Nurse Practitioner Career and Degree Guide
Nurse Practitioner Career Paths
Nurse practitioner is fast becoming a popular nursing career choice. Learn what you’ll do on the job.
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses who provide primary care. Their advanced education allows them to take on some tasks generally associated with physicians, such as diagnosing conditions, treating illness or injury, and prescribing medications. In communities with limited healthcare access, especially rural communities, NPs often serve as primary care providers for the area.
NPs specialize in areas that allow them to work with a variety of patients. Popular NP specialties include:
What Kind of Work Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?
Nurse practitioners provide primary care to patients in their area of specialty. Primary care will look a little different depending on what your specialty is, but it will generally include:
Many NPs work in physician offices. There are also jobs for NPs in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, home healthcare, long-term care, universities, and more.
Strong 10-year Job Growth Predicted for NPs
NP roles are continuing to grow well above the average job growth rate. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts an astounding 52% growth in the field by 2029. That growth might include new opportunities for NPs in places like urgent care centers and corporate settings.
Nurse practitioner job growth by 2029 per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
One of the most popular, and common, nurse practitioner specialties is family nurse practitioner, or FNP.
“This offers the most career flexibility and broadest scope of practice,” says Sara Hunt, DNP, MSN, FNP-C, PHN, a health policy instructor who is also a family nurse practitioner and holds a DNP. “You are trained to care for people throughout the lifespan, from newborns, children, adults, pregnancy, and through the dying process.”
Are Nurse Practitioners Registered Nurses?
A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). That means an NP is an RN with advanced education and more job responsibilities. NPs have more autonomy and a wider scope of practice than RNs. However, many NPs start as RNs and incorporate their RN experience into their role as an NP. It’s not necessary to work as RN before earning your NP license, but it can help, according to Hunt.
“The extent that it will help depends on your experience and NP specialty and if they are in alignment,” explains Hunt. “ICU experience would be excellent if you planned on working in the ICU as an NP, but it’s not going to be particularly helpful if you plan on specializing in, say, dermatology.”
An RN background gives nurses a base of knowledge that can help smooth the path to an advanced NP role, explains 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).
“You’re taking that prior nursing knowledge of treating the human response, and you’re adding the advanced knowledge of treating the disease process,” says DeGarmo. “So you’re treating at 360 degrees. You’re treating both.”
What Career Paths Can I Take as a Nurse Practitioner?
Part of what will determine your career path as a nurse practitioner is the specialty you choose. Check out some popular focuses below to see where your NP career could take you.
What Education Will I Need to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
You’ll need at least a Master of Science in Nursing, or MSN, to earn licensure as an NP. MSN degrees have long been the standard in the profession, but there is a move toward the more advanced DNP degree.
DNP degrees have been recommended by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) since 2004, and in 2018 the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) committed to DNPs as an entry-level standard for NPs by 2025.
This means that right now you can choose whether you want to earn an MSN or DNP degree. However, in the future, DNPs are likely to become the standard. No matter what path you take, your first step will be to earn an RN license. You’ll need an RN license in good standing to enter any NP program, and many will want you to have a few years of clinical RN experience when you apply. From there, you’ll need to earn an advanced degree, take an exam in your specialty, and apply for licensure in your state.
The steps will vary a little depending on your background, program, specialty, and state. However, you’ll generally need to:
1. Choose an MSN or DNP program
2. Take a certification exam in your specialty
3. Apply for licensure from your state
Which States Allow Nurse Practitioners to Practice Independently?
In some states, nurse practitioners can open their own office and see patients without a physician present. In other states, an NP needs to work under the supervision of a physician. In these states, NPs often work in large offices owned by a physician. They see patients independently but are employed by or work under a physician. As of 2020, there are 23 states that allow NPs to practice independently:
Your state also regulates the “prescriptive authority” you have as an NP. Prescriptive authority is your ability to prescribe medication. In some states, NPs have full prescriptive authority, while other states restrict things like the ability to prescribe controlled substances. For example, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Illinois only allow NPs to prescribe up to a 30-day supply of schedule II controlled substances. These include fentanyl, hydromorphone, methadone, and oxycodone.
What Can I Expect to Earn?
According to the BLS, the average annual NP salary is $111,840. That’s significantly more than RNs, who earn an average of $77,460, and comparable to physician assistants, who earn an average of $112,410. Your salary can vary. The BLS reports that the lowest-paid 10% of NPs earn an average of $81,410, while the highest 10% earn an average of $152,160.
Where will you fall in that range? It depends. Your salary as an NP can depend on multiple factors such as your degree, experience, specialty, employer, and location.
With professional insight from: