How to Become an Adult Nurse Practitioner

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Review the role of an adult nurse practitioner, the steps needed for licensure and certification, and the opportunities available for those pursuing this advanced nursing role.
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An adult nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice nurse who specializes in providing care to patients from age 12 and up, allowing them to focus on a broad population. They work in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, and private practices, focusing on both acute and chronic illnesses.

This guide provides an overview of the educational requirements, licensure and certification prerequisites, and career outlook for adult NPs.

What is an Adult Nurse Practitioner?

An adult NP is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) responsible for providing primary care for adults. They work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, physician's offices, community-based clinics, and healthcare agencies.

Within these settings, adult NPs focus on helping patients with acute and chronic conditions by assessing their health history, ordering diagnostic tests, prescribing medications, and performing treatment procedures. The autonomy of adult NPs is determined by the state in which they work.

Full practice states allow adult NPs to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication without physician oversight. Reduced access requires a collaborative practice agreement to prescribe medication. Restricted access requires a collaborative practice agreement to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication.

Steps to Becoming an Adult Nurse Practitioner

While specific criteria may differ depending on your location, the basic steps for becoming an adult NP are similar. Those interested in the specialization need to fulfill certain academic and professional requirements. Licensed adult NPs need an advanced nursing degree, clinical experience, and board certification.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN Degree

    The first step is to earn either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) to become a licensed registered nurse (RN).

    Nurses with an ADN can earn their BSN before applying to an MSN program, which can be done through an RN-BSN program — an accelerated program where they can earn their BSN in two years rather than four.

    Those with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in an accelerated BSN program, allowing them to earn a nursing degree in about a year.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX Exam to Receive RN Licensure

    RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX) to earn their nursing licenses. The exam consists of various medical scenarios that require test takers to apply the knowledge they learned in their undergraduate program.

    The NCLEX consists of four parts: safety and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Adult Nursing

    Most graduate programs require nurses to have experience before applying to an advanced degree program. Some employers offer cross-training programs for nurses looking to gain experience in adult care before enrolling in a graduate program.

    Prospective adult NPs can also volunteer with organizations such as the Red Cross and focus primarily on adult patients. They can also make professional contacts in their current job with those in the adult health field.

  4. 4

    Earn an MSN or DNP Degree

    After earning a BSN, the next step is the completion of a graduate program. RNs can either pursue an MSN, which typically takes two years to complete, or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP), which can take three to six years to complete.

    RNs with a BSN and experience can directly enroll in an MSN program. Nurses with an ADN can pursue an MSN bridge program, allowing them to earn their MSN in less time than it would take pursuing a BSN and MSN individually.

    Prospective adult NPs with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in a direct-entry program and earn their MSN in 3-4 years. Typically, these students complete the BSN curriculum in their first year of study in a direct-entry MSN program. Then, they must pass the NCLEX before continuing onto the MSN curriculum.

  5. 5

    Secure State NP Licensure and National Board Certification

    While NP license requirements vary by state, most require an application fee, background check, valid RN license, MSN or DNP, and verification of completed clinical hours. The majority of states also require nurses to pass a national certification exam after completing their MSN or DNP.

    Certification options available for adult NPs include the following:

Featured Online MSN Programs

Adult Nurse Practitioner Education

Becoming an adult NP requires nurses to earn a BSN and an MSN or a DNP. On average, this may take six years for students who enroll on a full-time basis. Nurses also need one year of experience to enroll in an MSN program. The process may take longer for those who pursue a nontraditional path to becoming an adult NP.

ADN Degree

ADN programs typically take two years to complete, which is the minimum education required to take the NCLEX and become a licensed RN. These programs suit individuals interested in working within a short period of time in entry-level nursing jobs.

Nurses with an ADN must earn their BSN before pursuing a graduate degree. They can either enroll in a four-year bachelor's program or an RN-BSN program, allowing them to complete the requirements for a bachelor's degree at an accelerated pace.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.5 GPA; prerequisite courses such as algebra, chemistry, physiology, biology, or nutrition; pre-entrance exam; criminal background check

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Anatomy; microbiology; pharmacology; physiology; principles of nursing; and psychology

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    2 years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Graduates can review symptoms and medical history; record and monitor vital signs; administer medications and treatment; operate medical equipment; and perform diagnostic tests.

BSN Degree

The traditional path to becoming an adult NP includes earning a BSN. BSN programs provide prospective nurses with the necessary academic background to sit for the NCLEX, become a licensed RN, and begin practicing. Most graduate programs require nurses to have their BSN and clinical experience before enrolling.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.5-3.0 GPA; science and math prerequisite courses (C or better); pre-entrance exams (SAT)

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Clinicals; community nursing; ethics; gerontology; leadership; microbiology; nursing principles; pharmacology; physiology; psychology; women's health; pediatrics

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    1-2 years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Critical thinking; case management; health and wellness promotion; leadership; and evidence-based practice

MSN Degree

After earning their BSN, nurses must enroll in an MSN program, which is the minimum degree needed to become an NP. Most MSN programs require RNs to have at least one year of clinical experience to apply. Earning an MSN allows nurses to enter the workforce sooner than a DNP program.

  • Admission Requirements

    BSN; minimum 3.0 GPA; active RN license; one year or more of clinical experience

  • Program Curriculum

    Advanced classes in physiology and pathophysiology; pharmacology and therapeutics; health assessment; and research methods

  • Time to Complete

    18-36 months (full-time students with a BSN)

  • Skills Learned

    Diagnose illnesses; prescribe medication; order, complete, and analyze tests; communicate with patients and colleagues; work collaboratively; practice in a clinical setting; time management; attention to detail; communication; compassion; resourcefulness

DNP Degree

RNs can opt to earn a doctorate after completing their BSN and gaining the clinical experience needed for a DNP program. DNP degrees in clinical practice can boost an adult NPs' earning potential and allow them to pursue leadership roles.

  • Admission Requirements

    BSN; minimum 3.0 GPA; active RN license; one year or more of clinical experience

  • Program Curriculum

    Advanced study in biostatistics; pathophysiology/physiology; research and evidence-based practice; clinical pharmacology; project planning and proposal development; management and analysis of data; and healthcare policy.

  • Time to Complete

    3-4 years

  • Skills Learned

    Practice as independent practitioners; utilize evidenced-based care; implement new strategies and policies; develop healthcare research projects

Adult Nurse Practitioner Licensure and Certification

Adult NPs must earn and maintain an RN and APRN license. They also need to acquire board certification after completing their MSN or DNP program. Then, they must pass a national board certification exam depending on their specialization.

The RN license renewal process varies by state. However, most require a specific amount of direct contact hours, which typically range between 24-30 hours. Most states require RNs to meet these criteria every two years. Yet, the time period can range from every year to every four years. All NPs must have an active RN license to renew their certification.

Adult NPs have four specialization options, including ACNP-AG, AGPCNP, AGANCP, or A-GNP. All specialty options require prospective nurses to complete a graduate-level program and pass the national certification exam after graduating. These certifications must be renewed every five years and include the following:

  • ACNP-AG Renewal: Complete 1,000 practice hours and 150 continuing education points; 1,000 practice hours, 25 pharmacology continuing education credits hours, and re-take the certification exam; or 150 continuing education points and re-take the certification exam every five years
  • AGPCNP Renewal: Complete 75 contact hours, which includes 75 hours of pharmacology; complete at least one of the eight certification renewal categories
  • AGACNP Certification: Complete 150 continuing education points every five years
  • A-GNP Certification Renewal: 1,000 hours of clinical practice, 100 contact hours of advanced continuing education

Working as an Adult Nurse Practitioner

According to Payscale, adult NPs earn an annual average salary of $102,620 as of May 2022. While the >Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not track adult NPs individually, they project that all NP jobs will increase by 45% from 2020-2030.

Adult NPs typically work in hospitals, clinics, and private practices. They may also work in a hospital in emergency triage, outpatient clinic as part of a surgical team, or a private practice as a primary care provider.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Adult Nurse Practitioner

How many years does it take to become an adult nurse practitioner?

The length of time it takes to become an adult NP depends on the student's educational path. The traditional path, which includes initially earning a BSN followed by an MSN, can take six years or less.

Earning an ADN first, completing an RN-BSN program, and finishing an MSN can also take six years if the student attends classes full-time. Those with a non-nursing bachelor's degree who enroll in a direct entry program can become an adult NP in six to seven years.cThose pursuing a DNP typically adds at least two extra years of schooling.

What is the quickest way to become an adult nurse practitioner?

The quickest way to become an adult NP would be to earn an ADN, spend at least one year gaining clinical experience, and enroll in an RN-MSN bridge program. A bridge program allows RNs with an ADN to attain their MSN without spending four years earning a BSN. These accelerated programs provide students with all the information they would learn in a BSN and MSN program.

How hard is it to become an adult nurse practitioner?

With the years of education needed to become an adult NP, the process can be academically challenging. However, prospective adult NPs have several paths from which they can choose; therefore, they can select the one that works best for their learning style and professional goals.

Becoming an adult NP can also be financially challenging. Luckily, there are various financial aid options available that can help mitigate the cost of a graduate program. Nurses can also take advantage of part-time programs, which allow them to work while attending classes.

How much do adult nurse practitioners earn?

Adult NP make an average of $102,620 per year, which can increase based upon their experience, state, and work setting. In comparison with other specialties, women's health NPs earn $96,500, family NPs earn $98,010, neonatal NPs earn $110,330, and psychiatric-mental health NPs as of May 2022, according to Payscale.

Page last reviewed on June 5, 2022

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