How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
A nurse practitioner is a nurse whose practice closely resembles that of a doctor. This professional has an advanced degree—either a master’s or PhD—and in some states, can practice independently while in others, practices under the supervision of a doctor.
Nurse practitioners, also known as advanced practice nurses, APRNs or NPs, are qualified to provide a wide array of health services to their patients. They can:
- Diagnose diseases and conditions
- Treat medical problems
- Interpret tests
- Perform minor surgical procedures
- Prescribe medications (where permitted by law)
- Provide counseling and education
Many nurse practitioners serve as primary care providers to adults, children and families. Others specialize in a particular area of medicine such as psychiatry, dermatology or midwifery. Nurse practitioners are able to spend more time with their patients than doctors, giving them the time to listen to their patients' concerns and enact holistic approaches to their care. When it comes to achieving positive outcomes for patients, research shows that nurse practitioners are every bit as successful as physicians. What’s more, patients of nurse practitioners report high levels of satisfaction with their care.
For compassionate people who value responsibility and intellectual stimulation, a career as a nurse practitioner is extremely rewarding. Through a combination of counseling, education and medical intervention, they help patients live longer, healthier and more productive lives.
Nurse practitioners work in a variety of environments, including:
- Physician offices and group practices
- Long-term care facilities and nursing homes
- Private homes providing health care services
- Hospice and palliative care services
- Government and community health agencies
- Private practice
Their work schedules vary. Those in inpatient facilities work rotating shifts that cover evening, night and weekend hours as well as holidays. In community agencies and private practice, they are more likely to work regular business hours but may offer some evening and weekend appointments for the convenience of working patients. Nurse practitioners are also usually on call some nights and weekends. In 2010, 20 percent of registered nurses (including nurse practitioners) worked part time.
Nurse practitioners spend most of the workday interacting with patients, families, colleagues and administrators. They generally work in clean, well-lit settings, though some travel to patients’ homes. When working in hospital settings, NPs spend a lot of time on their feet and must be comfortable lifting, bending and stooping.
Nurse practitioners must first earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) from an accredited training program. This takes about four years of full-time study and requires both classroom and clinical learning.
Many BSN programs are tailored to the needs of working students. Bridge programs help nurses who hold an associate degree (ASN) pursue a bachelor’s degree or graduate-level study. Students who have earned a four-year degree in a non-nursing field should look into an accelerated BSN program.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, nurse practitioner candidates must complete an additional two to six years of study to earn a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). Graduate programs include in-depth courses in anatomy, diagnosis, pharmacology and medical ethics as well as extensive clinical training. During this phase, students begin to focus on a specialty such as:
- Women’s health
- Family and primary care
- Acute care
Many graduate schools require nurse practitioner candidates to have a few years of experience as a registered nurse (RN). The National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission and American Association of Colleges of Nursing list accredited programs on their websites.
All nursing education programs include extensive clinical experience. Upon completion of a BSN program, some nurses pursue an optional one-year residency to enhance their skills.
To enter some specialties and sub-specialties (child and adolescent psychiatry, for example), nurse practitioners must complete an additional supervised clinical experience.
Licensing and/or Certification
Nurse practitioners must be licensed by the state in which they practice. This usually requires graduation from an accredited training program, board certification and a passing score on the state exam. In some states, nurse practitioners must meet mandatory training requirements (for example, courses in medication safety) prior to certification.
The following organizations award board certification in nursing. Candidates must hold an RN license and meet educational and training requirements:
- National Board for Certification of Hospice and Palliative Nurses
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners
- National Certification Corporation
- American Nurses Credentialing Center
- Pediatric Nursing Certification Board
- Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation
Necessary Skills and Qualities
To provide high-quality care, nurse practitioners must be compassionate, empathetic, patient and nonjudgmental. Excellent interpersonal skills are needed to communicate effectively with patients, families and other professionals.
In order to effectively diagnose and treat patients, nurse practitioners rely on excellent analytical and observational skills. They must be especially attentive to detail when performing surgery or prescribing medications.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced nurse practitioners often specialize in one or more clinical area of interest. Others serve as managers or administrators of healthcare facilities and community agencies. Some leave the clinical setting to start a private practice or teach at the university level. Many NPs serve as consultants within the healthcare, pharmaceutical or insurance industries.
Opportunities for advancement increase with education, experience and certification in multiple specialty areas.
The average annual salary of a nurse practitioner is $93,000, and most earn between $86,000 and $96,000. In some specialties, salaries exceed $100,000 per year.
The demand for nurse practitioners is likely to increase in coming decades due to the growing elderly population and the current emphasis on preventative care. Hospitals, health departments and home health care agencies are hiring a growing number of NPs, and this trend is expected to continue.
Job prospects will be especially good for nurse practitioners who specialize in geriatrics and are willing to work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Candidates increase their job prospects by relocating to rural or urban areas, both of which are experiencing health care worker shortages.