How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
How long does it take to become a nurse practitioner? That’s a common question for those looking to enter the nursing field, and for those looking to expand their career opportunities. Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN); unlike a registered nurse (RN), NPs are capable of making a number of important clinical decisions. NPs are similar to physicians in their educational requirements and professional powers.
NPs can order lab work and tests, diagnose patients directly, prescribe medication, and manage a patient’s overall care plan. These are all duties an RN cannot perform, so NPs are valuable resources within the healthcare system, capable of doing the work of physicians even when a physician is not available. Like other positions in healthcare, NPs can also specialize into areas like family medicine, neonatal care, and adult gerontology.
In some states, NPs can even own and manage their own practices independent of a physician, giving them a huge amount of authority and career independence over RNs. States in which this is possible are called “full-practice states”.
(Image Source: https://www.aanp.org/advocacy/state/state-practice-environment)
Pay and job growth for NPs is very positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for NPs was $117,670 in 2020. By comparison, the median yearly pay for RNs was $75,330, so it’s clear that the higher educational standards of an NP result in considerably higher income.
Additionally, job growth for nurse practitioners is expected to grow by 45% from 2020 to 2030, far more so than the average growth rate across all professions.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
This depends on whether you are already a licensed RN. To become an NP, you must be an RN and hold a Bachelor’s of Nursing Science (BSN) degree.
If you are a licensed RN, the process can take 2-6 years depending on your exact educational pathway. If you are not already an RN, you will need to spend additional time getting your BSN and becoming a licensed Registered Nurse, a process that can take about 7-10 years in total.
However, there’s a lot of factors involved here. You might be able to complete your full educational requirements sooner if you enroll in direct or accelerated entry programs.
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners has a useful infographic describing the pathway to become an NP, shown below.
If You Do Not Already Hold a BSN and Are Not an RN
If you’re starting out entirely fresh to the nursing profession, you have a longer educational pathway ahead of you. Don’t worry though, not only is it possible to finish your education sooner than you might expect, you’ll be able to work as an RN once you have those qualifications. So, if a decade of continuous schooling seems unappealing, you’ll be able to take some time to just work before going on to your NP education.
If you don’t have any degrees yet, your best option is to enroll in an undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Again, this is a requirement for becoming an NP. Completing a BSN can take 2-4 years on average. You may be able to complete it in just 2 if you already have a lot of prerequisite credits from high school college credit courses or from community college.
Non-Nursing Degree Holders
If you already have an undergraduate degree in a field other than nursing, you may be able to enter an accelerated RN training program. These can be completed in as little as 12 months, after which you can take the exam required to become an RN, the NCLEX.
With that done, you’ll be able to work as an RN and move on to your NP education.
There are some all-in-one programs that allow you to get your BSN, become an RN, and then get a Master of Science in Nursing degree all in just three years. These may be of interest to you if you want to get into the NP profession quickly.
If You Have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
You may have received an ADN in community college and become an RN afterwards without having gone for a full BSN. In that case, there are RN-BSN programs that can grant you a BSN in a year. These are good options for quickly bridging the gap between your ADN and BSN, without having to spend unnecessary time and money in a traditional undergraduate program.
If You Have a BSN and Are an RN
If you’ve already received your BSN and are a licensed RN, your path to becoming a nurse practitioner is much shorter. You have the option of choosing between two degrees: a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). From there, you will need to take and pass the National NP Certification and Board Exam, and then apply for a license to practice in your state.
Either an MSN or DNP will prepare you for work as a nurse practitioner, but there are some differences between the two.
Master of Science in Nursing
An MSN is a graduate degree featuring more intensive nursing education. MSN programs allow RNs to get some more expertise and training to open up their career options, allowing them to ascend to higher positions like as a nurse practitioner.
Any form of APRN, including NPs, requires at least this degree. MSN programs are sometimes part-time, and some allow direct entry to the program even for non-nursing degree-holders, such as the aforementioned program from Regis College.
An MSN usually takes 2-3 years to complete for full-time students, and while tuition prices can vary widely, MSN programs are typically cheaper than DNP programs.
Doctor of Nursing Practice
A DNP is the highest degree attainable by a nurse; it confers a doctorate-level degree on anyone who earns it. Like an MSN, a DNP can serve as the graduate degree necessary to become a nurse practitioner. Additionally, you do not need to get an MSN in order to begin a DNP program; DNP programs allow you to enter with just a BSN.
DNP programs provide even more in-depth education for students compared to an MSN program. DNP-trained nurses are typically very specialized by the end of their studies, and are prepared to work as an independent practitioner, can take on the most complex of medical issues, and can initiate and manage their own research projects.
A DNP program typically takes 3-4 years of full-time study to complete, and most schools do not allow part-time study. They also tend to be more expensive than MSN programs. Finally, as a doctoral program, students must complete a capstone project centered around three criteria:
- It proposes a change that will impact a healthcare outcome
- It includes a plan for sustainability
- It sets out a foundation for future practice
MSN vs. DNP
There is one critical point you need to be aware of when making the decision of committing to an MSN or DNP degree. Currently, there are talks of changing the requirements for becoming an APRN (of which an NP is one type) from an MSN to a DNP. This would mean that, in order to become a nurse practitioner, you would need a DNP.
While this has not been put into effect and might not be for years, it is something to keep in mind. If you plan on beginning your graduate-level nursing education soon, or you prefer programs where part-time study is allowed, then you should apply and begin an MSN program as soon as possible.
However, if it will be a while until you begin your graduate education or if part-time work isn’t a necessity for you, you should prepare for applying to a DNP program. That way, you don’t need to worry about being delayed in case you only obtained an MSN.
There are multiple steps to becoming an NP, so there is no hard answer as to how long it will take. If you are an RN, expect it to take about 2-6 years. If you are not an RN and don’t yet have your BSN, expect it to take 7-10 years.
Licensure and Certification
To work as a nurse practitioner, you need to take and pass the National NP Certification and Board Exam. This exam gives you your certificate, which you will need to then apply for and receive a license to practice in your state. State licensing requirements vary, so be sure to check them for each state you want a license in. If you’re interested in running your own practice, check if your state allows it. Otherwise, you may want to move and pursue licensure elsewhere.
Types of Nurse Practitioner
Like physicians, NPs specialize into a certain area of medicine. Some specializations include:
- Psychiatric mental health
- Women’s health
If you’re interested in a specific specialty, you should check for any programs that focus on it. Some schools offer BSNs, MSNs, or DNPs specialized into certain areas. These can give you a major head start in developing your career.
Take Your Nursing Career to the Next Level
Becoming a nurse practitioner can mean vastly increased pay, prestige, and can give you the independence you need to take your career exactly where you want it to go. With this profession’s immense projected growth, now is the perfect time to start preparing for a career as a nurse practitioner.