What is a Nurse Practitioner?
Definition of a Nurse Practitioner
A Nurse Practitioner (NP) is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who provides expert, hands-on nursing care to patients in all kinds of medical settings. In the course of their work day, NPs can be found:
- Diagnosing & treating acute illnesses and chronic medical conditions
- Ordering & interpreting lab results
- Developing plans of care & advising patients on disease prevention, lifestyle changes, and better health
- Supporting & counseling families through difficult medical decisions
- Collaborating with physicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, and social workers
- Working with the community on public health issues (e.g. substance abuse)
- Conducting independent research, advocating for patients, and advising on government policy
- Teaching nursing students
NPs may also be able to prescribe medications, perform medical procedures, and practice without supervision from a physician. The ability to do this can vary from state to state, depending on State Board of Nursing policies.
Types of Nurse Practitioners (Population Focus Areas)
“Nurse practitioner” is an umbrella term. Once you have decided to become an NP, you’ll be expected to specialize in a population focus area. That means you’ll hold a job title such as:
- Adult Gerontology or Gerontological Nurse Practitioner (AGNP)
- Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
- Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)
- Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMNHP)
- Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
After you have decided on your focus area, you may even wish to sub-specialize. For example, you’ll see listings for both RN to MSN Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner and RN to MSN Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner programs in our directory. We talk a lot more about your options under each NP specialty page.
Registered Nurse (RN) vs. Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Both RNs and NPs are involved in direct patient care, but they have different clinical competencies:
- Registered Nurse: RNs perform basic and intermediate nursing tasks in medical settings. RNs have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing and gained their RN license from the State Board of Nursing.
- Nurse Practitioner: NPs are part of a group known as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who have gone through advanced training & education so they can specialize in a specific field of nursing. This group also includes Clinical Nurse Specialists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Anesthetists. APRNs have earned a graduate degree in their area of interest, gained their APRN license from the State Board of Nursing, and tackled national certification.
Serving as an RN is an honor and privilege, but you may find that you’re not being challenged. Becoming an NP in a specialty area will give you greater freedom and much more professional responsibility.
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
1. Become a Registered Nurse (RN)
Since you’re looking at RN to MSN programs, we’re assuming you’ve got this down! In other words, you already:
- Hold a diploma, associate’s (e.g. ADN/ASN) or bachelor’s degree (e.g. BSN) in nursing from an accredited school
- Have built up the required number of clinical hours
- Passed the national NCLEX-RN exam
- Earned your RN license from your State Board of Nursing
2. Earn RN Work Experience
Before you apply for a graduate degree, you will need to amass some work experience. Many schools offering RN to Nurse Practitioner programs will expect to see proof of 1-2 years of RN practice before they’ll consider your application.
It’s best if this work experience is in your field of interest. For example, aspiring Neonatal Nurse Practitioners (NNPs) should have RN experience caring for critically ill newborns, infants, and children in an in-patient critical care setting. We provide admission tips on each specialty page.
3. Earn a Graduate Degree in an NP Population Focus Area
In plain English, this means you must earn a master’s degree (e.g. MSN or MS) or a post-master’s degree (e.g. DNP) in your chosen NP specialty (e.g. Family Nurse Practitioner) from an accredited institution & nursing program.
- Are You an RN with a Diploma or Associate’s Degree in Nursing (e.g. ADN/ASN)? There are a large number of accelerated programs that are designed to get you to graduate school and prepare you for state APRN licensure. Many RN to MSN programs in our directory fall into this category.
- Are You an RN with a Bachelor’s Degree in an Area Other than Nursing? You can apply for plenty of Post-Baccalaureate RN to MS or Pre-MSN programs in our directory. These programs often include upper undergraduate or graduate foundation courses in nursing that will prepare you for the master’s degree curriculum.
- Are You an RN with a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (e.g. BSN)? You’ll have even more choice! With a strong GPA and a bachelor’s degree from a nursing program that is accredited by ACEN or CCNE, you can have your pick of MS & MSN degrees. Our directory focuses on RN to MSN programs, but feel free to use the links to explore a university’s master’s-only options.
Some nurse practitioner programs will get you to an MSN without earning a BSN; some will allow to you earn a BSN along the way.
4. Pursue APRN State Licensure
To become a nurse practitioner (in any population focus area), you must hold an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) license from your State Board of Nursing. Some Boards call this Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP) licensure.
Any ACEN- or CCNE-accredited RN to MSN program should help prepare you for the APRN licensure process, but we suggest a visit to your State Board of Nursing website. Each state has its own unique requirements and it’s best to be forewarned. Generally speaking, State Boards will expect you to:
- Hold a current and unencumbered RN license.
- Earn a relevant graduate degree (e.g. DNP, MSN, etc.) in your NP specialty—State Boards often specify that the program covers certain coursework, clinical components, and a practicum/internship.
- Pass a national certification exam. In a few states, you may not need to sit for a national certification exam if you earn your degree from a state-approved NP graduate program, but certification is rapidly becoming a mandatory requirement.
- Maintain state licensure through Continuing Education (CE).
5. Pursue National Board Certification in Your Specialty
Board certification is different than state licensure. It’s a national qualification that is administered by various nursing certification bodies (e.g. American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), National Certification Corporation (NCC), etc.).
- The NCSBN has an APRN Certification Map that shows which states require national certification in order to practice as an APRN. We also outline specific national certification requirements under each NP specialty page.
- Although certification is not always necessary to practice, you should pursue it. Being certified in your specialty is going to count for a lot when you apply for nursing jobs or internal promotions. In fact, insurance companies and employers may demand it.
When you’re evaluating RN to MSN degrees, look carefully at the program website to discover which national certifications are including in the program training and what the certification pass rate is. Certification bodies don’t like to endorse specific graduate programs, but they’ll often provide useful recommendations on “What to Look For” on their websites (e.g. Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)’s Choosing a PNP Program).
6. Consider a Nurse Practitioner Residency or Fellowship
NP residency programs are very similar to medical residencies. They give recent NP graduates the chance to practice nursing under the watchful eye of a physician or experienced nurse practitioner.
Although all MSN & MS NP programs include clinical rotations, many new nurse practitioners crave more knowledge. They want intensive “on-the-ground” learning experiences (e.g. clinic work) and hands-on training in sub-specialties (e.g. neuroscience, psychiatry, oncology, etc.). If that sounds like you, a NP residency could be just the ticket.
Paid NP residencies & fellowships are currently offered by hospitals, community health centers, healthcare providers, and related organizations.
- NP residencies are usually for 12 or 24 months. Fellowships vary in length.
- Thanks to shortages in the labor market, primary care & family practice NP residences are particularly popular.
- If the organization doesn’t have a lot of money, your annual residency stipend may not equal the starting salary of new NP.
- Some fellowships are also open to physician assistants (e.g. Carillon Clinic Emergency NP & PA Fellowship; AASLD NP/PA Clinical Hepatology Fellowship; etc.).
RN to Nurse Practitioner Programs
RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner: Overview
RN to MSN NP programs are designed for RNs with a diploma or an associate’s degree in nursing (e.g. ADN/ASN) who want to earn a master’s degree and qualify for NP certification & licensure.
A number of RN to MSN NP programs are also open to RNs with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing (e.g. BA or BS).
These can be RN-MSN programs or RN-BSN-MSN programs (i.e. you earn a BSN along the way).
RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner: Admissions
Generally speaking, RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner programs would like applicants to have the following:
- A diploma or associate’s degree (e.g. ADN/ASN) in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field from an accredited institution.
- A current RN license in the state where you plan to conduct your clinical practicums.
- At least one year of prior RN clinical experience—programs may specify that it has to be in your field of concentration (e.g. pediatrics). We have seen a few programs that waive the work requirement.
- An undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher—this stipulation can vary.
- Three letters of professional reference.
Universities may also ask for a personal essay, a résumé, a pre-admission interview, and/or certain undergraduate course credits (e.g. statistics).
RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner: Undergraduate Phase
To get you up-to-speed for graduate studies, RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner programs always include relevant upper-level undergraduate courses (e.g. nutrition, pathophysiology, patient-centered care, community nursing, etc.). You must take these courses through the college or university.
For example, a university may expect you to complete ~15-60 undergraduate credits in science & nursing (~6-24 months) before it will admit you to the MSN portion of your program. Fortunately:
- A number of schools have developed accelerated programs to help speed up the process.
- Undergraduate transfer credits are often accepted for courses such as statistics.
- In some cases, you’ll also be permitted to use professional nursing experiences (e.g. Military Health Care Training) for transfer credits.
- With RN-BSN-MSN programs, you can often “opt out” with a BSN if you lose interest in a master’s degree.
- You may be able to start earning graduate credits while you work toward completing a BSN.
- Certain programs skip the BSN altogether, which saves time & money.
RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner: MSN Didactic Credit Hours
Once you’re at the graduate level, you’ll find that accredited MS or MSN degree programs for nurse practitioners (in any specialty) will usually take around 2 years/7 semesters, including summer sessions, to complete. If you commit to full-time study, you may be able to condense this time-frame into one year. MSN nurse practitioner programs are around 40-60 credits, depending on how the school decides to distribute courses.
Around 70% of the curriculum in any MSN is devoted to didactic credits (i.e. the classroom/teaching component of your degree). Almost all NP programs will include mandatory credit hours in leadership, advanced pathophysiology, advanced pharmacology, advanced health assessment, and evidence-based practice. This sometimes called the “Nursing Core” of NP programs.
In addition, you will get to tackle advanced coursework in your population focus area. For example:
- Psychiatric/Mental Health NP programs might include credit hours in psychopharmocology and advanced psychiatric nursing.
- Family NP programs might include credit hours in health promotion & disease prevention, primary care, and healthcare systems.
- Neonatal NP programs might include credit hours in management of a sick neonate, neonatal disease processes, and pediatrics.
With certain programs, you may also be able to choose a few electives.
RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner: MSN Clinical Credit Hours / Practicums
Around 30% of the MSN will involve hands-on clinical work (i.e. practicums) in your area of specialization.
- Schools will often aim to give you 600-800 total hours of direct patient care.
- Faculty will make site visits to observe you working (e.g. in an NICU) and discuss your clinical experiences. For example, you may be monitored as you take a patient history, perform a physical exam, present a diagnosis, and create a management plan.
- Be sure to ask how the program is planning to coordinate and assess your clinical rotations. Will you be required to find a clinical preceptor in a physician’s office or clinic who is willing to supervise you?
Clinical work is a key component of your professional training, and it’s required for state licensure & national certification, so look for programs with strong ties to local partners (e.g. Boston’s medical hub). Remember that Schools of Nursing may also have close relationships with the university’s affiliated hospital (e.g. Vanderbilt School of Nursing and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center).
Online RN Nurse Practitioner Degrees
Are Online RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner Programs Available?
The answer is yes, but they’re not true 100% online programs. Because the MSN portion of any NP degree is required to contain practicums (i.e. training in direct patient care), the Online RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner Programs in our directory should really be called “hybrid” degrees.
- Mandatory clinical hours must be completed in an approved location where you reside.
- In addition, some online programs may also want you to travel to the campus for orientation and multi-day training intensives.
Keep these points in mind as you are drawing up your budget and marking out your calendar.
Online RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner Programs & State Licensure
Are you living in one state (e.g. Nebraska) and thinking of earning an Online RN to Nurse Practitioner degree from a university that’s located in another state (e.g. California)?
Check with your State Board of Nursing and the program coordinator first!
State Boards of Nursing have specific rules and regulations regarding clinical learning experiences for nurse practitioner students enrolled in distance education programs. You need to ensure your degree components will meet APRN licensure requirements in your home state.
In some cases, you may simply not be able to enroll. The State Authorization page on the university’s School of Nursing website will have detailed information.
Nurse Practitioner Jobs
Does the RN to MSN NP Program Prepare You for a Career?
We can’t stress this point enough! NPs often face a lot of competition when they hit the job market after graduation (sometimes there are hundreds of applicants for one position). For the money and time you’re investing in a program, you deserve career assistance.
Strong RN to Nurse Practitioner programs will:
- Post alumni employment rates (e.g. 100% after 6 months) and job openings
- Use the clinical rotation / practicum to connect you with potential employers
- Help you build a professional network
- Arrange career fairs and introductory interviews
- Provide you with career counseling throughout the program
We provide detailed career advice & links to job boards on each NP specialty page.
Nurse Practitioner Salaries & Job Outlook
AANP publishes an AANP National NP Compensation Survey report on a fairly regular basis. This report is free for AANP members and available for purchase by non-members. You can compare these figures to Payscale’s data on Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP) Salaries.
Better yet, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides annual occupational statistics for Nurse Practitioners, including a list of industries with the highest published employment and wages for this occupation.
- Physicians’ offices tend to be the largest employer group of NPs, followed by general medical & surgical hospitals and outpatient care centers.
- In 2017, the average wage for NPs in these physicians offices was ~$50/hour. For NPs in hospitals and care centers, the average wage went up a little to ~$54/hour.
The BLS also has handy national maps that show you states & metro areas with the highest level of employment and the best wages for nurse practitioners.
Nurse Practitioner Resources
NP Professional Associations
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
- American Nurses Association (ANA)
- American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
- American Nurses Foundation (ANF)
- Association for Nursing Professional Development (ANPD)
- American Travel Health Nurses Association (ATHNA)
- National Organization of NP Faculties (NONPF)
- Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation (NPHF)
NP Conferences & Events
- AANP Annual Conference
- AANP Health Policy Conference
- ICN Nurse Practitioner/Advanced Practice Nursing Conference
- International Nursing Research Congress
- National Conference for Nurse Practitioners (NCNP): The Conference for Primary and Acute Care Clinicians
- NONPF Annual Conference
- Nurse Practitioner Symposium (NPS)