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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

To become a nurse practitioner (NP), you'll need to earn an advanced nursing degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing, with a focus on a specific population that aligns with one of the nurse practitioner certification exams. Once you've completed the advanced degree, you'll need to sit for a nationally recognized nurse practitioner exam. After successfully passing that exam, you can apply for your NP license from your state's Board of Nursing.
A nurse practitioner working on her laptop

Understanding the numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

A career as a nurse practitioner (NP) allows you to choose the population with which you would like to work. Your choice may then dictate a setting, such as a primary care practice or acute care. Nurse practitioners are employed in just about every specialty. They can work to the fullest extent of their nursing license, meaning they can practice independently in a growing number of states.

How Do I Go from RN to NP?

A career as an NP begins with becoming a registered nurse (RN). To become an RN, you will either need to hold an earned diploma or an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) from an accredited nursing program. These accreditations are done by organizations such as:

  • Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA)

You may also take a National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) approved program that prepares you for the NCLEX exam.

Dr. Nicholas Carte with the text Dr. Nicholas CarteRNs with an ASN or diploma can continue with an online RN to BSN program. Some schools, such as Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), may require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) for graduate studies. When you're ready to take the next step toward becoming an NP, you will need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) from an accredited program. There, you'll need to complete specific NP courses and supervised clinical practice hours.

In addition to the advanced graduate education, “nurse practitioners are required to complete a specific number of clinical practicum hours,” said Dr. Nicholas S. Carte, AGPCNP-C, APRN, graduate nursing faculty lead at SNHU.*

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

On average, “it can take about two years of graduate education to obtain the minimum educational requirements to become a nurse practitioner,” said Carte. The two years are based on being a full-time student (two courses per term is considered full-time at SNHU) and starting with a BSN.

The time to complete the degree can vary based on the person and depends on how many classes you take each term. Many learners work full or part-time while in school or have families or other commitments that may not work for a traditional, on-ground NP master's program. An online program is an excellent option for those who wish to obtain a master's degree but need more flexibility.

It’s important to note that education is only one part of becoming an NP. After completing your educational program, including the required clinical hours, you must then pass a nationally recognized NP exam in order to apply for your Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) license. “One cannot practice as an NP without successfully passing a nationally recognized certification exam,” Carte said.

The exam gauges your knowledge of patient assessment, diagnosis, clinical management, evaluation and APRN professional role dimensions. For family nurse practitioner (FNP) students, there are two choices for national certification exams:

What is the Fastest Way to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

There are no shortcuts to becoming an NP. There are, however, ways to maximize your time as you complete the work necessary to earn the credential.

Some ways include:

  • Talking with an admissions counselor at your desired school. Admission counselors can help you identify potential eligibility for transferring credits. They can help you map out a timeline and course of study. They can also share information about the program, its requirements and any unique features, as well as how the school is positioned to help you succeed in meeting your career goals.

  • Explore financial aid options. No one wants to leave school heavily in debt, so by mapping out the necessary coursework and timeline toward degree completion, you will also know the financial aspect of the degree. The financial aid department of your school will be happy to help you explore options to make earning your degree cost-effective for you as well.

  • Talking to a career advisor at your desired school. Even before enrollment, checking in with the career department of the school that interests you is a great way to gain information about your program. Be sure to ask questions about job placement rates after graduation and the support the school offers to alums.

  • Working directly in the field that interests you. If you are an emergency room nurse (ERN) that wants to explore a career as an FNP, for example, consider gaining experience at a family practice clinic in your area. Relevant experience will help you explore nursing specialties as well as boost your skill set in nursing overall.

Do Credentials Differ by State?

Dr. Jequie Dixon with the text Dr. Jequie Dixon All NPs must pass an exam that leads to a national certification. While credentials are awarded by a national organization, it’s important to note that licensing varies by state. “At SNHU, we teach to the highest-level national standards,” said Dr. Jequie Dixon, APRN, AGACNP-BC, clinical coordinator of MSN programs at SNHU.** “That way, nurses who graduate from our nurse practitioner program have the knowledge and skills needed to begin a new career" and become NPs who are well-trained and ready to work.

Some states allow NPs to practice independently. Others require them to work under the oversight of a physician. Every state can set its standards for licensure in terms of clinical hours and type of training needed beyond the master’s degree, as well as for continuing education and national certification.

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Nurse Practitioner?

In addition to the specific educational and clinical requirements for NP certifications, soft skills such as providing compassionate care and the ability to multi-task and communicate effectively are critical. To be an NP in any specific specialty, "you must be focused, organized and flexible," Dixon said.

In a role as busy and complex as an NP, you need to combine interpersonal and technical skills while still showing deep compassion for your patients.

“We’re all very busy, so being able to reach your patients and encourage their participation in their own care is huge,” Dixon said. “If patients don’t understand the need for a certain medication or how to take the medication properly, they simply won’t take it. Then they’ll come back in with the same concerns. This is where compassion and holistic care really make a difference."

What is the Career Potential for a Nurse Practitioner?

The career potential for an NP is quite strong. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the NP profession is expected to grow 40% over the next ten years, and the median salary was $123,780 in 2021.

As part of your educational journey, you must choose a population that you wish to focus on, such as:

  • Adult-gerontology
  • Family practice
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatric/mental health
  • Women

If you decide to become an FNP, for example, you may work to assess patients, diagnose and treat illness, and provide patient education about medication and treatment plans to patients of all ages.

Where Can Nurse Practitioners Work?

Since NPs are needed across all populations, the profession offers several work environments to consider when choosing your path. “A nurse practitioner can pursue a career in a variety of settings, including private practice, group practice or urgent care, to name just a few,” Carte said. Other opportunities for an NP can include roles in clinics, academia and leadership.

Because NPs treat every population, they are also needed in all kinds of geographic locations — cities, suburban areas and rural communities.

Rural communities have a great demand for NPs. "This is because there is a shortage of primary care physicians which provides opportunities for the nurse practitioner," Dixon said. NPs can evaluate patients, manage treatment plans and write prescriptions, as well as get to know their patients on an individual level. These responsibilities help NPs care for patients more holistically and ensure that patients in communities everywhere have access to quality healthcare.

The beauty of the nursing profession is that the demand for nursing care is everywhere. Any community with a goal of improving the health of their citizens — or keep them healthy — needs NPs.

Can Nurse Practitioners Practice Independently?

Currently, 27 states allow nurse practitioners to practice independently, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). This means they can open their own clinics and treat their own patients without needing a physician to oversee the practice. The ability to practice independently creates a great opportunity for NPs and for the communities they serve.

“You’ll see independent nurse practitioners in more rural states because getting providers there is difficult,” Dixon said. "Physicians tend to work in bigger cities where they can focus on a specialty, so the need for general practitioners in more rural communities is great.”

This is a wonderful trend, in Dixon’s opinion. “The fact that nurse practitioners have independent clinical opportunities in more states and are able to serve even more people is amazing,” she said.

Dixon also feels NPs emphasize helping the patient actively participate in their care.

“If I prescribe amoxicillin, but the patient doesn’t take it because they don’t understand how or why they’re taking it, the problem won't be fixed," Dixon said. But when the patient truly understands the purpose of their treatment plan, they are more apt to participate. The NP’s emphasis on patient education and relationship-building is the bridge.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Working as an NP is a rewarding career. “Therapeutic communication, understanding family needs and caregiver needs are all part of what makes a good nurse practitioner,” said Dixon.

Throughout her career, Dixon has worked as an NP in critical care, aesthetics, oncology, hospital medicine and academia. She decided to add to her nursing training by earning a DNP degree. That degree allows her to train other nurses who want to build on their knowledge and help those who want to learn how to become NPs. She enjoys the flexibility that her profession allows with opportunities “to move around to different clinical areas and new specialties without ever losing momentum.”

Above all, Dixon finds the ability to reach patients in meaningful ways one of the most important aspects of the profession. “Nursing is all about safe patient care, patient education and understanding where the patient is coming from so you can best provide care,” she said.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU nursing program that can best help you meet your goals.

Marie Morganelli, PhD, is a freelance content writer and editor.

*Carte's credentials stand for Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner-Certified (AGPCNP-C) and Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

**Dixon's credentials stand for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (AGACNP-BC).

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.