Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) Degrees and Program Requirements
If you’re looking to advance your nursing career, pursuing a graduate degree in nurse anesthesia can be a rewarding choice. Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) play a critical role in the healthcare field and need advanced-level education to meet the demands of the job.
Becoming a CRNA requires more time and education than some other nursing specialties. While a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is currently the minimum degree requirement, the profession will require a doctoral degree by 2025, per the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA).
But the extra time and effort can pay off. This career is in demand. CRNAs are a type of advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP), a group that includes certified nurse midwives, family nurse practitioners, and more. Projected job growth for ARNPs is strong—45% through 2030, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Becoming a CRNA requires more time and education than some other nursing specialties, but the effort can pay off. This career is in demand.
According to U.S. News and World Report, job market and salary contribute to the career’s rank of #15 on the list of Best Healthcare Jobs of 2020. Among advanced registered nurse practitioners, CRNAs have the highest salaries—a median $120,680 per year, according to the BLS.
If you’re considering pursuing a career as a CRNA, learn what it takes to enter a degree program and what you can expect to study while you’re there.
What Degree Do I Need?
Currently, you’ll need to hold at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to practice as a CRNA. By 2025, however, all new CRNAs must hold a doctoral degree to practice.
The path to this important transition began in 2004, when the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommended adopting a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree (DNP) as the standard for entering the field. Three years later, the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) approved a recommendation to require doctoral degrees for new CRNAs by 2025.
“(AANA) empowered a commission to examine the subject of doctoral education for nurse anesthetists and charged them to provide recommendations regarding the move to doctoral education as the entry degree for nurse anesthesia practice,” says John C. Preston, DNSc, CRNA, FNAP, APRN, chief credentialing officer for the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). “One of the early stimuli for considering this move came from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which took the position that going forward, all advanced practice nurses should be educated at the practice doctorate level, utilizing the additional and higher-level educational preparation to support nursing’s pivotal role in the Unites States healthcare system.”
Of the degree choices available to prospective CRNAs, many choose to pursue a DNP. Other options include:
Per the Council on Accreditation (COA) of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, all CRNA programs must offer a doctoral degree option by January 1, 2022. Also by that date, all students in CRNA master’s programs must transition into a doctoral program.
Your program must be accredited by the COA. This is a requirement for taking the national certification exam that you’ll need to pass to be licensed as a CRNA.
Typical Program Requirements
Nurse anesthetist programs are competitive and academically rigorous. The first major requirement for admission is an active RN license in good standing—meaning it’s valid in the state where your school is located.
While it’s currently possible to become an RN with only an associate’s degree in nursing, the majority of CRNA programs require that you enter with a bachelor’s degree. Beyond that, specific application requirements will vary by program, but you can expect to need:
Requirements for a DNP program include a BSN or MSN from a nursing school accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), along with:
Before you can enter a CRNA program, you’ll also need at least one year of experience working as an RN in a critical care setting, though your school may require more time. According to the AANA, aspiring CRNAs enter graduate programs with an average of 2.9 years of experience in critical care.
Before you can enter a CRNA program, you’ll need at least one year of experience working as an RN in a critical care setting.
You’ll also need to meet specific academic prerequisites for admission. If you’re applying with a recent bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), you’ll likely already have taken the required courses. However, if you earned your BSN more than five years prior or in a non-nursing field, you might need to take additional classes before applying. Common prerequisites include:
Coursework in your CRNA program will prepare you to administer anesthesia prior to surgery and monitor patients during and after procedures. You’ll study advanced pharmacology and physiology to understand the components of anesthesia and how to safely deliver it. Other classes will include subjects such as:
- Healthcare ethics
- Advanced pharmacology
- Advanced physiology
- Technology use in advanced nursing practice
- Best nursing practices
- Advanced pathophysiology
- Principles of nurse anesthesia
You’ll also need to take classes in core subjects such as chemistry and statistics and meet any of the general MSN requirements at your school. You may also opt to specialize with coursework tailored to a particular patient population, condition, or other subfield, such as neurosurgery, obstetrics, pediatrics, and dental surgery, among others.
Keep in mind that a doctoral degree will have additional coursework of its own. Although these programs vary, DNP programs tend to focus on either direct clinical practice or nursing administration and leadership.
If you pursue a DNP, you should also expect to do scholarly research culminating in a capstone project that translates evidence from your research into practice. For example, a project could present ways to improve medical processes or programs.
Your CRNA program will require you to complete clinical fieldwork or an internship, including working alongside a practicing CRNA to gain hands-on knowledge and experience. Most programs will help place you in a clinical internship or practicum.
Most CRNA programs require you to complete at least 2,000 clinical practice hours over the course of at least two years.
In addition to practicing anesthesia in a supervised environment, you’ll have the chance to work in specialty areas like cardiac care or pediatrics. Most CRNA programs require you to complete at least 2,000 clinical practice hours over the course of at least two years.
Many universities offer online CRNA programs that have flexible scheduling, a feature that appeals to students who work while they go to school or need to juggle family responsibilities.
These programs allow you to complete coursework online, but you’ll still need to spend significant time in a medical setting to get your clinical hours and hands-on training.
Long Does It Take to Earn a Degree?
CRNA master’s programs take between two and four years to complete, depending on whether you attend full time or part time. That said, the total time it takes to earn a master’s and take the national certification exam for nurse anesthetists is a minimum of seven years. Add a doctorate, and the minimum will be eight to nine years.
This timeline includes:
Completing a bachelor’s degree
Average of four years
Earning your RN certification
Eligible upon graduation
Gaining critical care experience
At least one year
Earning a master’s degree
Minimum of two years
Earning a doctorate
One to two years of school full time
Earning an accelerated BSN to DNP
Three to four years of school full time
With the doctoral degree requirement looming in 2025, the quickest route to becoming a CRNA is to obtain licensure before January 1, 2022. Those who cross this finish line won’t need to pursue a doctoral degree. Prospective CRNAs who don’t obtain licensure by that date will need to either begin or transition to a doctoral program.
Nurse Anesthetist Certification
After completing your nurse anesthetist program, you’ll be ready to take the certification exam administered by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). You’ll answer a minimum of 100 computerized questions related to advanced nursing and anesthesia, though the test may ask up to 170 questions as it determines with certainty whether you pass or fail.
You’ll receive preliminary results once you’ve completed the exam, and official results will be mailed to you within four weeks. If you’ve passed, verification of your certification will be sent to your state board of nursing, and you can then complete any additional state licensing requirements.
The NBCRNA oversees continuing education and recertification for CRNAs under the Continued Professional Certification (CPC) program. This program sets the number of continuing education credits needed by nurse anesthetists every four years, along with testing requirements every eight years.
The CPC divides credits into Class A, Class B, and Core Module. You’ll need to earn some in each category every four years to maintain your certification.
Every eight years, you’ll need to take a comprehensive exam that includes the latest developments in nurse anesthesia to ensure that you are practicing at the highest level as a CRNA. The exam isn’t pass/fail, but you’ll need to take additional continuing education if it’s determined that you don’t meet standards in a particular area.
A Growing Field
Working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist can advance your nursing career and provide you with many professional opportunities. CRNAs are in high demand, with job growth projected at 14% through 2029.
“Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists have a long and distinguished track record of high-quality care provision. The movement to doctoral education for CRNAs is not about better care … that’s already part of the ‘DNA’ of the CRNA,” says Preston. “Rather, this move is more about boosting the scientific foundation and furthering the beneficial reach of nurse anesthesia beyond the bedside and into the structure and sources of health care policy, health care economics, and health care delivery.”
There are many educational pathways to this sought-after, rewarding career that can be tailored to your lifestyle, family responsibilities, budget, and professional goals.