Nurse practitioners (NPs) work as advanced practice nurses. They take on more responsibilities than registered nurses (RNs) and work with more autonomy than RNs. Although they do not quite carry the same professional load as physicians, in many states NPs can meet with patients independently, diagnose illnesses or other problems, and prescribe medication.
Nursing professionals need an accredited graduate degree to gain NP licensure. Students can earn either a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Master's programs traditionally last two years, while doctorates can take 3-6 years to complete. Along with the four years it takes to earn a bachelor's degree, aspiring NPs may spend anywhere from 6-10 years to finally achieve licensure. That said, many nurses opt for accelerated programs that allow them to graduate more quickly.
Despite the time commitment and the cost, many nursing professionals pursue an NP license because of the lucrative and rapidly growing industry. For instance, NPs made a median annual salary of $115,800 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also projects the number of advanced practice nurses to grow by 26% from 2018 to 2028 -- much faster than the average for all other occupations.
Many aspiring NPs choose to earn their MSN. Students finish master's programs more quickly than doctoral degrees -- usually in about two years -- which makes them a more straightforward pathway to becoming an NP.
MSN programs usually accept nurses with a bachelor's degree in nursing. However, several master's programs now consider RNs without a BSN. These ADN-to-MSN or RN-to-MSN programs may last up to three years.
The number of required credits varies, depending on a student's concentration and previous education. MSN curriculum plans may include anywhere between 36-60 credits, and include coursework in advanced healthcare topics like health assessment and pharmacology. Students also take courses within their own specialty area, and they must also complete several hundred supervised clinical hours. To learn more about NP programs, visit this resource.
Sometimes nursing professionals pursue a doctoral degree instead of a master's degree. A 2018 nurses salary survey found that doctoral-degree holders made about $8,000 more in their annual salary than their peers with MSNs. DNP programs can last up to six years, although many actually require 3-4 years of study. Schools often consider applicants with either a bachelor's or a master's degree.
Doctoral degrees allow students to gain a high area of expertise in a specific area. Incoming students with MSNs may only need to complete 36-47 credits. For those without a master's degree, the curriculum could include anywhere between 70-100 credits. DNP students take advanced courses within their specialty, participate in at least 1,000 clinical hours, and complete a doctoral project. You can learn more about DNP programs here.
One non-degree option is the post-master's certificate programs. Students who enroll in these programs generally already work as NPs, but they might want to add a specialization or cross over to a new one.
For example, an NP who offers pediatric care might want to switch to psychiatric mental health care. Alternatively, a nursing professional working in adult primary care could pursue a certificate in adult acute care, allowing them to build up their practice.
Applicants to a post-master's certificate should already possess a graduate degree and NP licensure. The program itself usually requires approximately 20 credits and about 650 clinical hours. NPs who work while studying may complete their certificate in 1-2 years. If you're interested in learning more, this webpage offers plenty of information about these post-master's certificate programs.
NP programs do not follow a general nurse practitioner curriculum. Instead, they offer different specializations. NPs take certification exams within their specialty area after they graduate, and then they work within that field. You can find these various concentrations through on-campus, hybrid, and online NP programs.
The list below breaks down everything you need to know about different types of NP programs and specialities.
Adult-gerontology nurse practitioners provide care for adults, including adolescents to older adults. Those who focus on acute care treat illnesses and diseases, while primary care NPs focus on checkups, health promotion, and illness prevention.
Sometimes nursing professionals go to graduate school to become clinical nurse leaders rather than nurse practitioners. Clinical nurse leaders work to better the quality of care for patients. They evaluate the care given in healthcare settings or to specific patients. They also might use evidence-based methods to treat patients or use data-driven models to try and improve overall care.
Clinical nurse leadership programs differ considerably from NP programs; you can learn about what to expect from these programs here.
Certified nurse-midwives deliver babies, provide prenatal and postnatal care, offer family planning services, and conduct gynecological checkups. Graduate programs prepare students for these responsibilities with didactic courses, labs, simulations, and supervised clinical work.
Clinical nurse specialists work as advanced practice nurses who care for patients but also work as administrators and leaders. They improve healthcare by providing their expertise and implementing evidence-based practices into nursing services.
When patients undergo a surgery or other invasive procedure, they often go under anesthesia to numb or manage the pain. Certified nurse anesthetists take on the very specialized role of administering the anesthesia for these procedures.
Learn more about this profession here, and find certified nurse anesthetist graduate programs here.
Nurse administrators work in management positions at hospitals or other healthcare organizations. They oversee policies across the nursing department, hire and supervise staff, and coordinate healthcare delivery. Nurse administrators may also manage financial and business matters within the nursing department. For more information, this resource covers the nurse administrator profession in greater detail.
Nurse educators teach and train individuals learning to become nurses. Nurse educators often work at colleges and universities, but they can also find positions at technical schools or hospital-based training programs. Usually these nurses are experienced professionals who use their expertise to educate others. Learn more about nurse educators here.
Pediatric nurse practitioners provide care for patients under 21, including infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents. They can focus on acute care and treat diseases and illnesses. Alternatively, these professionals can provide primary care, concentrating on general health promotion and disease prevention. You can find a list of pediatric nurse practitioner programs through this resource, and you can read more about the profession here.
NPs who specialize in women's health provide several services to women patients. They give breast cancer screenings, pap smears, HPV screenings, and pregnancy testing, for example. They also meet with patients to discuss menstruation, fertility, and menopause. Many schools offer women's health NP programs, which you can find here. You can also read more about the women's health NP field in general here.
Family nurse practitioners give patient services relating to families and family units. This makes their scope of practice quite broad, which means they could provide services ranging from health promotion to diagnosing patients.
Neonatal nurse practitioners take care of newborn infants and support them during their first few days and weeks. Their responsibilities often include working with high-risk infants, such as babies with low weight, cardiac abnormalities, prematurity, and birth defects. This resource explores the profession in more detail, and this page can help you identify online neonatal NP programs for neonatal nurse practitioners.
Psychiatric NPs work with people with various mental health issues and psychiatric disorders. These conditions might include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and behavioral disorders. Psychiatric mental health NPs help these patients through diagnosis, treatment, and prescribing medication. Visit this resource to learn more about this profession, and find online programs for aspiring psychiatric NPs here.
Nurse leaders take on several roles to ensure that patients receive the best possible care. They often lead clinical teams, but they also develop patient care initiatives, implement evidence-based care practices, and mentor younger nurses. Some nurse leaders decide to earn a master's degree, but others opt for a doctorate. You can find a list of online nurse leadership DNP programs here.
The requirements to become a nurse practitioner vary by state. Below, you can find a state-by-state breakdown of license requirements and other important information about nurse practitioners. These links also lay out what you can expect from nurse practitioner programs and NP careers in every state.
In many ways, online nurse practitioner programs work similarly to traditional on-campus programs. Courses cover the same curriculum, and students fulfill the same requirements. The main difference: distance learners complete the didactic part of their coursework online.
This means degree-seekers might watch pre-recorded lectures, contribute to online discussions, and submit assignments through the university's online system. This scheduling means that students can pursue their program with a certain flexibility. Some programs also require synchronous course components, which means that students log-in at a certain time to watch a lecture or participate in a class conversation in real-time.
However, students must participate in their clinical hours in person at a hospital, clinic, or other healthcare facility. Sometimes they also must complete lab requirements or simulations on location too. Frequently schools require one or a few campus visits for an orientation or skills practice session. Hybrid programs also incorporate both online and on-campus course components.
One of the most important things to look for when considering nurse practitioner programs is accreditation. The accreditation system serves as a sort of evaluation for both on-campus and online NP programs.
Accreditation agencies assess colleges and degrees to make sure they offer a high-quality education. Therefore, graduate schools and employers only consider NP applicants who graduated from accredited programs. On top of that, state licensure standards require candidates to hold accredited degrees.
Look for programs accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Keep an eye out for colleges with accreditation from regional agencies, too, like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
A graduate degree in nursing is an investment. Students can expect to pay $30,000-$100,000 for an MSN degree. That said, you can find some nurse practitioner programs where the full tuition cost falls under $10,000. These remain the exception, though. In-state students at public universities can enroll in NP programs with tuition costs from $10,000-$20,000.
Most students do not pay these tuition fees upfront. The majority take out student loans to help cover costs. Several other financial aid opportunities can help students, too, such as scholarships, grants, fellowships, and assistantships. The federal government and several state governments also run student loan forgiveness programs for NPs who pledge to work in underserved communities.
Traditionally, MSN programs last two years, while a DNP may last 3-4 years. However, the flexibility of online nurse practitioner programs means these timelines vary for every student.
Some students enroll in one-year accelerated MSN programs, which gives students the fastest option. Others might enroll part-time while they work and could spend 3-4 years earning their master's degree. Certain specializations, like psychiatric mental health, require three years even for full-time study.
The timelines for doctoral NP programs can also vary considerably. Incoming students who already possess an MSN degree can graduate in two years or less. Those who study part-time might take six years to complete the program. In fact, longer timelines are not unprecedented.