Key Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Learn what it takes to become a nurse practitioner. Chart your degree path, apply to schools, and land your first interview to get hired

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Most nurse practitioners hold graduate credentials and take on jobs as advanced practice care professionals. They prescribe medications, diagnose health issues, meet with patients about health concerns, and provide ongoing care. Becoming a nurse practitioner takes time, effort, and dedication. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), 99.1 percent of NPs possess at least a master’s degree, with many holding doctorates to work in advanced research, teaching, or nuanced care positions. Keep reading to learn about the steps you’ll need to take to start working as a licensed nurse practitioner.

Decide if Becoming a Nurse Practitioner is Right for You

Deciding to become a nurse practitioner is a big step that should not be taken lightly. Even if you feel confident in your role as a registered nurse, it’s important to remember that nurse practitioners must balance heavier loads of responsibility alongside managing other staff members. Because most NPs specialize their knowledge in a particular field or to a specific population, you should also consider whether your current location possesses a health facility that can support you at that level of employment. Some of the other questions to consider include:

  • Am I prepared to take on the added responsibilities and stresses that come with jumping from being an RN to an NP?
  • Do jobs exist for the type of nurse practitioner I want to become in the place I plan to live? If not, am I okay with moving for work?
  • Do I prefer working with patients to a short or long amount of time? Does inpatient or outpatient care better serve my needs?
  • Is there a specific population I enjoy working with more than others (e.g. children, the elderly, women)?
  • Do I possess the drive and motivation to complete additional schoolwork while employed, or will I need to take time off?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be a great candidate to become a nurse practitioner.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Before going too far down the path of considering a nurse practitioner career, most prospective degree seekers want to know what they’re getting themselves into in terms of time commitment. In answering this question, students must consider their long-term career goals and how an advanced degree helps them get closer to them. When looking at the following timeline, remember that, if you’re already an experienced RN, you can gain the qualifications needed to work as an NP in as few as two years.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) 4 years
Experience as a registered nurse (RN) 2 years
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) 2 years
Total time to NP 8 years

Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Becoming a registered nurse represents the first step in fulfilling your goals of working as a nurse practitioner. Registered nurses work under NPs, caring for patients in their charge, performing tests, administering medicines, assessing conditions, and recording medical histories. Several paths exist to becoming an RN. Many learners first complete an associate of science in nursing to begin working quickly. Others go ahead and complete a full bachelor of science. Still others decide to complete an RN bridge program after working as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) for a time. Read more about the various ways of becoming a registered nurse.

Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Though many RNs possessed only an associate degree in years past, increasingly employers desire applicants with a bachelor’s degree as a minimum. Because of this, many students aspiring to work as NPs begin their studies with a BSN before progressing into master’s and doctorate programs. BSNs teach the fundamentals of the nursing profession and begin to educate students about nuanced topics and specific population care. If students first worked as an LPN, they can complete an LPN-to-BSN bridge degree; if they only possess an associate degree, they can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program. Accelerated BSNs also exist for those who want to graduate more quickly.

Gain Nursing Experience

Strictly speaking, students looking to become NPs only need nursing experience if the academic program they want to attend requires it. That said, gaining experience as a registered nurse – particularly in clinical settings – can greatly help students feel more confident and knowledgeable when starting an advanced degree. Poll students currently enrolled in an NP program and you’ll find that it’s quite common for someone to work as an RN for two or more years before applying to NP programs.

Plan Your Graduate Studies

After deciding to become a nurse practitioner, degree seekers can choose from several different paths to reach their end goal. In addition to deciding which degree type best fits with their existing education, students need to figure out if they want to specialize and, if so, which focus area appeals to them most. Lastly, learners need to decide which mode of learning best suits their place in life. Some may feel like campus-based programs provide the best path forward, while others really enjoy the flexibility and lower costs of online programs. Think you might enjoy a mix of the two? Look for hybrid programs that mix classes at the brick-and-mortar location with distance learning.

  • The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN):
    MSN programs appeal to two types of NPs-in-training: those entering the field with an unrelated undergraduate degree and those moving straight from a BSN to an MSN. Students working as RNs with an ASN degree are not eligible for this path. These programs typically take two years. Review some of today’s best MSN programs online.
  • The RN to MSN bridge:
    RN to MSN programs appeal to learners who possess an ASN degree and work as RNs but do not qualify for MSN programs. These degrees also appeal to those who initially completed LPN training but then did an LPN-to-RN bridge program. These programs usually take three years of study. Get details on the RN to MSN bridge online.
  • The BSN to DNP:
    BSN to DNP programs work best for those students currently working as RNs who know they want to earn the highest degree available. These learners usually want to work in research, academia, or a highly nuanced nursing subfield. In addition to completing credit requirements, these programs usually mandate approximately 1,000 clinical hours and take three to four years to complete. Learn more about campus and online BSN to DNP programs.

Narrow Your Options and Decide

After finding out about the many different paths available to aspiring NPs, prospective degree seekers need to sit down and narrow their options. Finding the best program takes time and research, especially when considering your unique needs and goals. Factors such as location, available specializations, cost, accreditation, and standing within the nursing industry should all factor into your decision-making process. Want to make sure you consider all the important options? Check out the checklist below for selecting the right NP program for you.

Is the school regionally accredited?
Learners who enroll in schools lacking regional accreditation may struggle to transfer credits, receive licensure, and/or compete for jobs.

Is the program recognized by a top nursing body? 
In addition to institutional accreditation, students should find degrees with programmatic accreditation. Names to look for include the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Does the cost meet your needs? 
Costs range considerably based on whether the school operates in a public or private fashion and whether it provides funding. Speak with financial coordinators to learn more before accepting an offer of admission.

Does the length of the program fit your schedule? 
Some programs exist in an accelerated program and allow students to complete assignments at times that work with their schedules. Other programs take longer and do not allow for as much flexibility.

Will your program help you get licensed? 
Requirements vary by location, but learners can check with their state’s board of nursing to learn about any academic requirements for receiving licensure.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner without a Nursing Degree

Sometimes plans change, and students who once thought they wanted to pursue one professional path find that it wasn’t the best fit for them. If you completed an undergraduate degree in an unrelated subject but now aspire to work as a nurse practitioner, a path exists for you. Students with bachelor’s degrees in other fields can apply to direct-entry master’s degrees in nursing (MSN) programs to seek their NP credentials. They will likely need to complete a number of prerequisites to begin core studies, but it can be done. The MSN is also the best path for those who hold an RN license via an ASN degree but want to bypass the BSN and work towards becoming an NP.

Earn Your NP License

As with registered nurses, nurse practitioners must possess licensure in order to practice. Exact requirements for receiving licensure vary by location, so students should check with their state board of nursing to learn more. Before enrolling in any MSN or DNP program, it’s imperative that prospective degree seekers understand their state’s mandates and pick a school that meets these requirements.

To receive licensure as an NP, you must possess an active and unencumbered RN license, hold (at minimum) a master’s degree in nursing, and pass a certification examination. Students who plan to specialize their knowledge typically take an exam from a professional association within that discipline. Examples include the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners and the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Specialize (Optional)

As with physicians, nurse practitioners can choose to specialize their knowledge in a particular area of the medical field if they so choose. Some individuals may feel drawn to more wide open specializations such as family nurse practitioner, while others may find that they want to work with specific populations and choose specializations in areas of neonatal, psychiatric, or gerontological care. Specializing allows nurse practitioners to seek out more nuanced positions within the nursing field and gives them the opportunity to use that knowledge in focused ways. If you know you enjoy working with those seeking acute care nursing more so than those looking for care across the lifespan, a specialization can help you qualify for your dream role. Many specializations exist; a few are highlighted below.

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric nurse practitioners work with patients across the lifespan to address mental health concerns. They may provide diagnoses, create treatment plans, and prescribe medications. Psychiatric NPs also work to educate their patients about mental health issues and steps they can take to improve their psychiatric health through life choices. They may also provide psychotherapy. To become a psychiatric NP, you must hold a master of science in nursing with a specialization in psychiatric health. You must also hold licensure and certification to practice. Learn more psychiatric nurse practitioner programs and how they work with online learning.

How to Become a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

Pediatric nurse practitioners care for patients ranging in age from newly born to 21 years of age. They provide primary care to those in their charge; responsibilities include giving immunizations, treating common illnesses, providing exams, and screening for developmental milestones. Often working closely with pediatricians, they ensure children receive high-quality care as they move into adulthood. Those hoping to work as pediatric NPs must possess a master’s of nursing with a specialization in pediatric care. They must also pass licensure and certification requirements. More information can be found on our page dedicated to pediatric nurse practitioner programs online.

How to Become a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner

While pediatric nurse practitioners work with children across their development, neonatal NPs specifically care for newborn babies. Neonatal care comes in several different forms: those without specific certifications often work with healthy newborns, while those with advanced qualifications can work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) to provide lifesaving care. Qualifying for advanced roles requires an MSN degree with a specialization in neonatal nursing, clinical hours in a neonatal unit, and national certification. The National Association of Neonatal Nurse Practitioners provides additional information about qualifications and industry standards.

How to Become a Dermatology Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners focused on dermatological care typically further specialize their services in areas of cosmetic, pediatric, or surgical dermatology. Cosmetic dermatology naturally focuses on treatments and services perceived to enhance appearance, while surgical dermatology NPs spend their days removing potentially cancerous cells or skin abnormalities. Those hoping to become dermatology NPs need to possess an MSN degree specialized in dermatological nursing, complete clinical hours, and seek national certification through examination. The National Academy of Dermatology Nurse Practitioners offers more insight about this specialized path.

How to Become a Holistic Nurse Practitioner

As the name implies, holistic nurse practitioners look at their patients as a whole person rather than simply addressing the disease or illness in question. They often evaluate patients based on many different factors that affect their entire being. Examples include mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical systems. Rather than simply fixing a problem when it occurs, holistic NPs look at how to achieve and maintain whole body health in the lives of their patients. Applicants to holistic NP roles must possess an MSN with a holistic specialization at minimum alongside clinical hours and national certification. If you’re interested in learning more about this path, check out the American Holistic Nurses Association.

Assess Your Funds. How Much Does It Cost to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

As with other forms of higher education, advanced degrees do not come cheap. Master’s and doctoral programs tend to charge higher rates of tuition than undergraduate programs, but they also require fewer credits to help even out costs. When looking at prospective programs, you might soon notice that public schools in your state tend to offer the cheapest rates of tuition. Some public schools in other states allow online learners to pay in-state rates, so keep an eye out for these programs. Whether you decide to attend a public or private school, speak to the financial aid office about any institutional and/or departmental scholarships. The following schools provide a sense of typical costs.

1 1. Duke University,
Master of Science in Nursing
$1,769/credit
2 2. Simmons University,
Master of Science in Nursing
$1,410/credit
3 3. University of Cincinnati,
Doctor of Nursing Practice
$724/credit (resident);
$739/credit (non-resident)
4 4. The University of Iowa,
Doctor of Nursing Practice
$1,215/credit

Run the Numbers. How Much Do NPs Make?

In 2018, registered nurses earned median salaries of $71,730 per year. While this number sits high above national averages for all occupations, nurse practitioners stand to earn far higher wages. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that median annual wages in 2018 for nurse practitioners stood at $107,030, while those in the top 10 percent of earners brought home salaries closer to $182,000 each year.

When considering where to work, the BLS found that hospitals tend to pay the highest salaries, with outpatient care centers, health practitioner offices, and physician offices following. Those working in educational services tend to earn the lowest incomes.