Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), who serve as primary care providers to mitigate the effects of the national physician shortage. They hold advanced degrees — either an MSN (master of science in nursing) or DNP (doctor of nursing practice) — plus national certification in a patient population focus and state APRN licensure. An NP’s role may differ depending on the nurse’s state of practice.
Certain states allow NPs to work independently, while others require them to work either under direct supervision or in a collaborative agreement with a doctor. Aspiring NPs should consider this and several other factors regarding their education options.
What Degree Do You Need to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
Nurse practitioner requirements include a master’s or doctoral degree. Graduate candidates typically hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). However, colleges and universities also deliver bridge programs that allow associate degree holders to earn their master’s credentials in about four years.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
Timelines differ based on the candidate’s educational and professional experience levels. Licensed RNs who hold a bachelor’s degree can earn their master’s in as few as 12 months, provided they have already completed between 400 and 1,000 required clinical hours. These RNs can also earn professional certification and state APRN licensure in one or two years.
Can You Earn a Nurse Practitioner Degree Online?
Many colleges offer affordable online nursing degrees to meet prospective students’ diverse career goals and specialization interests. In addition to standard master’s and doctoral programs, distance learners can also choose from bridge, dual-degree, and accelerated tracks.
Nursejournal.org created this video to help clarify the sometimes confusing process of becoming a Nurse Practitioner. We hope you like it!
A lot of people now seek to study online. This allows them to study on their own time, while they continue to work and bring home a paycheck. MSN and DNP programs specific to each of the various population focus areas are available online.
Program advisors place students with local hospitals to complete practical training and post-baccalaureate practice hours. Very often this is done at the nurse’s existing place of employment.
Hybrid programs will require you to attend class on campus once every semester or so, while fully online programs will help you to arrange practical experience rotations in your own geographical area without ever having to attend class in person.
The Education Pathways Towards Becoming a Nurse Practitioner
Nurse practitioners’ duties vary, but generally, they record and analyze patients’ medical histories, conduct physical exams, order tests, and prescribe certain types of therapy.
Each medical setting and state imposes its own certification and education requirements for NPs, but all require at least a master’s degree. By definition, NPs specialize in one or more patient population focus areas: family/individual across the lifespan, pediatric (acute or primary), adult-geriatric (acute or primary), neonatal, women's health, or psychiatric/mental health.
The following educational pathways exist for those looking to become NPs:
- Master of Science in Nursing: It takes around three years to complete this course of study, which includes core courses in pathophysiology, health assessment, and advanced pharmacology.
- Doctor of Nursing Practice: DNP programs often include advanced courses in leadership and population health, and typically culminate in a final capstone project.
Below, we break down each degree level by curriculum requirements, specialization options, and required clinical hours.
Admission Requirements for an MSN Degree
Conventional online MSN programs require candidates to hold a BSN, but some colleges and universities offer programs for applicants with either an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. These bridge programs include transitional coursework and clinical training, which prepare students for graduate-level nursing classes. This guide explores bridge programs in a later section.
Traditional BSN-to-MSN programs require applicants to hold an active RN license and work experience, including designated clinical hours. These criteria prove especially important in accelerated MSN programs, in which students can turn licensure and career achievements into transfer credits, reducing the overall number of classes they need to take. Accelerated programs allow degree candidates to complete their graduate program in under one year.
MSN degree plans build on theories and skills learned in undergraduate classes, so applicants must typically complete prerequisite requirements. Common topics include applied statistics, human anatomy, and general chemistry. Candidates should also prepare to submit standard application materials, like academic transcripts demonstrating a minimum GPA, two to three recommendation letters, a personal essay, and GRE scores.
Concentrations Offered for an MSN Degree
In this specialization, MSN students learn to provide primary and acute care to individuals from adolescence to older adulthood. Degree candidates can focus their training on a specific setting or target group, such as rural areas or underserved communities. Specialty coursework includes physiology across the lifespan, advanced practice nursing, and population health.
Due to significant shortages in maternity care providers, nurse midwives represent one of the fastest-growing occupations in the nursing field. Nurse midwifery programs train students in primary, prenatal, birth, and postpartum care. Degree candidates also learn to perform gynecological services and educate patients about birth control and family planning. This specialization prepares graduates to work in diverse settings, including hospitals, birth centers, and university health clinics.
Nurse anesthesiologists provide anesthesia and related care to patients undergoing surgery. In this specialization, distance learners train to assess patients and implement quality care plans to meet individual needs. They also learn to support patients through the perioperative period, acting as advocates and providing emotional support. Specialty classes comprise advanced pharmacology and pathophysiology.
Mental health challenges are widespread across the U.S. and often comorbid with physical ailments like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. The psychiatric/mental health specialization prepares students to provide comprehensive health services through the lifespan. Degree candidates may focus their training on a particular group, such as children, veterans, or ethnic minorities.
Neonatal nursing students learn to care for preterm and full-term infants with chronic illnesses, genetic disorders, and life-threatening conditions. Degree candidates witness high-risk births, attend neonatal surgeries, and practice infant resuscitation as part of their clinical training. Coursework includes embryology, applied family dynamics, behavioral health, and neonatal physiology.
Sample Courses for an MSN Program
- Ethical Decision-Making: An integral topic for all healthcare professionals, this class teaches students to discern ethical dilemmas and apply moral reasoning toward a beneficial conclusion. Degree candidates learn to take necessary actions to solve ethical challenges with respect to patient welfare, institutional standards, and nursing regulations. Additional topics include moral leadership and its effects on professional partnerships and community engagement.
- Advanced Pharmacology: In this perfunctory class, students examine how drugs affect the human body across the lifespan, taking into consideration a patient’s age and physiologic condition. Degree candidates learn about routes of administration, pharmacologic mechanisms of action, and drug effects (including adverse reactions) on specific organ systems. Additional topics include drug interactions, pharmacokinetics, and therapeutic uses.
- Healthcare Financial Management: This course covers the managerial and financial accounting techniques and systems used in the healthcare industry. Students learn about budget-planning and financial analysis, and delve into long-term financial planning based on organizational goals. Fiscal management proves particularly important for future nurse administrators and community program directors.
- Neonatal Health Assessment: This advanced class gives students the knowledge to make gestational age and comprehensive health assessments. Topics include diagnostic study interpretations and didactic examination techniques. Students also learn to synthesize health histories, physical exams, and research findings. The class also emphasizes identification of abnormal health findings, particularly for normal and late preterm infants.
- Nursing Informatics: MSN candidates learn how healthcare technology affects nurses’ decision-making skills and practice in leadership, research, and clinical settings. The class explores the development of informatics, interdisciplinary communication, and care delivery. Students also examine the ethical, legal, and socioeconomic implications of healthcare information technology on patient rights and organizational effectiveness.
How Long Does It Take to Complete an MSN Program?
Prospective nurse practitioners typically complete a conventional MSN program in two years. Graduate degree plans comprise at least 30 semester credits, including classes in the nursing core and specialty areas, plus clinical requirements and a capstone experience. Students can expedite their degrees through accelerated or degree completionist tracks. These intensive programs require full-time commitment and relevant career experience, but allow learners to earn their credentials in 12 months. Regardless of their degree plan, all students can shorten program length by obtaining transfer credits through prior learning assessments.
Students’ concentrations also affect their timelines, since some specialty practice areas require more clinical hours than others. For example, nurse anesthesiologists and neonatal nurses must accumulate at least 1,000 clinical training hours, as opposed to the standard 400. Moreover, a degree candidate’s clinical eligibility affects how quickly they can complete training. On top of fundamental criteria like health clearance, background checks, and CPR certification, some clinical sites ask that candidates possess relevant career or volunteer experience.
Internships for MSN Students
Prospective NPs must complete internships and practicums on top of their MSN classes. Clinical training provides students with hands-on experience conducting patient assessments, creating care plans, and providing health services. These practical experiences allow students to gain a comprehensive understanding of the care they can expect to provide as NPs. They also fulfill requirements for state licensure, professional certification, and career entry.
MSN students can generally expect to complete three clinical hours per classroom hour. Depending on their individual MSN programs, students rotate through various clinical sites, including university medical centers, emergency care clinics, public hospitals, trauma wards, and regional anesthesia centers.
Admission Requirements for a DNP Degree
Online DNP programs typically require applicants to hold a relevant master’s degree. However, similar to MSN bridge programs, many higher education institutions facilitate DNP paths for nurses with an associate degree in nursing (ADN), nurses with a BSN, and students with bachelor’s credentials in unrelated fields. In these scenarios, students take prerequisite nursing courses in an accelerated bridge format. Common topics include health policy, research methods, and theoretical foundations for advanced nursing practice. Upon successful completion of these core classes and a proctored comprehensive exam, distance learners can begin work on their DNP curricula.
Regardless of a DNP program’s structure, applicants must hold unrestricted RN licenses and at least one year of nursing experience. Some schools stipulate prior clinical training. All institutions require candidates to display clinical work eligibility, including basic health training and successful background checks. DNP applicants should aim for a minimum GPA of 3.0, with higher standards for nursing classes. Professional recommendations, academic transcripts, and standardized test scores are also common admission criteria.
Concentrations Offered for a DNP Degree
This concentration trains students to identify and accommodate individuals’ and communities’ healthcare needs. With an overall emphasis on population health, degree candidates delve into topics such as primary prevention, health promotion, and program management. By specializing in public health, graduates can pursue research positions and clinical roles in hospitals, home health settings, and specialty clinics.
In this concentration, students develop the skills to become nurse leaders, using evidence-based practices to improve healthcare outcomes and strengthen organizational efficiency. Distance learners explore clinical research methods, professional ethics, and community health initiatives. The executive leadership concentration also teaches students to balance stakeholder interests with patients’ values and needs.
With training in nursing education, students can become college instructors, clinical trainers, and program developers. This concentration teaches students to employ curriculum design methods, apply teaching strategies, and construct models for assessing educational outcomes. Degree candidates also explore challenges in the field, including student body diversity and healthcare equity.
In this concentration, students learn to integrate computer and information science to improve communication, decision-making, and patient-centered care. Degree candidates work with management systems to define, analyze, and protect healthcare data. By applying these skills, nursing informatics specialists oversee their organization’s data standards and workflow.
Family Nurse Practitioner
Students pursuing an FNP concentration train to provide comprehensive primary care in hospitals, physician clinics, and community health centers. Degree candidates learn to apply evidence-based approaches to diagnosing and managing chronic and acute illnesses. They also learn to facilitate health promotion and disease prevention through nurse-advocate models.
Sample Courses for a DNP Program
- Evidence-Based Nursing Practices: In this core class, students learn to integrate theoretical and philosophical knowledge as the foundation for advanced nursing practice. They also examine the scientific underpinnings of nursing, including psychosocial, biobehavioral, pathophysiological, and environmental science concepts. Additional topics covered include clinical inquiry, research application, and ethical issues related to patient rights and healthcare delivery systems.
- Population Health: Another fundamental course, population health involves examining epidemiologic methodology and the distribution of diseases across human populations. Students learn about relevant study designs and the etiology of health conditions for individuals and groups. Using these theoretical and research frameworks, degree candidates explore global problems like bioterrorism attacks, infectious diseases, and natural and human-made disasters.
- Healthcare Policy: In this course, students analyze the political, social, and financial challenges to healthcare reform at all government levels. They delve into policymaking processes (including related legal and organizational contexts) and stakeholder analysis for research-based program planning. Furthermore, degree candidates train to improve health outcomes through interprofessional collaboration and community advocacy.
- Evidence-Based Management: Students explore the theories and applications of strategic planning, program implementation, and human resource management for the healthcare industry. The course also covers organizational theory, emphasizing the nurse leader’s role in shaping policy development, decision-making, and workplace culture. Additional topics covered include employee recruitment and retention.
- Obesity and Weight Control: In this specialized class, students learn about the organizational and national guidelines affecting the standards of nursing care for overweight and obese individuals. They learn to assess energy balance and body weight for patients across the lifespan. Additional topics covered include pharmaceutical, dietary, and surgical treatment models. This course particularly benefits future nutritionists, health coaches, and pediatric nurses.
How Long Does It Take to Complete a DNP Program?
In general, DNP programs comprise 65-95 semester credits, with variations based on specialization and each student’s academic history. Degree candidates with BSN credentials can complete a doctoral program in as little as three years. Master’s degree holders may finish in under two years, if they enroll full-time. ADN-prepared nurses can pursue a DNP through a bridge program, in which distance learners spend their first year on preliminary coursework.
Because a DNP stands as the terminal nursing degree, candidates should expect extensive clinical training. Most doctoral programs require at least 1,000 contact hours. Students pursue clinical training concurrently with their coursework. Some colleges and universities allow students to apply prior nursing experience to their clinical hour requirements and expedite their degrees.
Unlike Ph.D. tracks, which focus on theory and research, DNP programs emphasize hands-on training in students’ nursing specialties. Candidates complete their programs with capstone projects, demonstrating application of knowledge and skill to practical health challenges. The nature of each student’s capstone project may affect program length.
Internships for DNP Students
Clinical internships act as the cornerstone of any DNP program. Through these experiences, students cultivate advanced nursing skills and strengthen professional relationships that can lead to career opportunities. Online learners can complete their clinical hours with a university partner, such as a public hospital or research center. Active RNs may complete clinical training with their current employers, provided the work aligns with their program’s academic outcomes.
The DNP Essentials framework, published by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), influences how schools organize their students’ clinical immersions. Required elements include interdisciplinary collaboration, patient advocacy, and applied leadership. Candidates also learn how to translate research into practice at a high complexity level.
Online degrees enable learners to study on their own time while maintaining employment. In online MSN and DNP programs, advisers place students with local hospitals to complete practical training and post-baccalaureate practice hours. Nursing students often complete these hours at their current place of employment.
Hybrid programs require students to attend class on campus each semester, while learners in fully online programs may arrange practical experience rotations in their own geographical areas, without having to attend class in person. To learn more, see the best online nurse practitioner nursing programs.
Nursing Bridge Programs Online
Nurse practitioners must obtain graduate-level education to begin and advance their careers. Online nursing bridge programs create accessible pathways to an MSN. Through efficient course planning, students can complete the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in about one year, after which they may seamlessly transfer into master’s curricula.
For licensed nurses, RN-to-MSN bridge programs offer flexible coursework and diverse specialization options, including nursing informatics, anesthesiology, forensic nursing, and public health. Part-time students earn their master’s degree in four years, while full-time students can complete a bridge program in under three years. Distance learners complete practicum experiences in their communities, usually with their current employers.
Bridge program applicants should hold an associate degree in nursing and an unencumbered RN license, and have completed prerequisite coursework. GPA requirements typically range from 2.0-3.0. Most schools also require students to hold at least one year of relevant nursing experience.
Both online and on-campus students should make sure to attend accredited programs. Nurse practitioner programs should hold accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing
Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
CCNE or ACEN accreditation demonstrates that a program delivers a comprehensive education that meets state board requirements and qualifies graduates for certification.
Nurse practitioners generally start out as licensed RNs before transitioning into advanced practice. Many ADN-educated nurses go on to earn BSN degrees before enrolling in graduate programs, though RN-to-MSN programs enable nurses with ADNs to earn their BSN and MSN in a single accelerated program.
NP licensure requirements depend on the state in which you live. Your state's board of nursing sets the requirements for advanced practice licensing and should inform you of any additional qualifications required to perform certain tasks, such as working independently or prescribing medication.
Prospective NPs should take the following steps to obtain licensure:
- Earn an undergraduate nursing degree. Students coming from fields other than nursing can meet this requirement through accelerated programs that include both undergraduate and graduate-level training.
- Become an RN by passing the NCLEX-RN.
- Complete a graduate nursing degree.
- Obtain an advanced practice nursing license.
- Obtain certification in a specific patient population focus.
The Cost of Becoming a Nurse Practitioner
Expenses for becoming an NP depend on several factors, including your chosen education pathway. MSN and DNP programs incur different costs, as do bridge programs for ADN-educated nurses and standard post-bachelor s graduate programs.
Other cost-affecting factors may include geographic location, your school of choice, and your program's specialization. Online programs tend to cost less than their on-campus counterparts.
Scholarships and Financial Aid for Nurse Practitioners
Nurse practitioner students can choose from a variety of financial aid and scholarship options. Consult with your chosen school for details on how and where to apply for financial aid. The AACN portal also provides information regarding types of available aid, repayment options, and loan forgiveness programs.
Working as a Nurse Practitioner
Nurse practitioners can work in community care programs, hospitals, physician's offices, military settings, and prisons. Earning potential for NPs varies depending on where you work and how long you have worked in that field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides more information on NP salaries, highlighting various factors that influence these professionals’ earning potential.
The BLS reports that NPs earn a median annual wage of $103,880. NPs in the bottom 10th percentile on the earning scale earn approximately $74,840 per year, while those in the 90th percentile earn $145,630. Employers of NPs often offer benefits, as well, such as childcare, bonuses, flexible schedules, and education reimbursement programs.
NPs who earn the highest salaries tend to take on lots of shift work, meaning they work during evenings, weekends, and holidays. They may also be on call regularly. Nurse practitioners enjoy a strong occupational growth outlook, as the BLS projects this nursing profession will grow faster than any other profession in the country in coming years.
Demand for NPs is on the rise thanks to:
- An aging population placing a greater demand on healthcare services.
- Unhealthy lifestyles leading to more health problems.
- The Affordable Care Act and the more recent American Health Care Act, which have enabled more people to access healthcare.
- Outpatient care growth. Available outpatient treatments include same-day chemo, rehabilitation, and surgery.
Nurses generally benefit from positive employment prospects, but NPs consistently rank among those with the most opportunities. This makes NP careers even more appealing to RNs who want to begin working in advanced practice. It may take several years to become an NP, but the efforts often pay off.