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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner: A Comprehensive Guide

Group of Nurse Practitioners

The nursing field is booming. Nurses who want to progress in their field often become nurse practitioners. A nurse practitioner is a nurse with advanced training and certification. They have obtained more medical knowledge and at least one specialized concentration for a specific group of patients. How to becoming a nurse practitioner involves receiving a graduate degree in nursing alongside other steps. Below are the steps you will need to become an NP.

Acquire a bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN)

  1. Pass RN licensure exams
  2. Gain clinical experience
  3. Acquire a master of science degree in nursing (MSN)
  4. Gain more clinical experience
  5. Pass NP licensure exams

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advanced level of nurse with additional training and clinical authority compared to a registered nurse (RN). Nurse practitioners are above RNs but do not have all the privileges of physicians.

In practice, nurse practitioners can prescribe medications, diagnose conditions, and otherwise assist other medical professionals. Nurse practitioners will help with surgical procedures, treat wounds, or practice independently in states such as Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts, and others.

What Do Nurse Practitioners Do?

  • Diagnose health conditions, though another physician may oversee their work
  • Order tests for patients
  • Prescribe certain types of medications
  • Assist with medical procedures
  • Provide physical or other therapy for patients
  • Help other nurses carry out their duties
  • Supervise RNs and other levels of nurses

Nurse practitioners help to address physician shortages in many hospitals or clinics, filling in where they are needed. The work of nurse practitioners is diverse. The full list of duties will depend on their patient population, state, and experience level.

Some states give nurse practitioners full practice authority. NPs may open their own practices in these states. Other states require NPs to work under the direct supervision of a physician such as a general practitioner or surgeon.

What’s the Difference Between a Nurse Practitioner and an RN?

An RN can be thought of as a stepping stone profession before becoming a nurse practitioner. RNs are the most common level of nurses, requiring either an associate’s or bachelor's degree in nursing.

NPs are advanced nurses with a master’s degree in nursing and are board-certified. These professionals have increased medical experience and greater responsibility. All NPs begin their careers as nurses at first. Not all RNs progress to the NP level.

Related Resource: Online RN Programs: How to Become a Registered Nurse Online

Are Nurse Practitioners able to Prescribe Medicine?

NPs may be able to prescribe medications, depending on the state’s regulations where they are employed. Many NPs are authorized to give patients controlled substances or other drugs.

However, some states require an NP to have some credit hours of study in pharmacology before receiving this responsibility. Other states may only allow a nurse practitioner to prescribe drugs under the supervision or collaboration of a physician. Still, more states allow nurse practitioners to prescribe medication without restrictions

NPs vs. Family Nurse Practitioners

Some nurse practitioners choose to specialize in one or more areas of concentration. These areas are sometimes called patient populations. A patient population is a specific type of patient that a nurse practitioner learns to treat.

The most common nurse practitioner specialization is “family nurse practitioner” or FNP. FNPs offer family clinical care to patients of any age range, including children or elderly people. These NPs typically work in primary care settings, such as clinics, nursing facilities, or spas.

GetEducated’s Pick: Master of Science in Nursing / Family Nurse Practitioner from Campbellsville University

Types of Nurse Practitioner Specializations

Nurse practitioners may choose to specialize as do other healthcare professionals. Additional NP specializations include:

Adult-Gerontology Acute-Care Nurse Practitioners or AGACNPs

These NPs specialize in assisting the elderly with acute healthcare needs and predominantly work in hospitals, emergency rooms, or urgent care clinics.

GetEducated’s Pick: Master of Science in Nursing / Acute Care Nurse Practitioner / Adult-Gerontology from Grand Canyon University

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioners or AGPNCPs

These NPs also assist the elderly. However, they carry out their duties in primary care settings, such as private clinics, long-term care facilities, and ambulatory care centers. These NPs help patients with chronic health issues.

GetEducated’s Pick: Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Postgraduate Certificate from Purdue University Global

Neonatal Nurse Practitioners or NNPs

These NPs primarily help neonatal physicians. They may specialize in treating infants and/or pregnant mothers.

GetEducated’s Pick: Master of Science in Nursing / Neonatal Nurse Practitioner from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing

Pediatric Nurse Practitioners or PNPs

These NPs specialize in pediatric care for infants and young children.

GetEducated’s Pick: Master of Science in Nursing / Pediatric Nurse Practitioner from King University

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners or PMHNPs

These NPs specialize in helping patients with psychiatric disorders and medications for these conditions.

GetEducated’s Pick: Master of Science in Nursing / Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner from Seton Hall University

Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners or WHNPs

These NPs are specialized to treat female health issues or concerns.

GetEducated’s Pick: Doctor in Nursing Practice / Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (BSN to DNP) from University of Missouri-St Louis

Not all nurse practitioner degree programs include coursework for every specialization. Students who desire to specialize in a particular patient population must ensure their graduate program includes the relevant coursework.

How Many Years of Study to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

The length of a program of study for an NP depends on the individual’s current level of experience and nursing qualifications. With no nursing experience, it takes at least six years to become an NP from start to finish. Two years are needed to become an RN. Another two years are required to complete a bachelor's degree in nursing. Then another two years are required to acquire a master's degree in nursing and full licensure.

RNs already working in the field can become an NP in 3-4 years. Some accelerated programs may allow students to complete a bachelor's and graduate degree in nursing in 3 years total. It all depends on a student’s availability, work requirements, motivation, and more.

Where Do Nurse Practitioners Work?

The majority of nurse practitioners specialize in family practice. They work in primary care facilities and hospital outpatient or inpatient departments. However, many NPs also work in private healthcare facilities, including their own practices.

Some of the most common locations for nurse practitioners to work include:

  • Hospital outpatient departments. They help assess and diagnose patients, prescribe treatments, and even refer patients to physicians when necessary.
  • Hospital inpatient departments. NPs evaluate and diagnose patients here as well, but they may also prescribe further treatments. Some NPs oversee nursing teams and may take on the role of administrator for the clinical staff.
  • Private group practices. NPs in private group practices are often the primary care providers for those locations. They do all of the above duties but may also refer a patient to another medical professional if necessary.

Who Might Enjoy Becoming a Nurse Practitioner?

Those who find fulfillment in nursing duties, in general, will likely enjoy becoming an NP. NPs are more specialized and have more responsibilities than regular nurses. Such professional positions are well-suited to those who wish for additional challenges in the nursing field.

Nurse practitioner jobs are especially well-suited for:

  • Those with a lot of empathy and compassion. The most successful NPs build relationships with their patients and/or families. Compassion is essential for NPs who spend a lot of time with a few patients at a private practice.
  • Leaders. NPs often oversee other nurses and have additional responsibilities. This profession is suitable for nurses who want to take charge more often or be in control of prescriptions.
  • Those who thrive under intense conditions. Some NPs are in charge of medical emergencies. They may assist other healthcare professionals during surgeries or other procedures. NPs must work well under pressure and perform reliably in such scenarios.

Becoming an NP is the next step in their career paths for many nurses. Nurses who wish to remain in the field without entirely changing careers will find becoming a nurse practitioner to be a good choice.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Becoming a nurse practitioner is relatively straightforward. It may take many years because several degrees and certifications are required. However, all steps are necessary.

Acquire a Bachelor’s Degree

All aspiring nurse practitioners must first acquire a bachelor’s degree in nursing. A BS degree in nursing takes four years to complete on average. It includes two years of general education as well as coursework specific to nursing. Furthermore, all BSN degrees consist of hands-on clinical training.

Suppose an RN already has a bachelor’s degree in another field. In that case, they will need to acquire a second bachelor’s degree in nursing. No other bachelor’s degree will be appropriate for the future graduate degree required for NP certification.

Those with RN licenses and an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) can enroll in streamlined programs. Called “RN-to-BSN bridge programs”, these allow RNs to rapidly earn BSNs while working. Individuals who already have a related bachelor’s degree may sometimes earn a BSN more quickly, depending on credit transfer rules.

A prospective nurse practitioner should acquire a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Be sure not to attend a university without an accredited program. Doing so could prevent you from being accepted into a graduate program due to a lack of rigor or required classes.

Pass RN Licensure Exams

Aspiring NPs must then become registered nurses by passing the NCLEX-RN or National Council Licensure Examination for RNs. It is a computerized exam with 205 multiple-choice questions with additional question formats.

Students who pass the exam will receive RN licensure for their state. They will be able to legally work as a registered nurse.

Gain Experience

Prospective NPs must acquire between one and two years of clinical RN experience before applying to a nurse practitioner graduate program. Many top RN degree programs will include clinical experience as part of their program.

Some students may have most or all of their clinical experience gathered by the time they graduate. Such students will be able to apply for a graduate degree right away. Students must otherwise spend a year or two working in the nursing field before continuing on the path to NP certification.

Complete a Graduate Program

All NPs require a master’s degree or doctorate. The standard degree choice is a master of science in nursing, which takes between one and two years to complete. Options of part-time or full-time degree programs allow students to choose the schedule that best fits their lives.

All MSN students must declare a population specialty/patient population. This specialization will determine the coursework the student completes. A graduate will be most qualified for positions within their specialty.

Most MSN degrees, even online degrees, require a certain amount of clinical experience. Most graduate programs include clinical experience requirements. Students who complete online degrees may fulfill their clinical requirements at local clinics or their places of employment.


Some students may wish to pursue a DNP or Doctor of Nursing Practice. This advanced graduate degree includes advantages such as:

  • Increased job opportunities
  • Much higher earning potential
  • Options to transition into more administrative roles

However, DNPs typically take between three and six years to complete. Students who wish to begin working as nurse practitioners immediately should instead pursue a master’s degree.

Pass NP Licensure Exams

Once graduated with an advanced degree, NP students must receive their NP license before they begin to practice. All NPs eventually receive APRN (advanced practice registered nurse) licensure. Licensing criteria are different depending on one’s state.

Regardless, licensing requires a passing score on the national board certification exam for the student’s chosen specialty area. These exams test specialty population knowledge in addition to general NP competency and skills. All test candidates can only register for exams related to their chosen specialties.

A student who passes the exam may then begin applying to NP positions. All NPs must renew their state certification periodically after graduation by completing continuing education credits.
Each state has different requirements and timeframes. Some states require licensure or certification renewal every two years. Others require renewal every three years.

Top Online Programs for Nurse Practitioners

Finding the right degree program to become a nurse practitioner can be tricky. Fortunately, many quality nurse practitioner programs are offered online, either entirely or through hybrid schedules. Often the clinical experience requirement can be completed in your local community. Here are some of the best online programs for nurse practitioners.

Georgetown University

Georgetown University offers a master of science and a family nurse practitioner focus. The program caters to current RNs who already have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Students can complete this Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)-accredited program in as few as 27 months. The in-depth program boasts a 100% AANP and ANCC school pass rate.

The program includes four different specialties: WHNP, AG-ACNP, FNP, and NM/WHNP. Their highly acclaimed online NP program provides the education, credentials, and clinical experience in one package. The university offers supervised clinical placements at over 3,700 locations across the US. You do not need a GRE test score to apply.

View More about Georgetown University

Colorado State University-Global Campus

Colorado State University offers a master’s degree in nursing. This generalized degree is ideal for pursuing any nurse practitioner position around the country. It can be completed either part-time or full-time, based on your needs.

The coursework in this program includes classes on advanced nursing techniques, healthcare executive decision-making, and more. It may be a good choice for future nurse practitioner administrators as well.

View More about Colorado State University - Global Campus

University of Southern California

The University of Southern California offers an online MSN in just 21 months. The program prepares RNs to pursue full board certification and become family nurse practitioners. The resulting degree is CCNE-accredited.

You can select from either part-time or full-time study options. The program includes clinical experience, which may cut down on experience requirements for full employment after graduation.

View More about University of Southern California

St. John Fisher College

St. John Fisher College’s online MSN students must have a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a current RN license with one year of experience to apply.

The program offers four concentration options: AGPCNP, AGACNP, PCFNP, and PMHNP. All students, regardless of concentration, must complete 600 hours of clinical rotations to graduate. Clinical experience is available in your community through the program. You may choose from a part-time to an accelerated study track to meet your needs.

View More about St. John Fisher College

Maryville University

Maryville University offers an MSN family nurse practitioner program. However, students may also pursue a more generalized nurse practitioner program if they choose. The program requires current RN licensure to enter.

Students may complete their coursework in either full-time or part-time schedules based on their needs. This master’s program includes all core required graduate nursing courses and courses in pediatrics, family healthcare, and gerontology.

View More about Maryville University

Average Salary for a Nurse Practitioner

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners make an average salary of $117,670 per year with a range from $84,000 to $190,000. Salary levels depend on the level of expertise, specialty area, state of residence, and other factors.

The pay is generally high and allows practicing NPs to enjoy a high quality of life. The demand for nurse practitioners is expected to grow by about 45% over the next decade. This is significantly higher compared to other occupations.

The NP field will grow due to the increased reliance on homecare and elderly patient care. America’s population of elderly individuals is growing as healthcare improves. The larger numbers of older adults will require medical assistance in greater numbers as time goes on.

An additional 29,400 new openings for nurse practitioners are expected due to retirement or changing careers.

Related Resource: 13 Highest Paying Nursing Jobs

Future Career Prospects for Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners can remain in their positions for the duration of their careers. Their salaries will improve with experience, and they may pursue specific licenses or certifications for additional opportunities.

Many teachers recommend nurse practitioner careers for their students because of this field’s stability and high earning potential. However, some nurse practitioners may decide to move into an adjacent field or progress even further.

Nurse practitioners may decide to become:

  • Physical therapists who assist ill or injured people to manage their pain and improve their movement. They earn an average salary of $91,010 per year. Physical therapists must have a doctorate.
  • Physician assistants who are similar to nurse practitioners. They require a master’s degree before they are hired and have an average salary of $115,390 per year. They practice medicine on teams with surgeons, regular physicians, and nurses.
  • Physician or surgeon. All physicians or surgeons require doctoral or professional degrees. They earn very high salaries to compensate, usually over $200,000 per year. They diagnose and treat injuries or perform surgeries depending on their specialties.
  • Healthcare administrators or medical and health services managers. These professionals run hospitals and clinics and oversee medical staff in their assigned locations. This career path may be ideal for nurse practitioners who want additional leadership responsibility. They earn an average salary of $104,280 per year.


Registered nurses who wish to take the next step in their professional careers might consider becoming nurse practitioners. NPs have additional responsibilities, greater freedom, and higher salaries to compensate for their extra schooling. Many of the best NP programs offer online programs for flexibility to meet your schedule.

Are you looking for a great online NP program? Look no further. Our list of online MSN degrees can help you find the ideal school for your needs.

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