Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Which Career is Right for You?

Written By: Caitlin Goodwin DNP, CNM, RN

When looking at becoming a nurse practitioner vs RN, it can seem impossible to pick the right career. Both careers are solid choices that subscribe to the nursing model of care. Whichever one you choose, you are in good company. There are 4 million registered nurses and 290,000 licensed NPs in the United States.

Fortunately, the differences between NP and RN are not as significant as you may initially think. In order to be a nurse practitioner, you must become a registered nurse first. Beyond the training, nearly all NPs have hands-on nursing experience.

Becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) is an incredible journey that starts before you become a registered nurse (RN). This article covers all you need to know about how to become an RN and NP and why you should pursue these remarkable careers.

1. Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Job Duties

The job duties of an NP or RN vary tremendously based on the specialty. For example, both critical care NPs and RNs take care of critical care patients in different ways. However, there are similarities among the professions.

Nurses take patient histories, perform client intakes, educate the patients on lifestyle choices and disease prevention, record symptoms, take treatments, and administer prescribed medications. RNs can independently assess patients, but require an order from a physician, NP, or physician assistant to give medications or provide medical interventions.

The scope of the RN is less than that of the NP and defined by each state’s Nurse Practice Acts.
Nurse practitioners have a broader scope than registered nurses. They round on patients at hospitals, see patients in clinics, order labs and imaging, prescribe medications, review results, and diagnose.


2. Essential Skills Required to Succeed in this Career

Registered nurses and nurse practitioners are considered the most honest profession in the United States. Whether you choose to become an RN or NP, the crucial skills for a successful career remain the same.

The essential skills required to become a nurse or NP involve:

• leadership
• critical thinking
• communication
• organization
• detail-oriented
• reliability
• honesty
• flexibility

3. RN vs. Nurse Practitioner: What Education is Required to Become?

Both RNs and NPs must attend an accredited college and become a registered nurse. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredits nursing programs to ensure quality education. To be an RN, you can obtain an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

However, the difference between an NP and RN is that in order to become an NP, you must first be a registered nurse and have a baccalaureate degree. NPs require a graduate level of education in the form of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).

4. Differences in How Long Does It Take to Become?

The timeline to become an NP and RN are significantly different. The difference between a nurse practitioner and RN preparation vary by two to four years. Becoming an RN requires at least one and a half years, sometimes longer, to obtain your ADN. If you pursue your BSN, it may take up to 5 years.

In order to become a nurse practitioner, you must take another two to three years of schooling and clinical experience. For those who go full time, expect 30 to 36 months for the program. If you are part-time, the program will take between 36 to 48 months. The total time to become an NP is six to eight years. The entire time to become a RN is two to five years.

5. Differences in How Much Does It Cost to Become?

Any professional career requires a significant financial investment. However, those who choose to become an RN or NP invest significantly in their education. The cost of an associate degree of nursing (ADN) is $6,000 to $40,000 depending on whether you are at a public community college or private university.

If you start with an associate’s degree, you can “bridge” from an ADN to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). For those, the cost for an RN to BSN program is between $13,000 to $40,000 for online programs. Campus programs are slightly more expensive and can go up to $80,000 per year!

The cost of a BSN is $40,000 to $80,000 depending on location, prestige, and if the college is public or private. When you add in books, fees, transportation, room and board, the cost can skyrocket to $90,000 to $250,000 for a traditional four-year program.

According to US News, the cost of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is $35K to $50K. Those costs encompass a huge range. Thus, the cost to become an RN can range between $19K to $80K+ while an NP is $55K to $135K.

6. Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Certification & Licensure Requirements

Certification and licensure requirements vary tremendously. The difference between nurse practitioners and registered nurses may further differ based on state. In most states, the Board of Nursing regulates the certification and licensure of registered nurses. However, in some states, other regulatory bodies manage the licenses of their nurses.

Registered nurses graduate from their accredited nursing program and must sit for the NCLEX-RN and pass successfully. Finally, they apply for licensure through their state board of nursing.

Nurse practitioners must first be registered nurses with an active and unencumbered license. They attend an accredited graduate nursing program. After completion of their MSN, they will sit for boards through the certification body of their specialty. For example, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) delivers the Psychiatric-Mental health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC) certification exam.

7. Differences in Specialization Options

Nurses and nurse practitioners work in all different specialties. A registered nurse can work in most specialties without additional schooling. However, the difference between a registered nurse and nurse practitioner focuses on the population.

RNs work in all areas of healthcare and all facilities, such as:

• Emergency medicine
• Critical care (CCU) and Intensive Care Units (ICU)
• Medical-Surgical units
• Labor and Delivery
• Postpartum
• Newborn Nursery and Neonatal ICU (NICU)
• Oncology (cancer)
• Hematology (blood disorders)
• Public health departments
• Community health centers
• Medical offices
• Corporate health
• Research
• Health insurance Companies
• Case management

Nurse practitioners are trained for the population. If they wish to switch their specialization, they would have to receive additional education. They also can work in sub-specialties like neurology, cardiology, and oncology. Nurse practitioners specialize based on population, such as:

• Family
• Women’s Health
• Neonatal
• Pediatric

○ Acute Care Pediatric NP

• Adult-Gerontological
• Adult-Gerontological Acute Care
• Gerontological
• Psychiatric-Mental Health
• Emergency
• Cardiology
• Dermatology
• Aesthetic
• Oncology
• Orthopedic
• Neurology

When NPs work in women’s health, they can care for women of all ages, including gynecological and obstetric patients. However, attending births is left to the certified nurse-midwives.

8. NP vs. RN: Where Do They Work?

RNs work in both inpatient and outpatient settings, such as ambulatory healthcare services, long-term care facilities, government, nursing education, phone triage lines, and communities (like health departments or schools). Nurses are most common in state, local, or private hospitals.

Nurse practitioners work in as diverse settings as RNs. NPs are most common in:

• medical offices
• hospitals
• long-term care
• Emergency Departments
• outpatient care centers,
• Urgent cares
• higher education
• hospice
• Retail clinics (drug stores)

Nurses and NPs work in a variety of other areas, but the above ones are the main workplace environments.

9. Differences in Work Hours

For work hours, there aren’t a lot of differences between a nurse practitioner and RN. Some nurses and NPs work a traditional Monday to Friday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., 40 hours per week shifts. Other RNs and NPs work 24 hours a day, on weekends, and holidays. Usually, this varies depending on the location and area in which they work. Hospital-based nurses and NPs are more likely to work off-shifts.

10. Differences in Job Stress

Job stress is high among nurses, as being a registered nurse can cause significant pressure, stress, and emotional drain. According to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Institute, the nursing profession is ranked 27 (out of 130 professions) regarding work-related mental health issues.

Nurse practitioners have even more liability and responsibility which means that NPs jobs are also stressful, if not more. NPs experience moderate job stress, like nurses, and suffer from mild anxiety and depression. Studies conclude that career stress and anxiety negatively influence nurse practitioners’ health.

11. Differences in Job Satisfaction

The job satisfaction of the nursing field be it registered nurses or nurse practitioners has the potential to be high because there is the emotional component of making a difference in a patient's lives. Unfortunately, there are high turnover rates which indicates that not all nurses are happy with their current jobs. The nurses with the highest job satisfaction have the best relationships with their administrators.

12. RN vs. NP: Starting Salary

When it comes to the NP vs RN salary, the differences are substantial. The starting salary for nurses is decent. However, when you think about the additional training that nurse practitioners undergo, the increase of nearly $30K is appropriate. However, the job stress and anxiety means that this is not a job you should go into for mere pay. Understand your duties, role, and responsibilities before starting the education process.

Occupation Hourly Monthly Annual
Nurse Practitioner $39.14 $6,780 $81,410
Registered Nurse $25.04 $4,340 $52,080
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

13. Differences in Average Hourly Pay

The average hourly pay reflects the responsibility level of health professionals. RNs have patients’ lives and health in their hands. Registered nurses average $37 an hour- more than detectives, plumbers and teachers, but less than pharmacists and physical therapists.

However, nurse practitioners possess even more liability in their job description. Thus, the pay differences reflect that. Thus, the pay is $16.50 more per hour.

OccupationHourly Pay
Nurse Practitioner $53.77
Registered Nurse $37.24
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

14. Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Average Annual Salary

Nurse practitioners and the registered nurses are both paid well. However, the higher salary of the NP also reflects professionalism, skill, and accountability. NPs take on more responsibility by becoming a clinician.

Registered nurse’s annual salary is more flexible than the one displayed. Despite the salary being a representation of a 40-hour workweek, the salary of a registered nurse flexes based on whether a nurse works 12-hour shifts or 8-hour shifts. Many hospitals also offer a “shift differential” to nurses, which is a bonus to work evenings, nights, or weekends.

OccupationAnnual Salary
Nurse Practitioner $111,840
Registered Nurse $77,460
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

15. Differences in Salary by Level of Experience

When choosing between NP or RN, the nurse practitioner has the potential to make the most money. However, nursing professions generate a significant amount of money. Both registered nurses and NPs make more money with increased experience.

Occupation Level of Experience Hourly Monthly Annual
Nurse Practitioner Starting (Entry-Level) $39.14 $6,780 $81,410
1-4 Years of Experience $44.61 $7,730 $92,790
5-9 Years of Experience $52.80 $9,150 $109,820
10-19 Years of Experience $61.07 $10,590 $127,030
20 Years or More Experience $73.15 $12,680 $152,160
Registered Nurse Starting (Entry-Level) $25.04 $4,340 $52,080
1-4 Years of Experience $28.90 $5,010 $60,110
5-9 Years of Experience $35.24 $6,110 $73,300
10-19 Years of Experience $43.63 $7,560 $90,760
20 Years or More Experience $53.47 $9,270 $111,220
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

16. Differences in Annual Job Openings

Both NPs and RNs have significant new and replacement job openings for their respective fields. Recent studies show that Millenials are less loyal to the hospital for which they work than other generations. While they have the reputation as “job hoppers”, there are some important factors that influence these decisions. Oftentimes, it is hard to get an appropriate raise in pay without switching institutions. Millennials work hard but expect their job to also serve them in terms of flexibility and work-life balance.

While moving between jobs to increase pay or advance in their careers accounts for some of the replacement openings, others are caused by an aging baby boomer population that is retiring. The new job openings are related to the increase in complex medical needs due to the obesity epidemic and aging patient population. Together registered nurses will need to fill 210,400 annual job openings per year and nurse practitioners will need to fill nearly 17,000.

Occupation New Replacement Annual Job Openings (New + Replacement)
Nurse Practitioner 5,330 11,570 16,900
Registered Nurse 37,150 173,250 210,400
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

17. Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Job Outlook

There are a lot of job openings. The job outlook for both nurse practitioners and registered nurses are outstanding. However, the field for NP has jumped dramatically over the last decade and is projected to continue to grow. With an aging population comes retiring clinicians and nurses, but it also brings older patients with more complex medical needs. When you combine the two, you will see why the need for nurses and NPs surpasses the national average.

However, NPs have the additional advantage that they can often act as a primary care provider. By 2030, all baby boomer physicians will be over the age of 65 and the average age of retirement for physicians is 66. With more primary care physicians retiring and younger physicians increasingly opting to specialize, there are a lot of opportunities for NPs to take over these roles.

Occupation Employment New Employment Growth (2018-2028)
2018 2028 Number %
Nurse Practitioner 189,100 242,400 53,300 28.19%
Registered Nurse 3,059,800 3,431,300 371,500 12.14%
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The Bottom Line

If you are still torn between RN vs nurse practitioner, start by becoming a registered nurse. You may find that after starting your career as a nurse, you’re satisfied. Nursing is an honorable and engaging career. However, if you want to continue on to pursue your dreams to become a nurse practitioner - you’ve already completed the first step!

Caitlin Goodwin DNP, CNM, RN
Caitlin Goodwin is a Certified Nurse-Midwife who has been a nurse for 12 years, primarily in women’s health. She is passionate about caring for children with developmental disabilities, as her son has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is currently working as a freelance writer and consultant and is passionate about advocating for her patients, students, and profession.