Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are advanced healthcare practitioners with similar responsibilities, such as diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medications. However, their training and paths toward certification differ in significant ways. This blog post unpacks the key differences between NPs and PAs to help you determine which career path best aligns with your goals. What Is a Nurse Practitioner? A nurse practitioner (NP) is a licensed clinician who provides comprehensive healthcare to patients of all ages. An NP can work in virtually any healthcare setting, diagnosing patient conditions and prescribing medications. As of October 2022, nurse practitioners have full practice authority in 27 states, meaning that they can practice Read more
Becoming a nurse practitioner is a popular and exciting career choice. Nurse practitioners deliver primary and emergency care to patients, diagnose and treat illnesses, and prescribe medication. In 23 states, NPs have full practice authority, meaning they can practice independently without the supervision of a physician.
The path to becoming a nurse practitioner may look a little different for everyone, but in general, there are specific academic and licensure credentials you must obtain. From your bachelor’s through your graduate degree, you can expect to be in school for at least seven years. After you earn your graduate degree, you must also pass a national certification exam. This blog post outlines the responsibilities of nurse practitioners, discusses how to become a nurse practitioner, and provides a brief overview of the current job landscape and opportunities.
What Is a Nurse Practitioner?
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are licensed clinicians who provide comprehensive care to patients. The best nurse practitioners are understanding and compassionate people who enjoy solving complex problems and helping others.
Nurse practitioners focus on preventative and holistic care, as well as treating acute and chronic conditions. Responsibilities vary depending on their area of practice. For example, a neonatal nurse practitioner works with neonatologists to treat newborns and infants, whereas a family psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner works with patients of all ages who need mental health treatment.
In general, responsibilities of nurse practitioners may include:
- Providing primary and emergency care to patients
- Performing physical exams and recording patient medical histories
- Ordering and conducting diagnostic tests
- Developing appropriate patient treatment plans
- Prescribing and administering medications and treatments
- Evaluating the patient’s response to treatment plans and making adjustments as necessary
- Providing mental health counseling
- Educating patients on healthy lifestyle choices and how to prevent injury and disease
Nurse Practitioner vs. Registered Nurse: What’s the Difference?
Becoming licensed as a registered nurse (RN) is one step in becoming a nurse practitioner (see How to Become a Nurse Practitioner). If you continue with graduate education to become a nurse practitioner, you will have more responsibilities and autonomy than registered nurses. Nurse practitioners need to earn either a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing, whereas registered nurses only need an associate degree or bachelor’s degree.
Unlike a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse is not permitted to diagnose patients or develop treatment plans. Typical responsibilities of a registered nurse include monitoring patients, maintaining patient records, ordering diagnostic tests, and assisting physicians with patient care.
The work environment for the two professionals also tends to differ. Nurse practitioners usually work more standard hours in private practice or community clinic settings. Registered nurses, however, typically work a variety of shifts, including night shifts, in hospitals or surgical clinics.
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
To become a nurse practitioner, you will need advanced training in nursing. This means earning a master’s or doctoral degree, as well as the certifications and licensures required for your area of advanced nursing practice. To succeed in your nursing program, you will need to hone your study techniques and time management skills. Although graduate nursing school is challenging, many students feel their effort is well worth the satisfaction of knowing they will make a difference in the lives of others. Below, we outline the steps to becoming a nurse practitioner.
1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing
The first step to becoming a nurse practitioner is to earn a bachelor’s degree. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is recommended, given that some graduate-level programs, such as the nurse practitioner program offered by the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, require an undergraduate degree in nursing rather than in a related field such as public health. The core curriculum of a BSN program includes courses in anatomy, pharmacology, mental health, pathophysiology, statistics, and more.
The BSN degree also requires that students complete clinical training hours—typically, three clinical learning hours for every one hour of classroom instruction. Depending on your background and personal situation, you can take various paths to accomplish this:
- Direct-entry BSN: Designed for students who hold a high school diploma and have not previously completed a bachelor’s degree program or nursing education. A full-time BSN program typically takes 4 years to complete.
- Licensed practical nurse (LPN) to BSN: Designed for students who are licensed practical nurses, which requires about a year of collegiate nursing education. The length of a full-time LPN-to-BSN program is typically 2–3 years, depending on the school and transferable credits.
- RN to BSN: Designed for registered nurses who have completed an associate degree in the field. Full-time RN-to-BSN programs typically take 1–2 years to complete, depending on the school and transferable credits.
- Accelerated BSN (ABSN): A second degree program for students who already have a bachelor’s degree in a different field. The length of a full-time ABSN program is typically 12–19 months, depending on the school and transferable credits.
Get Your RN License
In order to practice nursing and/or enter a graduate nursing program, you must first obtain your licensure as an RN by applying to the appropriate nursing regulatory body and successfully completing the NCLEX-RN examination, as well as meeting any other requirements of the state in which you intend to practice. To sit for the exam, you must have completed an associate degree in nursing, a hospital-based diploma program, or your BSN.
Gain Valuable Work Experience
Before applying to graduate school, it’s a good idea to practice in the field for a while. Clinical practice can give you valuable information about whether becoming an advanced practice registered nurse is the right path for you to pursue—and if it is, what interests you most about the work. It can also help you decide down the road what level of degree and area of specialization is best for you.
Some universities require applicants to have clinical experience before entering their graduate nursing program or beginning clinical experiences, so it’s important to look into each school’s requirements before applying. Additionally, some nursing programs, including ours here at USAHS, hold a white coat ceremony for nurse graduates to commemorate the milestone.
2. Earn a Graduate Degree
Along with the FNP specialty, students in MSN and DNP programs can choose from other role specialties, depending on the university’s offerings. Popular specialties include nurse educator, nurse executive, adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP), adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).
- Master of Science in Nursing: An MSN is an advanced nursing practice degree that opens doors to prestigious positions in the field. An MSN-FNP is a sufficient qualification for becoming a nurse practitioner. A full-time MSN program with an FNP role specialty typically takes 2-3 years to complete.
- Doctor of Nursing Practice: A DNP-FNP provides more coursework on leadership and research for aspiring nurse practitioners who want to hold a clinical nurse leader position or other nursing leadership roles. A full-time program typically takes 3–4 years, depending on specialty, with the FNP specialty typically taking about 4 years.
3. Become a Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)
Be sure to review information on licensure and regulatory requirements in your state. The AANP is a good resource.
To become licensed to practice as a nurse practitioner, you will need to take a national certification exam. You can take this exam through any of five national certification boards, including the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), the National Certification Corporation (NCC), or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Each organization’s exam is different, so you should research the focus and format of each one and consider your personal career goals and testing preferences when deciding which exam to take.
Nurse Practitioner Job Opportunities and Outlook
U.S. News & World Report ranks the nurse practitioner profession as #4 in its 2020 Best Healthcare Jobs list, highlighting the projected employment growth for this career.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for nurse practitioners was $107,030 in 2018. Employment of nurse practitioners is projected to grow 28.2 percent from 2018 to 2028, with an estimated 53,300 jobs added during that period. The BLS ranks this as the ninth fastest-growing profession.
An advanced registered nurse practitioner works in a variety of settings, the most common being physicians’ offices. They also work in general medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient care centers, clinics, and offices of other health care practitioners.
Additional Tips and Resources for Nurse Practitioners
There are a number of activities you can participate in that will contribute to your professional development. Visit the additional resources below to learn more about the path to becoming a nurse practitioner.
Ways to Grow Professionally
- Volunteer to treat patients in underserved communities. This is a great way to grow your skills, learn from professionals across disciplines, and make a real difference.
- Attend events and conferences to expand your knowledge and network with your peers.
- Find a mentor you can learn from and who inspires you to grow as a professional.
The following organizations can help you learn more about becoming a nurse practitioner:
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)
- The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Board (AANPCB)
- American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
- National Certification Corporation (NCC)
- The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)
- Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our degrees are offered online, with optional on-campus immersions* and an annual interprofessional trip abroad. Role specialties include Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Nurse Educator,** and Nurse Executive. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Complete coursework when and where you want—and earn your advanced practice nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.
*The FNP role specialty includes two required hands-on clinical intensives as part of the curriculum.
**The Nurse Educator role specialty is not available for the DNP program.
American Association of Nurse Practitioners. “What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?” Accessed January 20, 2021. https://www.aanp.org/about/all-about-nps/whats-a-nurse-practitioner. Accessed: January 26, 2022
Nurse Journal. “How to Become a Nurse Practitioner.” Last reviewed November 30, 2021. https://nursejournal.org/nurse-practitioner/how-to-become-a-np/. Accessed: January 26, 2022
Nurse Journal. “Nurse Practioner Career Overview.” Last reviewed November 30, 2021. https://nursejournal.org/nurse-practitioner/. Accessed: January 26, 2022
Nurse.org. “How to Become a Nurse Practioner (NP).” September 20, 2021. https://nurse.org/resources/nurse-practitioner/. Accessed: January 26, 2022