Here’s What You’ll Study in a Nurse Practitioner Program

If you aspire to advanced practice nursing roles, a nurse practitioner program offers diversity and opportunity for growth.

advanced practice nurse practitioner confers with nurses doing clinicals
two nurses walking in hospital hallway looking at clipboard

You’ll have advanced responsibility, autonomy, and earning potential as a nurse practitioner (NP). To get there, you’ll need an advanced degree—at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), although the field is increasingly moving toward requiring a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) as the entry-level degree.

What Degrees Do I Need?

Before you pursue a master’s or doctoral degree, you’ll need to hold an RN-level nursing degree. You can apply to an MSN program if you already have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). You can also apply to special MSN programs known as bridge programs if you have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). In either case, you’ll need to meet the requirements of your desired MSN program. In many cases, this means you’ll need to have an active RN license in good standing. Some programs will also ask that you have some experience working as an RN.

Earning your MSN

A Master of Science in Nursing is designed to give you a more advanced understanding of nursing practice. You’ll go into more depth than you did in your ADN or BSN program. You’ll learn the theory behind some of the concepts you learned earlier in your education and learn new ways it can help you in your nursing role.

You’ll pick a specialty right away, and your classes will prepare you to work in that role.

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“Your NP program will focus on your specialty from day one,” says Sara Hunt DNP, MSN, FNP-C, PHN, a licensed family nurse practitioner who works as a health policy instructor. “Unlike medical school, where everyone obtains a generic MD or DO at the end of medical school and then enters their specialty afterwards, NPs enter straight into their specialty.”

When Hunt was studying to become a family nurse practitioner, she and her cohort started their hands-on patient training and clinical skills in the first week.

“There is no such thing as a generic nurse practitioner in the U.S.,” she explains. “You have a specialty when you enter the program. Then, you can subspecialize or dual specialize later if you want.”

Earning your DNP

The nurse practitioner field is increasingly moving toward requiring DNP degrees. In fact, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has been recommending the DNP degree as the standard for nurse practitioners since 2004. More recently, in 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) committed to DNP degrees as the entry-level standard for nurse practitioners by 2025.

The number of DNP programs has grown along with this move. There are currently programs in all 50 states. The AACN reports there are 348 DNP programs across the country. So what is a DNP degree? A DNP provides advanced clinical instruction. You’ll get an in-depth, doctoral education that will help you provide expert patient care, position you for supervisory roles, and potentially help you earn a higher salary.

What Certification Will I Need?

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) both offer nationally recognized certification programs. Your specialization will dictate which organization you can be certified by, although there is some overlap within a few specialties. Additionally, the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) and National Certification Corporation (NCC) offer exams for neonatal NPs and women’s health NPs.

Nurses with master’s-level, postgraduate, or doctoral degrees can apply for certification in adult, family and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner specialties by taking AANPCP’s exam. To be eligible to sit for the exam, you’ll need to:

  • Have completed or be within six months of graduation from an MSN, post-master’s certificate, or doctoral-level degree program
  • Hold an active RN license
  • Have completed at least 500 clinical hours supervised by a faculty member
  • Submit a final transcript or transcript showing the work you’ve accomplished so far
  • Complete graduate courses in physiology, pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology
  • Complete graduate-level content in health promotion and maintenance, disease management, and differential diagnosis

It’s a good idea to research the exact specialization criteria before applying.

What Nurse Practitioner Specialties are There?

There are a variety of nurse practitioner specialties. Specialties allow you to focus on a specific setting, like acute care, or a specific age group, like pediatrics. Popular specialties include:

  • Acute care nurse practitioner
  • Adult nurse practitioner
  • Adult gerontology acute care nurse practitioner
  • Adult gerontology primary care nurse practitioner
  • Adult psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Gerontological nurse practitioner
  • Pediatric primary care nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner
  • School nurse practitioner

Specialties allow you to focus on a specific type of care or age group.

What Will I Learn in My Courses?

Your coursework will depend on your specialty, but the focus will always be on patient care. NPs have an advanced scope of practice that allows them to take on many of the duties traditionally associated with physicians, but NPs always work from a nursing perspective. This perspective is an important part of what you’ll learn as you earn your degree.

“Nurse practitioners are trained to be holistic, (meaning they are trained to provide) for your physical, mental, spiritual, and social needs,” explains Hunt.

The course of study is all-encompassing and includes everything from physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, nutrition, behavioral issues, cultural issues, physical exams, minor procedures, and more, says Hunt. In other words, the focus on wellness goes beyond just treating an illness or injury.

Nurse practitioners treat the whole person; not just their illness.

“You think about things from the patient perspective and work with them as partners in health,” says Hunt. “The books, tools, and training often overlap with medical training.”

Common NP Specialties and the Classes You’ll Take

Coursework for your specialty will provide the specific knowledge you need to work with certain patients in certain settings. For example, family NPs see patients of all ages in offices, but oncology NPs work with cancer patients in hospitals or other long-term care settings. You’ll need slightly different skills for each role. Your specialty coursework will prepare you with these skills.

Specialty: Oncology nursing

Typical classes:

  • End-of-life care
  • Advanced cancer care
  • Cancer symptom management
  • Advanced cancer pharmacology

Specialty: Geriatric nursing

Typical classes:

  • Comprehensive assessment
  • Geriatric pharmacology
  • Long-term care and discharge planning
  • Geriatric mental health

Specialty: Family nursing

Typical classes:

  • Advanced physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Primary health care
  • Care of the family

Specialty: Neonatal nursing

Typical classes:

  • Genetics and healthcare
  • Advanced neonatal nursing theory
  • Neonatal assessment

How Long Will Earning a Nurse Practitioner Degree Take?

nurse in white coat with laptop at desk with smiling patient

You’ll need to hold an RN license before you can start an NP program. This means you’ll need to earn at least an associate degree or, more commonly, a bachelor’s degree. An ADN generally takes around two years, while a BSN will take around four. However, if you’re planning to pursue the education you need to become an NP, earning your BSN might save you time in the long run.

You can go straight to an MSN program as an RN with an associate’s degree, but this bridge program will take longer than it would to earn your MSN if you already had a BSN. Generally, you can complete an MSN in around two years, but a bridge program may take as many as three. Plus, BSN-educated nurses can take their own bridge, going straight from a BSN to a DNP with BSN-DNP programs.

It can take anywhere from three to six years to earn your DNP. The length of time will depend on your program, program structure, specialty, and more. Some programs will also require extensive clinical hours, which can add to the length.

Earning a DNP usually takes between three and six years.

So just how long is that? It depends on where you start and which degree you want. Let’s say your goal is to work as an NP with an MSN degree, and you currently have an associate’s degree that took you two years to earn. If you decide to enter an RN-to-MSN bridge program that takes three years, your total time would be five years. However, let’s say you earn your BSN in four years and later decide you want to pursue a DNP. If you select a BSN-to-DNP bridge program and complete it in five years, you’d have spent nine years in school. Your education could take longer if you don’t use any bridge programs, attend school part time, or are switching from a non-nursing career.

Are Online Programs Available?

There are online programs available for nursing students at all levels, including students pursuing an MSN or a DNP. You can find these programs offered by universities throughout the country. In many cases, you’ll take your classes online, then be placed at clinical locations in the community to get the hours you need. You might have the option to use on-campus resources like libraries, study groups, and more when you need them.

Are There Prerequisites?

Since undergraduate courses are the building blocks of higher degrees, certain prerequisites apply to those pursuing either an MSN or a DNP. First, you must have a BSN degree and pass the NCLEX to be licensed as a registered nurse. If you have a bachelor’s in another field, you can apply to a direct-entry NP program. However, you still must complete all the pre-nursing prerequisites, which are similar to pre-med, and also obtain the second bachelor’s in nursing equivalency.

“So if you majored in another field, you essentially have two different bachelor’s,” says Hunt. “There is no way around this. Unlike medical school, where you can major in just about anything and apply to medical school as long as you have completed the prerequisites and take the MCATs, you must obtain the BSN equivalency and have a license to practice as an RN first prior to starting NP curriculum. Many schools may require a certain amount of practice hours or years of RN experience before applying to NP school or entering into the NP curriculum phase.”

Plus, programs will all have their own requirements. This can vary depending on what you apply for. However, in addition to a BSN and nursing experience, you’ll generally need to have:

  • An active license in good standing
  • A minimum GPA from your previous coursework
  • A minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

Keep in mind that bridge programs are another option and might have different requirements. That’s because you’ll earn your BSN alongside your MSN in an RN-to-MSN bridge program, allowing you to jump in sooner. 

How Important is Accreditation?

Attending an accredited nursing school opens many doors for students, since it’s often a gateway for students to study in federally funded and state entitlement programs. In fact, you can’t apply for federal assistance using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) unless you attend an accredited school. Secondly, a degree from an accredited school allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools.

For nurse practitioner programs, the accrediting body is the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which is recognized as a national accreditation agency by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Programs can also be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Meanwhile, continuing education nursing programs—which will come later in an NP’s career—should also be accredited by the ANCC Accreditation Program.

What if My Program or School Isn’t Accredited?

If you’re thinking of attending a non-accredited but state board-approved school, there can be drawbacks.

While you can still take the NCLEX, your nursing profession may stall out if you’re seeking additional education. Generally, education from a non-accredited school doesn’t qualify students to attend an accredited school. If you’re thinking about a career as a nurse practitioner where an MSN is necessary, attending a non-accredited undergraduate school can limit your options in the future. Furthermore, employers might not consider you for employment with a degree from an unaccredited school.

How Much Can I Make as an NP?

Median annual salary for a Nurse Practitioner

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

The median annual NP salary is $117,670, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although an NP’s salary can vary depending on the degree you hold, your years or experience, your workplace, your specialty, and other factors.

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

sara hunt

With professional insight from:

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

Author description goes here. Photo dimensions are 88×88.