobs within this period. This growth is much faster than the average rate for all local industries. Greater emphasis on preventative healthcare, growing rates of chronic health conditions, and an aging population are all fueling this growth.

Career trajectory

Motivated registered nurses can progress in their careers with additional education. Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing courses, available online, help nurses who don't already have a bachelor's degree gain the qualifications required to pursue further job opportunities.

Infographic guide: Discover your road to a career in nursing

Experienced registered nurses with bachelor's degrees may advance to supervisory roles such as chief nursing officers or clinical nurse managers. Registered nurses with bachelor's degrees may also further their careers with specialist roles. Many registered nurses become nurse anesthetists, critical care nurses, labor and delivery nurses, and patient educators.

A registered nurse with a bachelor's degree may also undertake additional study to gain a master's degree. This advanced qualification allows registered nurses to become certified nurse specialists or nurse practitioners. Further study will help registered nurses gain a Doctor of Nursing Practice and pursue opportunities in scientific research or university lecturing.

Working as a registered nurse is an excellent choice for compassionate, caring individuals committed to the health and well-being of others. Strong, growing demand for registered nurses across the country should help you in your search for a suitable position.

Other essential healthcare and medical-support jobs:

Pharmacy Technician
Medical Assistant
Home Health
Medical Billing and Coding
MRI Technologist
Dental Assistant
Certified Nursing Assistant CNA
Healthcare administrator

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