How to Become a Nurse Practitioner (NP)


    Nurse practitioner administering a blood pressure test to a patient

    Being a nurse means you have a versatile career that offers many avenues for advancement. One such path is becoming a nurse practitioner. Because it’s an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) position, working as a nurse practitioner means a higher salary, more responsibility, and additional education requirements. This guide will cover what a nurse practitioner does, how much they make, how to become one, and more.

    Part One What is a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

    A Nurse Practitioner (NP) is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) that has earned either a Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) as well as completed additional training and certification. As a result of this advanced training, Nurse Practitioners have more authority than Registered Nurses and have similar responsibilities to that of a doctor. In certain states, they have full-practice authority, meaning they do not have to be supervised by a doctor. Nurse Practitioners can serve as a primary or specialty care providers and typically focus their care on a specific population such as families, children, or the elderly. Some popular specialties for nurse practitioners include General Nurse Practitioner, Family Nurse Practitioner, Gerontological Nurse Practitioner, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. 

    Part Two What Do Nurse Practitioners Do?

    NPs can prescribe medication, examine patients, diagnose illnesses, and provide treatment, much like physicians do. Nurse practitioners have full practice authority in 20 states, meaning that they do not have to work under the supervision of a doctor. In the remaining states, however, while NPs still have more authority than RNs, they must have a medical doctor sign off on certain patient care decisions.

    Nevertheless, nurse practitioners are increasingly becoming integral to medical teams as more and more hospitals and healthcare facilities are utilizing their expertise. Their experience as working nurses gives them a unique approach to patient care, while their advanced studies qualify them to take on additional duties that are usually left to physicians. In fact, as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), it’s estimated that NPs can provide 80-90 percent of the care that primary care physicians offer.

    Map of nurse practitioner NP practice authority in US

    Find Nursing Programs

    Part Three How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

    If you're looking to become a nurse practitioner, you'll need to complete the following steps.

    Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

    The first step to becoming a nurse practitioner is becoming a registered nurse. You'll do this by enrolling in either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor's Degree in Nursing (BSN) program. 

    ADN programs are shorter and cheaper, typically 2 years and available at community colleges, while BSNs are 4 years and taught at universities and private schools. You can become a registered nurse through either method, however, employers generally prefer to hire nurses who have a bachelor's degree in nursing and it's typically a prerequisite to getting into a graduate program, which you'll need if you want to become a nurse practitioner. 

    That being said, many nurses enjoy the chance to gain nursing experience and start working right away that the ADN program provides. 

    Step 2: Get Your Bachelor's Degree

    If you don’t already hold a BSN, you may want to enroll in and earn your Bachelor’s in Nursing Science degree. Nurses who have their ADN can enroll in accelerated RN-BSN programs, many of which can be completed online. It is possible to go straight from your ADN to an MSN program, however, if you want to skip the step of earning your Bachelor's degree. More on that in step four.

    Step 3: Gain Nursing Experience

    Some nurses may choose to skip this step and go right into enrolling in a graduate program, while others choose to get a few years of experience under their belt before continuing their education. Nurses who go this route benefit from the added experience and the ability to start working and save money graduate school. 

    Step 4: Enroll in a Graduate Program (MSN or DNP)

    Graduate programs are intensive and take a minimum of two years to complete. The simplest route to becoming a nurse practitioner for RNs who already have their bachelor's degree is by earning a master’s degree.

    For RNs without bachelor's degrees, there are institutions that offer special bridge programs that help nurses who do not have bachelor’s degrees, or hold them in a different field, to earn their advanced degree in nursing. These are called RN-to-MSN programs. You may also see such programs called ADN-to-MSN (which means Associate Degree in Nursing to Master’s).

    Some institutions offer Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs, which is the highest level of nursing education available. Once enrolled, be prepared to take in-depth coursework including anatomy, pharmacology, and other nursing-specific studies. In addition, most programs also require clinical rotation hours.

    Step 5: Earn Your Advanced Practice Nursing Licensure in Practical Nursing

    The specifics for NP licensure are set by the individual states, which means that you will have to search the requirements to become an NP in the state that you plan to work in. There is also talk of a national model for NP licensure, but currently, it does vary from state-to-state. You can view complete state-by-state requirements to become an NP here and be sure to check with the school you plan on attending. 

    Step 6: Begin Working as a Nurse Practitioner

    You can find work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare or medical facilities. Some NPs choose to take a step back from hands-on patient care to pursue managerial or administrative positions.

    Part Four Nurse Practitioner Salary

    Nurse practitioners are some of the highest paid nurses. According to the BLS, the 2019 median pay for Nurse Practitioners was $109,820 per year, though this will vary based on location and specialty. Nurse anesthetists, for example, earned an average median wage of $174,790 in 2019. 

    Top Paying States for Nurse Practitioners

    • California - $138,660
    • Washington - $126,920
    • Hawaii - $124,000
    • New Jersey - $123,810
    • Minnesota - $122,850

    NP Salaries by Place of Work

    • Hospitals - $122,420
    • Outpatient care centers - $118,530
    • Physicians offices - $113,190
    • Offices of other health practitioners- $112,590
    • Educational services - $108,790

    Part Five Nurse Practitioner Jobs

    Nurse Practitioner is a pretty general title from which many professionals move into specialized roles. Take a look at some of the best paying nurse practitioner jobs to see the array of career options available.

    Top Five Nurse Practitioner Specialties

    This is the basic title you’ll earn when you become an NP, giving you the ability to open an independent practice or work within a healthcare team. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average nurse practitioner salary was $107,030 as of May 2018.

    Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

    NPs who become CRNAs can make a very healthy living, as this is one of the highest paying nursing specialties around. According to the BLS, Nurse Anesthetists earned a median salary of $167,950 as of May 2018. CRNAs are responsible for administering anesthesia to patients, which is a highly specialized skill. To perform these duties, you must earn a license from the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA).

    Gerontological Nurse Practitioner

    If your passion is working with elderly patients, the Certified Gerontological Nurse Practitioner (CGNP) designation is for you. You’ll learn how to administer health care to the aging, which comes with its own set of challenges. The median annual salary for this specialty is not readily available, but it’s estimated to be somewhere in the mid-90s.

    Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

    Sometimes called mental health NPs, a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner performs many of the same functions as a psychiatrist would, including prescribing medication and diagnosing mental illnesses. According to PayScale, this NP specialty can earn you a median salary of $106,454.

    Family Nurse Practitioner

    Very similar to General NPs, Family Nurse Practitioners earn an additional certification in family practice to become FNPs. These professionals usually work in medical offices, clinics, or hospitals, and earn an average of $94,081 per year, according to PayScale.

    Show Me Nurse Practitioner Programs

    Part Six The Nurse Practitioner Career Outlook

    Nursing is a fairly stable industry already, but becoming an NP can give you even more job security. KFF reports that the need for primary care is expected to rise over the next five years because of the aging population and other factors, and NPs are poised to meet this increasing demand, especially in underserved areas. Without nurse practitioners, there could end up being a shortage of highly skilled medical professionals since there simply won’t be enough doctors to go around.

    In fact, during the decade of 2018-2028, the BLS projects that nurse practitioner jobs will increase by 26 percent, which is much faster than most occupations. On top of that excellent job forecast, NPs also out-earn RNs by over $30,000 (median salary for registered nurses was $71,730 in May 2018, says the BLS). And, compared to an LPN’s annual wages of $46,240, becoming an NP will more than double your earnings.

    What’s more is that even after you become an NP, additional specializations can drive salary up higher still, and invite even more career opportunities.

    Part Seven Professional Resources for NPs

    If you’re considering taking this nursing career leap, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the resources and information offered by various national professional nursing associations. Some examples include:

    Each of these organizations shares industry news, tools and advice to help you choose an appropriate program of study, information on accreditation, and more.

    Becoming a nurse practitioner is a lot of work, but with that title comes a rewarding and lucrative career. If your goal is to take your RN career to the next level, look into becoming an NP.

    Find Nursing Programs

    Nursing Scholarship
    Email Signup

    Nurse.org

    Find a job, learn, connect and laugh.

    Try us out.

    Join our newsletter