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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner? (Answered By An NP In A Detailed Step-By-Step Process)


Written By: Lauren Jacobson MS, RN, WHNP-BC

Do you want to become a nurse practitioner (NP) but are unsure how to do it? The good news is that regardless of your background and education there are multiple paths for you. Here we will cover how to become a nurse practitioner, as well as the job responsibilities and benefits. We will also cover the education process, cost, salary expectations, and job outlook. Look no further for your ultimate nurse practitioner guide!


Why Become a Nurse Practitioner?


Being a nurse practitioner has many advantages, but what does it have over being a physician’s assistant or doctor? Well, the short answer is that it is simply a different type of healthcare provider compared with the other two. Depending on what you are looking for in your career, being a nurse practitioner may be right for you. Nurse practitioners have competitive salaries and the job outlook is good with a 52% growth between 2019 and 2029 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a nurse practitioner, you will have the autonomy to diagnose and treat a variety of medical conditions and the education path is much shorter than becoming a physician…and also much cheaper.


What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?


Nurse practitioners provide comprehensive patient care within a particular population focus they are specialized in. They take patient histories, do physical exams, order tests and imaging, make diagnoses, and treat medical conditions including prescribing medication. Nurse practitioners are often trained to do small surgical procedures within their scope of practice as well. As a nurse practitioner, you are not just limited to patient care. You can also engage in research and teaching if you desire.


Where Do Nurse Practitioners Work?


Nurse practitioners work in many settings ranging from hospitals and outpatient clinics to schools and prisons. In any location where healthcare is needed, there is the potential for a nurse practitioner to work. As a nurse practitioner you could find yourself working in a primary care setting within your population focus, or in a hospital doing shift work. If you want to work in a specialty clinic that is also a possibility. Some nurse practitioners like to be on the move so they opt for a travel job or school nurse practitioner role. This enables them to either travel with work or have ample time off throughout the year. Nurse practitioners can also work in rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities, or Native American reservations.


What are the Typical Work Hours for Nurse Practitioners?


Your work hours as a nurse practitioner will depend on your job but is typically a 40-hour workweek. The number of worked hours may increase if you find yourself taking your charting home with you to finish. If you work in an outpatient clinic you will have the luxury of an 8 hour a day schedule usually Monday through Friday. However, in some clinics, you may have one longer day with evening hours and work a 4-day workweek. If you work in a hospital you may do shift work. This means your schedule will vary and you may have 8- or 12-hour shifts. Being a nurse practitioner is hard work, but it is typically not as time-consuming as being a doctor. The work-life balance is often better especially once you adjust to your new role and learn to manage your time well.


How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?


The number of years it takes for you to become a nurse practitioner depends on a few things, such as your education history, what degree you are seeking, and whether you want to study full-time or part-time. There are paths to becoming a nurse practitioner if you are already a registered nurse (RN) without a bachelor’s degree, if you are not an RN but have a bachelor’s degree, and if you are an RN with a bachelor of nursing science (BSN). If you are an RN without a bachelor's degree and are seeking a master’s in nursing (MSN) degree, you can expect to spend 30 to 36 months full-time or 36 to 48 months part-time. If you have a bachelor’s degree, the full-time study will take around 15 to 24 months or 24 to 48 months. Are you interested in a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree? Then it is going to take you a little longer. Going from a bachelor’s degree to a DNP will take 3 to 4 years full-time and 4 to 7 years part-time. If you have an MSN and want your DNP it will be 1 to 2 years full-time or 2 to 4 years part-time.

Degree Type Pathway Full-Time Part-Time
MSN RN to MSN 30 to 36 months 36 to 48 months
BSN to MSN 15 to 24 months 24 to 48 months
DNP BSN to DNP 3 to 4 years 4 to 7 years
MSN to DNP 1 to 2 years 2 to 4 years


How Much Does It Cost to Become a Nurse Practitioner?


Graduate school is expensive, but the ticket price to become an NP can vary immensely depending on many factors. Your current training can dictate how long you are in school and thus how expensive it will be. Additionally, some schools such as public ones provide high-quality education but at a lower cost than private schools. Here we have provided ranges of costs for becoming a nurse practitioner. If you are an RN and are pursuing an MSN you will pay between $22,070 and $231,600 for your degree. If you have your BSN and are getting an MSN you will pay a little less at $18,810 to $185,280. If you decide to go for that terminal degree the DNP, and you have your BSN you will pay between $26,490 and $254,260. If you have already earned your MSN and want to earn your DNP the cost drops to between $17,660 and $169,510. Remember these ranges are broad because many factors can influence how much you pay to become an NP!

Degree Type Pathway Tuition Ranges
MSN RN to MSN $22,070 - $231,600
BSN to MSN $18,810 - $185,280
DNP BSN to DNP $26,490 - $254,260
MSN to DNP $17,660 - $169,510


The Following is a Detailed Step-by-Step Process Required to Become a Nurse Practitioner


1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

When you decide you want to become a nurse practitioner you can start with either step one or two in this process. The important thing is that before you begin your nurse practitioner specific education you need a bachelor’s degree…but this doesn’t have to be in nursing. There are direct entry nurse practitioner programs specifically designed for non-nurses who have bachelor’s degrees in other fields. These are covered in another guide. You can however pursue a bachelor’s in nursing science (BSN) that will prepare you to sit for the NCLEX exam (RN certification exam).

2. Become a licensed registered nurse

You cannot be a nurse practitioner without first being a licensed RN. Whether you do this after your BSN, or during a direct entry program, or even as an associate’s degree and get your bachelor’s later, it is up to you. There are many pathways to becoming a nurse practitioner. To become an RN, you need to complete an accredited training program and pass the NCLEX exam. After this, you need to apply to your state Board of Nursing for licensure. This involves some paperwork and paying a fee. Before you start this process keep in mind that you also need to be certified in Basic Life Support (BLS)!

3. Earn a master’s in nursing or doctorate of nursing practice degree

How to become a nurse practitioner depends on your starting point and end goals but regardless you will need to earn an MSN or DNP degree. Again, the order in which you do this and become an RN can vary depending on your experience and current certifications and licensure. During an MSN program, you will have didactic courses that teach you how to assess, diagnose, and treat patients with a variety of conditions within your population foci (also commonly referred to as specialties). There are 6 population foci that you can choose from when you start school: family nurse practitioner (FNP), adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP), neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP), and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Depending on your population foci you will also need to complete between 500 and 600 hours of supervised hands-on clinical practice where you can learn and refine skills. DNP programs are similar but offer additional didactic courses and require at least 1000 hours of clinical experience. During the DNP you will earn your MSN as well. The DNP is the terminal degree in nursing for people who want to provide hands-on clinical care. When you are applying to schools be sure to do your research to find the program that is right for your unique personal situation and professional goals.

4. Pass your nurse practitioner certification examination

Once you graduate with your MSN or DNP you can take the nurse practitioner certification exam from your specific credentialing board. Which exam you take depends on your population foci. For example, if you are an FNP or AGNP, you will take either the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) exam or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) exam. We provide more information on which FNP exam you should take here. For PMHNPs you will take an exam through the ANCC. If you are a WHNP or NNP you will take exams offered by the National Certification Corporation (NCC). As a PNP you will take the certification exam offered through the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board.

5. Obtain state licensure

After you are certified at the national level you can submit your paperwork and fees to the state Board of Nursing where you wish to practice. Then you will be licensed to practice as a nurse practitioner in that state.

6. Get your DEA license

To prescribe medication, you will need to register with the DEA. This is a national registration, however, you do not necessarily need this to start applying for many jobs. It can be expensive (currently $731 for a 3-year registration), so it may be worth applying for jobs, and once you have an offer negotiate reimbursement for the DEA registration.

7. Find your first nurse practitioner job!

You’ve done it! You have become a nurse practitioner and can start looking for your dream job. Leverage your connections and look to the places where you completed your clinical training during nurse practitioner school. They already know you and may have the perfect starting position for you. Otherwise, hospitals and clinics post jobs frequently and job boards like Indeed and Glassdoor also post available NP positions.


Salary for Nurse Practitioners


The salary you will earn as a nurse practitioner can vary immensely. Factors such as your work environment, specialty, location, experience, and more will play a role. To give you a better idea of what you can earn we have listed average hourly, monthly, and annual rates for nurse practitioners with varying levels of experience according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics. At the high end, nurse practitioners with 20 or more years of experience can make up to $152,160 per year or $61.07 hourly. Entry-level nurse practitioners understandably make less, but still, earn a competitive salary at $81.410 per year or $39.14 hourly. As a nurse practitioner, on average you will make $111,840 per year or $53.77 hourly. To get an even more accurate idea of what you can make, research nurse practitioner salaries, in your specialty, and in the community, you plan to work in.

Type Hourly Monthly Annual
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
Average Annual Salary $53.77 $9,320 $111,840
(Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics)


Annual Job Openings for Nurse Practitioners


With the economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are concerned about their finances and job security. Fortunately for you, nurse practitioners are afforded a certain level of job security and future job growth since healthcare workers are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 24,200 job openings annually for nurse practitioners. This accounts for new positions and positions that need to be filled due to people leaving their job for retirement etc. (replacement).

NewReplacementAnnual Job Openings (New + Replacement)
11,07013,13024,200
(Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics)


Job Outlook for Nurse Practitioners


As you think about how to become a nurse practitioner, you may also be thinking about WHY to become a nurse practitioner. The demand for nurse practitioners is anticipated to grow immensely between 2019 and 2029 and in hard economic times, this may motivate you towards this career path. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that NP employment will grow by 52.39% percent during this decade. As a new NP, this means you will have ample job opportunities to jumpstart your career and continue to gain valuable experience and grow later on.

Employment New Employment Growth (2019-2029)
2019 2029 Number %
211,300 322,000 110,700 52.39%
(Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics)


Conclusion


Are you wondering how to become a nurse practitioner? Well, this step-by-step guide will help you plan out your future career. By starting with earning a bachelor’s degree and/or becoming an RN you will be taking the first major step towards becoming a nurse practitioner. The steps to becoming an NP can vary a bit depending on your starting point but there is truly an option for everyone. With a competitive salary and promising career outlook and job growth, your hard years of studying and training will be worth it when you walk into work every day loving what you do.


Frequently Asked Questions Answered By Our Expert


How Many Years of Schooling After High School Does It take to Become an NP?

This is a common question, and the answer is not straight forward. Since there are many ways to become a nurse practitioner, it depends on what path you take. The number of years of schooling after high school can range from 6 to 10 years or more full-time. This is largely influenced by when and how you become a nurse and whether you decide to earn an MSN or DNP to become an NP. Keep in mind studying part-time takes longer than full-time but there are pros and cons to both.

What is the Quickest Way to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

The quickest path to becoming an NP is to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing immediately after high school, and then go directly to graduate school for your master’s in nursing. This will be 6 years of school after high school.

How to Become an NP Without a Nursing Degree?

There are ways to become an NP if you do not currently have a nursing degree, but you will need a degree in nursing at some point (this can be a bachelor’s or master’s degree). I became a nurse practitioner later in my career and started my master’s in nursing with a bachelor's in a non-nursing field. These are called “Direct Entry Programs.” The idea is that you complete RN courses early in your master’s degree, sit for the NCLEX when qualified, and then continue to learn the advanced practice nursing theory and skills to become an NP.

How to balance becoming a nurse practitioner with personal and professional commitments?

If we haven’t made it clear yet, the beautiful part of becoming a nurse practitioner is that the pathway to getting there is flexible. I know NPs who completed their NP training immediately after their bachelor’s in nursing, full-time without working. I juggled an accelerated full-time Direct Entry Program with working part-time. I know women and men who completed NP school full-time with children and part-time with children and a full-time job. Additionally, life throws us all unexpected curve balls. It may sound cliché, but there is a path for everyone who wants to become a nurse practitioner. Time management is key of course, but also remember to communicate openly with your professors. They are there to help you get the most out of your education and can help support you as you balance school with your personal and professional life.

Based on My Own Personal Experiences What are the Pros and Cons of Becoming a Nurse Practitioner?

There are many benefits to becoming an NP. For me, some of the pros are more obvious like earning a competitive salary, job security and flexibility, and opportunities for professional growth. One that was less expected was the holistic nature in which nurses and nurse practitioners are trained and watching this come out in my clinical and non-clinical work. I feel that I was truly taught the value of bedside manner and can uniquely connect with my patients as a result of being trained through nursing theory versus medical theory. I have also been able to explore work in research, international health, and humanitarian work. The versatility of being a nurse practitioner is exciting. Some cons include the cost of education. I encourage anyone pursuing a career as an NP to carefully select what school they go to. There is no need to go to the most expensive private school. Look out for your future self and finances and make a balanced decision analyzing the cost of your training as well as the quality of your education. For me, another con is that advanced practice nursing is still being developed in many countries. This means if you want to work abroad, you may or may not be able to work at the level of an NP. Nurses are needed around the world though, so there is still an option for you to work as a nurse in other countries. Similarly, the scope of practice varies by state, so if you decide to move just make sure you know how and if your job will change.


Lauren Jacobson MS, RN, WHNP-BC
Lauren Jacobson is a registered nurse and women’s health nurse practitioner who is passionate about global health and gender-based violence prevention. She is Editor and an Advisory Board Member for the Global Nursing Caucus and volunteers with Physicians for Human Rights as a medical evaluator for asylum seekers.