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

If you aspire to advanced practice nursing roles, nurse practitioner degrees offer diversity and opportunity for growth.

advanced practice nurse practitioner confers with nurses doing clinicals

What nurse practitioner degree levels are available?

If your ultimate goal is to move into advanced nursing roles and become a nurse practitioner, your ultimate education goal is to earn a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree.

Your current educational background will dictate how you get to the finish line. Here are the degree steps to getting there:

Associate’s Degree Programs

A 2-year associate’s degree program is a solid stepping stone you can use to enter the nursing field. Upon completion of the coursework, you will be eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and apply for a registered nurse (RN) license. This can open doors to entry-level positions in hospitals or inpatient facilities and provide you with valuable experience. It can also be used as a building block if you decide to earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

Coursework usually covers basic science and math, plus English classes to make for a well-rounded education.

The other option which shares some similarities with an associate’s degree is a diploma in nursing. While it qualifies you to take the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for entry-level positions, it usually takes about 3 years and doesn’t fulfill the requirements you would need to apply for BSNs or MSNs.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Nursing is one career field with a handful of bachelor’s degree options. The end result is always a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, but you’ll have to make a choice on which path you take to get there.

Five types of Bachelor’s Degrees in Nursing:

  • BSN: 4-year degree and the prerequisite for applying to graduate nursing school. The first two years cover core requirements and the latter two years focus primarily on nursing. This degree is a good start for aspiring nurse practitioners who will eventually decide on a specialty.
  • LPN-to-BSN: Within four semesters, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) can earn a BSN.
  • RN-to-BSN: This unique path gives RNs with an associate’s degree or diploma the chance to further their career while working.
  • Second-degree BSN: Intended for someone who already has a 4-year degree in another field and is interested in changing careers. This program can often be completed in two years or less because credit is given for the liberal arts education from the original degree.
  • Accelerated Degree BSN: As the name implies, students can finish their degree in a shorter period of time (usually 12 to 20 months).

You can find many of these degree problems both online and on campus. As an example of a typical course load, Briarcliffe College’s online BSN offers the following core coursework:

Examples of BSN Core Courses

  • Health promotion and disease prevention
  • Physical examination and health assessment
  • Communication and collaboration
  • Critical thinking
  • Genetics and Genomics
  • Information management

Graduates can sit for the NCLEX-RN upon graduation.

Master’s Degree Program

MSN programs are generally a two-year commitment. Not only will you earn your graduate degree, but you will also be trained in a specialty of your choosing. Many MSN programs are available both online and at traditional schools.

To get a better understanding of what MSN coursework will entail, here’s a quick sample of classes:

Health care policy: Covers major features of the health care delivery system, the financial and political impacts and teaches students to critically think about policy issues.

Advanced Concepts in Pharmacology: Prescription guidelines, drug interactions, and side effects are taught.

Health care ethics: These courses teach students about patient-provider relationships, legal and ethical issues, and moral judgment.

Theory and Practice (Specialty-based): This topic will start from broad to narrow with initial classes covering theory and practice in your chosen specialization and moving to more in-depth training related to the specific patients treated in your specialization.

Clinical practicum: Hands-on experience is required as part of nurse practitioner education. The amount of clinical hours required varies by state so check your state board’s requirements to confirm your program provides those hours.

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Doctoral Program

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) isn’t required in order to practice as a nurse practitioner, but if you’re looking to advance further in your career, this degree provides a clinical (instead of research) focus. As the medical field continues to evolve and more nurses earn higher-level degrees, a doctoral program can help you stand out in the crowd. DNP programs are available both online and on campus.

An example of an online DNP is American Sentinel University’s DNP in Executive Leadership. This program is intended for manager-level nurses or executives and teaches students about finance, business intelligence, health policy, leadership and health services research.

Post-master’s certificates can also be obtained via an online school and cover topics like nursing informatics and nurse-midwifery.

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, although there is some overlap with a few specialties.

Nurses with master’s-level, post-graduate 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 test, applicants must have:

  • NPs with an MSN, post-master’s certificate or doctorate
  • Active RN license
  • At least 500 clinical clock hours supervised by a faculty member
  • Final transcript or transcript showing work accomplished so far

Students who are within six months of graduating with an MSN or higher can begin the application process for AANPCP’s certification exam.

ANCC also lets students apply for their exam prior to graduation and certifies nurse practitioners in almost a dozen specialties:

  • Acute Care NP
  • Adult NP
  • Adult-gerontology acute care NP
  • Adult gerontology primary care NP
  • Adult Psychiatric-mental health NP
  • Family NP
  • Gerontological NP
  • Pediatric Primary Care NP
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health NP
  • School NP

The general eligibility requirements to take the ANCC exam are:

  • Having a current RN license
  • A master’s degree, post-graduate or doctoral degree in your specialization
  • At least 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours
  • Graduate courses in physiology, pathophysiology, advanced health assessment and advanced pharmacology
  • Graduate-level content in health promotion and maintenance, disease management and differential diagnosis

It’s recommended that students research the exact specialization criteria before applying.

The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) and National Certification Corporation (NCC), which offers exams for neonatal NPs and women’s health NPs, also offer exams.

What will I learn in my courses?

Core science and nursing topics will be taught in undergraduate programs. When you reach graduate-level coursework, you will determine an NP specialty which will dictate the types of classes you’ll take.

Some of the major specialties to choose from are:

  • Acute care nursing
  • Family nursing
  • Public health nursing
  • Oncology nursing
  • Women’s health nursing
  • Geriatric nursing
  • Neonatal nursing
  • Psychiatric nursing
  • Pediatric nursing

Students can be prepared to delve into topics like health policy, ethics, business management, nursing theory, and health promotion and disease prevention.

How long will nurse practitioner degrees take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a nursing degree can take the following time to complete:

  • Associate’s degree programs, which provide entry-level opportunities, usually take two years
  • A bachelor’s degree program takes four years
  • Accelerated BSN programs range from 12 to 20 months
  • Second-degree BSN generally takes two years or less
  • Master’s degree programs generally require two years

Attending part-time is usually an option at most schools, but bear in mind it will take longer to complete.

Are online programs available?

Nursing is a very hands-on profession so you might assume online programs don’t exist, but they do. Students can earn both BSNs and MSNs online at a range of schools with some offering part-time curriculums as well.

Online programs may offer live web-based teaching and when it’s time to complete clinical hours, online programs typically set students up at a site the school has partnered with.

Are there prerequisites?

As part of the advanced practice nurse community, nurse practitioners must have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree with a specialty in a particular area, like family or geriatric nursing. Because MSN programs use undergraduate courses as their building blocks, certain prerequisites apply.

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing school
  • Active registered nurse (RN) license
  • Certain level of clinical experience
  • Minimum GPA
  • Minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

If this doesn’t describe your background, you do have several options depending on your timetable and how soon you want to get to work as a nurse practitioner. The first option is to enroll in an undergraduate program and follow the traditional path through to earning an MSN. If you aren’t a nurse, but have a 4-year degree in another field, consider an accelerated program which allows students to earn their BSN and MSN simultaneously.

Associate’s degrees and nursing diplomas can also propel you to the first step of nursing, especially if you’re trying to enter the field quickly and are a recent high school graduate or someone looking for a career change.

What accreditation is there for my program?

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. Secondly, one 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 NPs career—should also be accredited by the ANCC Accreditation Program.

Non-accredited schools: 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.

Sources: American Association of Nurse Practitioners; American Nurses Credentialing Center; Pediatric Nursing Certification Board; National Certification Corporation

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