How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Learn what you’ll do as a nurse practitioner and see if you have the right personality for the job.

Interested in working as a nurse practitioner (NP)? You’re not alone. The career is one of the fastest growing in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which states the profession is anticipated to grow an impressive 45% by 2030. You’ll need at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree (although by 2025 the Doctor of Nursing Practice—or DNP—will be the standard), as well as a specialty certification, to begin work as a nurse practitioner.

NPs are increasingly found in a variety of healthcare settings. They often act as primary care providers, seeing patients and prescribing treatments and medications. NPs can improve access to healthcare for people who live in rural or inner-city communities where there are fewer physicians.

NPs provide “affordable, cost-effective, quality, and safe care,” says Sean DeGarmo, PhD, RN, ENP-BC, FNP-BC, ACNS-BC and director of APRN Initiatives for the American Nurses Association’s (ANA) American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

The number of nurse practitioners is expected to grow an impressive 45% by 2030.

With the role of nurse practitioners expected to keep growing and with opportunities increasing, now is a great time to get started.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who has earned at least a master’s degree and completed additional training in a specialty area of medicine. Because of their advanced skills, NPs have more authority for administering patient care compared to registered nurses. For example, NPs can prescribe medication, administer physical exams, diagnose illnesses, and provide advanced medical treatment similar to a doctor. While NPs have more authority than RNs and practice physician-level type care, some states require doctors to supervise their patient care decisions.

Impressive Job Growth for Nurse Practitioners

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The BLS projects that an additional 322,000 NPs will join the workforce over the next 10 years. There are several reasons for this. Some of the growth can be tied to the overall growth in healthcare roles as the large baby boomer generation continues to age and need care. However, nurse practitioner job growth is projected to far outpace even the projected overall healthcare job growth rates.

According to DeGarmo, it’s not just the increased need for healthcare that is fueling this increase in numbers. Much of the growth is also driven by a need for primary care providers.

“The Institute of Medicine (released a report in 2010 that) said there was a shortage of primary care providers,” says DeGarmo. “One of the things we’ve found is that people are leaving healthcare, retiring, going into something else. So there is a large gap.”

This is especially true in rural areas, where the loss of one provider can mean community members have to travel much farther for healthcare. With fewer primary care physicians stepping into these rural primary care roles, there is ample opportunity for NPs willing to relocate.

“I have actually worked in a few rural communities, and you’re generally one of only a few healthcare providers out there,” says DeGarmo. “Then, if they retire, or a couple of them retire, you need people to fill those spots.”

Nurse practitioners are also filling the need left open by family physicians who often leave the field for other specialties.

“There is huge demand for primary care providers, like family medicine, but few physicians are choosing family medicine and staying in primary care,” says Sara Hunt DNP, MSN, FNP-C, PHN, a family nurse practitioner and health policy instructor. “The opposite is true for nurse practitioners. The majority of nurse practitioners specialize in primary care (about 89%) and the majority of nurse practitioners stay in primary care (about 75%).”

Hunt also suspects the popularity of nurse practitioner study is growing with students, particularly since the course of study is shorter than that of a medical doctor (MD). Also, “they are seeing it as an attractive alternative to medical school, because there is great flexibility in work once you obtain an (advanced) RN license,” she says.

What Traits Make a Good Nurse Practitioner?

You’ll need compassion, ethics, and excellent problem-solving skills to be successful in an NP role.

“Good nurse practitioners are nurses who have empathy for their patients and are willing to listen,” says Michelle Paul, RN, BSN, a content specialist for nurse staffing agency Clipboard Health. “They are also able to take charge and have great leadership skills, as many work as (supervisors) of other healthcare staff.”

Is a Nurse Practitioner Job for You?

You Should Be:

  • Analytical
  • Supportive
  • A clear communicator
  • An excellent listener
  • Compassionate
  • Dependable
  • Good-natured

You Should Have:

  • Problem-solving skills
  • Good decision-making skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Computer skills
  • Good ethical standards
  • Good interpersonal relationship skills

Nurse Practitioner Job Description

NPs are trained registered nurses with an advanced scope of practice that allows them to take on more duties. NPs typically choose a core area of expertise and tend to take a more holistic and wellness-oriented approach to treatment through education and preventive care that lasts the entire life cycle. This makes them ideal choices as primary care providers for people of all ages and in all settings.

Typical responsibilities of a nurse practitioner include:

  • Diagnosing and treating acute illnesses, injuries, and infections
  • Writing prescriptions for medications, including their dosage and frequency
  • Ordering and conducting diagnostic tests, like electrocardiograms (EKGs) and X-rays
  • Designing treatment plans, making recommendations, and teaching patients about managing their health
  • Examining and recording patient medical histories, symptoms, and diagnoses
  • Providing guidance to patients about medications, side effects, and interactions

The nurse practitioner profession can be a highly rewarding career with plenty of opportunities to help others and take on a much-needed role in the healthcare industry. Nurse practitioners have a lot of options these days, from where they work to what they focus on. By helping to prevent disease and promote healthy living, nurse practitioners are referred to as true “Partners in Health” by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).

In fact, nurse practitioners continue to move outside of the commonly considered workplaces, and beyond doctor’s offices and hospitals. They may also be found in schools, clinics, and birthing centers, and they may even provide in-home healthcare services. Additionally, they can also have their own practices and operate independently.

Does a Nurse Practitioner Provide the Same Care as a Medical Doctor?

Working as a nurse practitioner is distinctly a nursing career, but you’ll have a lot more autonomy than an RN would. Nurse practitioners have the unique ability to treat patients and provide primary care from a nursing perspective, which, according to DeGarmo, is distinctly unique and differs from the  perspective of an MD.

“(Nurses) treat the human response to the disease process. In medicine, they treat the disease process itself,” explains DeGarmo.

NPs incorporate their nursing perspective into the care they provide. This means the care might look different from the care provided by a physician, even if they’re taking on many of the same tasks.

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Nurse Practitioners Enjoy Career Flexibility

One great benefit of a nurse practitioner career is the ability to specialize within the field and work just about anywhere. Just as doctors and surgeons may have a specialty, all NPs have a set specialty. There are some generally recognized, certified specialty areas to choose from—all of which require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to become an advanced practice nurse. Take a look at your focus options:

  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP)—FNPs are one of the most common NP specialties. Generally, FNPs act as primary care providers and provide a wide range of healthcare to all ages of patients throughout the family life cycle. They also offer education and counseling to family members.
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner—Pediatric NPs work with children ranging from a few months old to teenagers. They diagnose illnesses, conduct medical exams, and help keep young patients healthy through education and wellness practices.
  • Adult nurse practitioner—Adult NPs are similar to FNPs. They generally provide primary care to adults, including physical exams, prescriptions, and health education.
  • Geriatric nurse practitioner—Geriatric NPs work with older adults. They often focus on specific populations such as nursing home residents or people with specific conditions like heart disease. They also work with family members to counsel them in patient special needs, such as diet, medicines, and exercise.
  • Women’s nurse practitioner—You’ll provide comprehensive care with an emphasis on women’s reproductive and gynecological health.
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner—You’ll care for newborns in standard labor and delivery units as well as neonatal intensive care units (ICUs). You might also work with new parents and provide education and counseling.
  • Acute care nurse practitioner—Acute care takes place in a hospital or an urgent care center. Acute care NPs provide advanced care to patients experiencing severe illness or injury.
  • Occupational health nurse practitioner (OHNP)—OHNPs work to treat and prevent workplace injuries. They might also provide education to employees on health and wellness.

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Since a nurse practitioner is a type of advanced practice registered nurse, you must be licensed as a registered nurse, then pursue an advanced nursing education. Nurse practitioners need at least an MSN, although changes within the industry in recent years are creating a movement toward making the DNP the degree requirement for the nurse practitioner role. The push toward the DNP began in 2004, when the American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommended a shift in preparing all advanced practice nurses at the doctoral level by 2025, with the degree title of DNP.

“This is currently a recommendation, but not a mandate,” explains Hunt. “However, there is a very strong trend of NP programs transitioning to doctoral programs and NPs with master’s (degrees) returning to school to obtain their DNP.”

The AACN recommendation was backed up in 2018 by the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) when it announced a move toward DNPs as the standard entry-level degree by 2025. This means that if you’re in school right now, getting an MSN is still a way to begin your NP career.

However, it might be a good idea to look at DNP programs, too. If working as an NP is part of your future career plans but still a few years down the road, keep in mind you might need a DNP to meet your goals. (It is expected that those already holding an MSN and practicing as an NP will be legacied in.)

While you can currently be a nurse practitioner with an MSN, the industry is moving toward making the DNP the degree requirement for the job by 2025.

Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

Your exact path to an NP career will depend on your personal circumstances and background. However, there are a few standard steps you’ll need to take.

  • Step 1:

Earn your RN license

You’ll need an active RN license in good standing to enter an NP program. You can choose from an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

  • Step 2:

Earn your MSN or DNP

An MSN in the minimum degree you need to be an NP. You can apply to the standard MSN program if you have a BSN. Nurses with an ADN can apply to RN-to-MSN bridge programs that allow them to earn a BSN alongside an MSN. You can apply to DNP programs if you have an MSN, or you can apply for a BSN-to-DNP bridge program if you don’t already have an MSN.

  • Step 3:

Take a certification exam in your specialty

All NPs have a specialty. The exam you take will depend on your area of focus. Certification organizations for NPs include American Association of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, the National Certification Corporation, and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board.

  • Step 4:

Apply for licensure in your state

You’ll need to submit your exam results, along with your transcripts, to your state for your nurse practitioner license. In some states, you’ll also need to apply for a separate prescriptive authority license that lets you prescribe medicine.

  • Step 5:

Maintain your license through continuing education and clinical hours

You’ll need to take steps to keep your license active. The steps will depend on your license and your state. Generally, you’ll need a set number of continuing education hours and clinical practice hours.

Is There Financial Aid?

You’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be considered for government financial aid. In addition, the school you attend must be accredited by a recognized organization. Scholarships, grants, private loans, and PLUS loans are other types of financial aid you can consider.

What Type of Accreditation Should a Nursing School Have?

NP schools should be accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

How Much Can I Earn as an NP?

According to the BLS, a nurse practitioner’s median annual salary is $117,670, although that can vary depending on where you live and work. While NPs are most often found in physicians’ offices, they can also work in hospitals, nursing homes, retail clinics, and many other places.

Average median salary for a Nurse Practitioner

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics

Become Part of an In-Demand Field

Because of their popularity with patients and healthcare staff, NPs are much in demand—not only to help serve the patient population, but also to ease the burden on overtaxed physicians’ time and serve as a less expensive healthcare option to a medical doctor.

“Nurse practitioners can be much cheaper to employ than physicians,” says Paul, “and many NPs are already working as registered nurses and have built up the connections with other nurses and facilities to network into job openings.”

A recent article in Forbes magazine underscored the demand, noting that NPs are “taking on greater roles at hospitals and health systems as insurance payment shifts from fee-for-service medicine to value-based approaches that emphasize outpatient care.”

In short, the future for NPs looks bright. Now is a great time to jump into this exciting career field.

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

Michelle Paul, RN, BSN

Content Specialist, Clipboard Health

Sean DeGarmo, PhD, RN, ENP-BC, FNP-BC, ACNS-BC

Director of APRN Initiatives for the American Nurses Association’s (ANA) American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

sara hunt

Sara Hunt, DNP, MSN, FNP-C, PHN

Family Nurse Practitioner and Health Policy Instructor