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Nurse practitioners work as primary and specialty care providers. They can diagnose patients, design treatment plans, and prescribe medications. The average nurse practitioner salary exceeds $107,000 a year, with strong projected job growth through 2028.

Essential Career Information for Nurse Practitioners
Median Annual Salary $107,030
Employment Growth Forecast from 2018-2028 28%
Number of New Jobs from 2018-2028 53,300
Average Entry-Level Education Requirements Master's Degree
Annual Salary of the Highest 10% $182,750
Annual Salary of the Lowest 10% 80,670

Source: BLS.gov: OOH, May 2018

Table of Contents

This guide explores how to become a nurse practitioner, including degree and certification options.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do you have to go to school to be a nurse practitioner?

Most nurse practitioners hold a master's degree, which generally takes 2-3 years to complete. An RN-to-NP bridge program may offer a faster route to the career.

What does a nurse practitioner make a year?

The average nurse practitioner salary exceeds $107,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nurse practitioners can also benefit from 28% projected job growth by 2028.

Does NP stand for nurse practitioner?

Yes, NP stands for nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners are also called advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Is an MSN the same as a nurse practitioner?

No, a master of science in nursing, or MSN, is only one component of the qualifications that professionals need to work as nurse practitioners.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse who cares for patients in primary and specialty care roles. Nurse practitioners can specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, and mental health. In most states, nurse practitioners can operate independently from physicians, diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medication, and interpreting the results of medical tests.

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse who cares for patients in primary and specialty care roles.

About half of nurse practitioners work in doctors' offices, while many others work in hospitals and outpatient care centers. Nurse practitioners who work in hospitals may work irregular shift hours, including nights and weekends, while those in doctors' offices generally work regular business hours.

To work as a nurse practitioner, registered nurses must hold a master's degree or higher from a nurse practitioner program. Nurse practitioners must also hold a license and pass a national certification exam.

Nurse practitioners draw on critical-thinking skills to determine the best treatments for patients. A detail-oriented nurse practitioner can identify small changes in a patient's condition and prescribe treatments accordingly. Nurse practitioners also use leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills to interact with patients and other healthcare professionals.

Alternate Job Titles for Nurse Practitioners

  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult Nurse Practitioner
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)
  • Cardiology Nurse Practitioner
  • Certified Nurse Practitioner
  • Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner
  • Dermatology Nurse Practitioner
  • Electrophysiology Nurse Practitioner
  • Emergency Medicine Nurse Practitioner
  • Family Health Nurse Practitioner
  • Family Practice Nurse Practitioner
  • Gastroenterology Nurse Practitioner
  • Gerontological Nurse Practitioner
  • Internal Medicine Nurse Practitioner
  • Neurosurgical Nurse Practitioner
  • Obstetrics-Gynecology Nurse Practitioner
  • Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner
  • Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Surgical Nurse Practitioner

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

Nurse practitioners offer primary and specialty healthcare to patients of all ages. They conduct patient examinations and observe patients to understand their medical conditions, designing patient care plans based on their observations. Nurse practitioners can also perform and order diagnostic tests and analyze test results.

After diagnosing a health problem and creating a treatment plan, nurse practitioners monitor a patient's condition and evaluate the patient's response to medicines or treatments. Nurse practitioners also counsel patients on managing an illness or injury.

Nurse practitioners offer primary and specialty healthcare to patients of all ages.

Nurse practitioners may specialize in a variety of areas. A pediatric nurse practitioner treats children from birth through young adulthood. A family nurse practitioner, also known as a family health nurse practitioner or family practice nurse practitioner, offers primary care to patients of all ages. A psychiatric nurse practitioner diagnoses and treats individuals suffering from mental health disorders. Nurse practitioners can pursue professional certification to demonstrate their strengths in a specialty area.

Within each specialty, nurse practitioners offer primary and preventative care for patients. They're trained to provide patient-centered care and enjoy many of the same responsibilities as physicians. For example, nurse practitioners can order and evaluate test results, prescribe medication, and refer patients to specialists.

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

Like a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant can examine, diagnose, and treat patients, and the salaries for both professions are comparable. However, nurse practitioners and physician assistants receive different training. Physician assistants attend specialized physician assistant master's programs, which generally take two years to complete. After completing the coursework and clinical requirements, they pursue a state license.

While physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners perform similar roles in the medical system, their training draws on two different models. PA training borrows from the physician training model of medical school, while nurse practitioners use the nursing model, which offers more patient-centered training.

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Nurse Practitioner vs. RN

Nurse practitioners enjoy more responsibilities than registered nurses (RNs) and earn higher salaries. While RNs earn an average salary of nearly $72,000 a year, the average nurse practitioner salary exceeds $107,000. Nurse practitioners also hold additional training, often through a master of nursing.

Registered nurses can become nurse practitioners through an RN-to-NP program. While some programs offer a bridge route for RNs without a bachelor's in nursing, RNs can also pursue an RN-to-BSN degree before applying to MSN programs.

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LPN vs. Nurse Practitioner

Unlike a nurse practitioner, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) must operate under the supervision of a registered nurse. LPN programs train students to become licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses (LVN). LPNs offer limited medical treatments, such as changing bandages, checking vital signs, and helping patients take medication. Graduates from these programs do not meet the qualifications for an RN license.

LPNs can enroll in a BSN program to become a registered nurse and prepare for a master of nursing program.

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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners must hold a master's degree from an accredited nursing school. During a master's program, nursing students complete classes in anatomy, evidence-based practice, and physiology. Programs also incorporate clinical hours to build hands-on training. Nursing students may take coursework in their specialty. For example, prospective acute care nurse practitioners take classes in treating ill and injured patients, while palliative care nurse practitioners complete training in geriatric nursing and hospice care.

Before applying to nurse practitioner master's programs, candidates must hold an RN license. Most programs also require a BSN, though some offer an RN-to-NP route for applicants without a bachelor's degree. Students can also pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) to work as a nurse practitioner.

Prospective nurse practitioners should choose an accredited graduate program. Nursing schools with programmatic accreditation meet the highest standards for nursing education. The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education both accredit nursing programs.

After graduating with an MSN or DNP, nurse practitioners must take a national certification exam offered by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board. Nurse practitioners must also hold a state license to practice.

Associate Degree Programs

Many nurse practitioners begin their training by enrolling in an associate program in nursing to become a registered nurse. During an associate program, nursing students gain foundational skills in patient care, evidence-based practice, and nursing practice. Students also take classes in human development, anatomy, and physiology.

Completing an associate degree in nursing generally takes two years for full-time students. In addition to coursework, nursing students complete clinical practicums to build patient-centered skills. After completing an associate degree and passing the NCLEX-RN exam, nursing students qualify for an RN license.

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Bachelor's Degree Programs

A bachelor's degree in nursing meets the entry-level requirement for most nursing careers, except for advanced practice roles like nurse practitioner; however, prospective nurse practitioners often complete a BSN as part of their training. Many master's programs for nurse practitioners require a BSN for admission.

During a BSN program, nursing students take classes on topics like pharmacology, public health, and anatomy. BSN students also complete clinical requirements to gain skills working with patients. Some BSN programs offer concentrations or electives in areas like emergency care, geriatrics, or pediatrics to prepare students for specialized career paths after graduation. Completing a BSN generally takes four years for full-time students, though an RN-to-BSN program for current RNs can take under two years.

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Master's Degree Programs

A master's degree in nursing meets the entry-level educational requirement for nurse practitioners. Applicants to nurse practitioner master's programs must hold a current RN license. Some programs require a BSN degree, while others admit RNs with an associate degree.

Students take courses on topics like advanced patient assessment, pharmacology for NPs, nursing informatics, and advanced research methods. Students also complete clinical hours to strengthen their patient care skills and meet licensure requirements. Most nursing programs require at least 600 clinical hours.

Nurse practitioner students can specialize their training by pursuing concentrations like family nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner, or psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner. Earning a master's degree from an accredited nursing school generally takes 2-3 years of full-time study to complete.

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Doctoral Degree Programs

Some NPs pursue a DNP or Ph.D. in nursing practice. DNP programs emphasize patient-centered care, while Ph.D. programs focus on research, preparing graduates for academic or research-oriented careers. During a doctoral program for nurse practitioners, students complete research and nursing practice coursework. Doctoral programs also incorporate clinical hours and a clinical research project or research-based dissertation.

As terminal degrees, graduates with DNPs and Ph.D.s qualify for the most advanced roles in the field. Nurses with a DNP or Ph.D. can pursue tenure-track professor positions or management roles within healthcare organizations. Most doctoral programs take at least four years to complete.

Professional Licensure and Certification

Nurse practitioners must pass a national certification exam and apply for a state license to practice. Several organizations, like the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board, offer certifications to specialized nurse practitioners, such as women's health nurse practitioners, pediatric nurse practitioners, and family nurse practitioners.

Many jobs require additional nurse practitioner certification in CPR, basic life support, and advanced cardiac life support. Nurse practitioners must also hold an RN license and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to practice. Certified nurse practitioners must maintain their credentials by meeting continuing education requirements within specified timeframes.

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