How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

If you’re interested in becoming a nurse practitioner (NP), you may be wondering, “How many years of school do I need to be a nurse practitioner?” The general path involves becoming a registered nurse (RN), completing a bachelor’s degree, and then obtaining a graduate degree after gaining experience as an RN. State licensure and certification as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) are required, too. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) indicates that as of 2018, 99 percent of NPs hold a graduate degree, so you can expect to be in school for at least seven years.

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Another common question is “How much does it cost to become a nurse practitioner?” The cost varies depending on where you enroll for undergraduate and graduate school, and whether or not you pursue your Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. Fees for nursing programs vary from state to state, as well as across program formats. For example, online nursing programs may help cut down on costs related to transportation to and from classes.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is a type of APRN with advanced education and training. NPs have the authority to diagnose, treat, counsel, and prescribe medication to patients. They may be able to practice independently without physician oversight, depending on state regulations. Often, NPs focus on certain specialties—such as pediatrics, geriatrics, mental health, women’s health, or adult medicine—but it’s important to note that additional training is required.

You can find more about who nurse practitioners are and what they do by following this link: What is a nurse practitioner?

General Path to Become a Nurse Practitioner

How long does it take to become a nurse practitioner? Becoming a registered nurse, completing a bachelor’s degree, gaining experience in the field, obtaining a graduate degree, and completing certification are all part of the process, which means the length of time it takes to become an NP will vary from one individual to another. However, understanding the importance of getting the right degree and the right certification at the right time will go a long way toward planning your path most efficiently. The following provides a general description of the required steps to become a nurse practitioner.

Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse and/or Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Becoming a registered nurse is the first step you need to take, as possessing this foundation is essential to the clinical skills that the NP role requires. Registered nurses (RNs) work with a variety of patient populations. They provide and coordinate care, educate patients and the public about health conditions, and offer guidance and emotional support to patients and their families. They usually work as part of a team with other health care professionals and may perform a variety of tasks, including:

  • Assessing a patient’s condition
  • Documenting various aspects of a patient’s care
  • Administrating medicines and treatments
  • Creating care plans for patients and families
  • Collaborating with other health care professionals
  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment
  • Assisting with diagnostic testing and the analysis of results
  • Teaching patients and their families how to manage illnesses or injuries

After graduating from high school, you can become a registered nurse by completing either an associate or bachelor’s degree program in nursing from an accredited institution of higher education. Although diploma programs to train RNs were popular in years past, they have significantly dwindled in popularity since many health care employers require RNs to have a college degree.

Additional options include combining the steps of becoming an RN and earning a bachelor's degree or pursuing accelerated tracks that may be available for those who have previously acquired bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing fields. Some students may choose to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) first. This allows them to gain clinical experience and earn income while they pursue further education to become an RN.

Graduates of nursing programs must pass a standardized national licensing examination: the NCLEX-RN for registered nurses or the NCLEX-PN for licensed practical nurses. After passing the examination, they must then earn a state license and undergo a criminal background check. In all nursing programs, students take a variety of science courses, including anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, and other social and behavioral sciences. It usually takes four years to complete a traditional, non-accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, which typically includes additional education in the physical and social sciences, research, and community health. BSN programs usually include extensive clinical education.

There are several paths to getting a BSN, as noted below. Although the first may appear to be the longest route, it is the most direct in terms of time to completion. If another option is preferred, it is important to know what requirements may be ahead to ensure the most efficient path. In addition, if you have a specialty area in mind for your work as an NP, clinical experience in related settings is key to building a foundation that will be helpful when pursuing certification. If you are not sure which area you would like to specialize in, this can be a great time to try different settings and patient populations. The various paths to getting a BSN include:

  • Enrolling in a BSN program after graduating from high school: Approximately 3–4 months.
  • Enrolling in an associate degree in nursing (ADN) program and completing additional coursework to complete a BSN: Approximately 2–4 years.
  • Enrolling in an LPN program and completing additional coursework to complete a BSN: Approximately 1–3 years.
  • Enrolling in an RN-to-BSN bridge program: timeline varies.
  • Enrolling in an LPN-to-BSN program: timeline varies.

Step 2: Gain Experience in the Field

After the completion of a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to get to work. Many individuals who complete a BSN have already been working in clinical settings, but those who entered a program straight out of high school will benefit from getting some experience under their belts. There are many essential clinical skills that a nurse hones while caring for patients on the job—as well as important competencies related to things like communication, collaboration, and teamwork in a clinical setting.

Many nurses start out in medical-surgical settings, which provide a strong foundation in caring for patients with a variety of needs. However, others may start their careers in specialty areas. If a nurse would like to specialize in a certain area, there are many types of nursing certifications available. These often require a minimum of two years of clinical experience in that specialty as part of eligibility to sit for the exam.

How much experience is needed?

  • Usually one to two years of clinical work provides a strong foundation, depending upon the setting and goals for future specialization.
  • Registered nurses may earn specialty certification in a variety of fields, which typically includes a minimum requirement for years of clinical experience in the field.

Step 3: Obtain a Graduate Degree

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the minimum requirement to become a nurse practitioner. According to the AANP, there are approximately 400 academic institutions with NP programs in the United States. The AANP recommends the following considerations to help you choose one that will fit your specific needs:

  • Is training offered in your preferred specialty area?
  • Is your preferred method of attendance is available?
  • What are the entry requirements, and do you qualify?
  • What is the program’s accreditation and graduate certification rate?

The requirements to apply for an MSN program vary depending upon the individual school. In addition to the required undergraduate education and licensure, the typical requirements for admission to an MSN program include clinical experience, letters of reference, and academic transcripts.

For example, many family nurse practitioner (FNP) online programs require that candidates meet a base set of requirements, including:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited university or college
  • Active registered nurse’s license in good standing
  • Minimum amount of work experience as an RN (amount varies by institution)
  • Ability to meet the particular FNP program’s required clinical and/or on-site practicum

Some candidates also choose to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree to advance their foundation of knowledge. Timeframes for programs and educational paths vary, but here are general estimates to help you consider your options:

  • BSN to MSN path: 2 years full-time; 3–4+ years part-time 
  • RN/ADN to MSN path: 3–5 years full-time; 5+ years part-time
  • MSN to DNP path: 1–2 years full-time; 2–3+ years part-time 
  • BSN to DNP path: 3–4 years full-time; 4–7+ years part-time

Step 4: Achieve State License and Certification

Every state requires that nurse practitioners be licensed. Since the Board of Nursing (BON) in each state governs the specific licensing requirements, it is important to know what the requirements are before starting your education and training. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) provides contact information for each state BON across the United States, where specific licensure requirements can be obtained. Find links to state-specific nurse practitioner licensing requirements provided by NursingLicensure.org.

NPs are also required to pass a national certification examination from an accredited certifying body. According to the AANP, these include the following (which offer a variety of specialty certifications):

  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Board (AANPCB)
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Certification Program
  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) Certification Corporation
  • Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
  • National Certification Corporation (NCC)

In addition to RN licensure and a graduate degree from an accredited institution, NP candidates are typically required to have a certain number of supervised clinical hours. How much time will be needed to achieve licensure and certification? That will vary depending upon completion of eligibility requirement, the specific examination schedules of each certifying body, and the amount of time needed for a candidate to prepare for the certifying exam.

Step 5: Pursue Further Specialization 

The curriculum of a nurse practitioner program provides specialized education and training to enable the NP to practice at an advanced level. Typically, these programs have a specific area of focus—such as the FNP program mentioned previously. With such a foundation, NPs may choose to get certified in more than one field. The requirements needed to do so will vary according to the area of specialization and the certifying body.

How much time will be needed? That will vary depending upon the following:

  • Area of specialization
  • Amount of clinical experience in that specialty area
  • Exam eligibility requirements of the certifying body
  • Time needed to prepare for the certifying exam
  • Exam schedule

Education and Training Requirements to Become a Nurse Practitioner

As noted previously, an MSN degree is the minimum requirement to become a nurse practitioner. However, some candidates choose to pursue a DNP, either as the initial path to meeting the educational and training requirements to become an NP or as additional education beyond the MSN. Both are popular options to meet NP education requirements, with many MSN programs available and the number of DNP programs growing.

When you are researching MSN programs, it is important to find one that offers your preferred area of focus. To determine the right specialty for you, consider the following tips:

  • Gain clinical experience to help you determine which area may be a good fit.
  • Understand the education and certification requirements for the specialty you desire.
  • Research salary and work settings for various specialty areas.
  • Talk to NPs who work in various specialties to better understand their roles.

Choose the Right MSN Concentration

The job responsibilities and salaries will be different for various specialty areas. You can find more about that on our career page that highlights the following specialties:

  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Midwifery
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Nurse Anesthesiology
  • Psychiatric/Mental Health
  • Neonatology

Choose the Right DNP Concentration for Your DNP Degree

If obtaining a DNP degree is your preferred choice for meeting the NP graduate education requirement, it is important to understand how this compares with the MSN option already discussed.

The DNP is a post-BSN or post-MSN medical practice degree. This means that it includes advanced training in specific nursing skills and disciplines for use in the field. Some NPs with DNP degrees move on to health leadership roles. Others specialize in a specific area of focus, similar to NPs with an MSN. Since the DNP degree is growing in popularity and is recommended as the graduate degree for advanced nursing practice by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), it can be a suitable option for nurses interested in advancing in their careers.

Examination, Licensure, and Certification Requirements 

As with the MSN path for NPs, it is important to gain a quality undergraduate nursing education and clinical experience that will aid in the efficient completion of the DNP degree. Understanding various areas of specialization will help you to choose the program that will best fit your needs, as will knowing the NP examination, licensure, and certification requirements for each state.

Some Experiences to Help You Succeed

You can start building the foundation for a successful nurse practitioner career by taking part in a variety of experiences right away. For example:

  • Volunteering with specific populations in various settings can help you decide on a specialty focus and add to your wheelhouse of expertise.
  • Gaining experience in other health care professions—such as social work—can provide a broader interdisciplinary perspective that will inform future NP practice.
  • Attending events and engaging with diverse professionals in the health care field will help you build your professional network.

Useful Resources for Nurse Practitioners

To learn more about the nurse practitioner role, you may find the following resources helpful:

Disclaimer: Timelines listed in this article are estimates that will vary based on the program of choice, pace of study, and overall professional goals. Contact an accredited university for the most updated timeline information. Teach.com is not responsible for any timeline changes after 2019.