How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

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Nurses and midwives make up about half of the world’s workforce, and 9 million more nurses will be needed by 2030, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As the demand for nurses increases, so too will the need for nurse practitioners (NPs), who play a critical role in treating a broad range of physical and mental health conditions.

Building upon the core responsibilities of registered nurses (RNs), nurse practitioners are also able to diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, and operate health care clinics without oversight by a physician. Nursing professionals who invest the additional time and effort to become a nurse practitioner are equipped to pursue advanced careers in their growing field.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Registered nurses work with physicians and other medical staff in patient care facilities such as hospitals and clinics. They may assess and record patients’ conditions, administer physician-prescribed treatments, and provide plans for at-home care.

A nurse practitioner is a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). NPs may perform many of a physician’s duties, such as ordering and performing diagnostic tests, interpreting test results, diagnosing and providing treatment options for acute and chronic conditions, and prescribing medications and therapies. They can work autonomously or as part of a larger medical team, often in specialized areas, such as pediatrics and family health.

Health professionals typically follow four steps to become a nurse practitioner: earn a bachelor’s degree, earn a master’s degree or doctorate, gain experience in a specialized field, and attain the required certifications and licenses. To work without physician oversight, NPs must complete, at a minimum, a two- to three-year postgraduate nursing degree.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Prior to working as a registered nurse, one must first earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). In the four-year BSN program, students take courses in chemistry, nutrition, and anatomy, building a strong foundation of knowledge to prepare for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) after graduation. All RNs who wish to work in a clinical environment must pass the NCLEX-RN, and they may need additional certifications to practice in select areas of patient health. Many nurses who are interested in pursuing advanced degrees spend a few years working in a clinical setting to develop their treatment skills and determine an area in which to specialize.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is often a requirement to become a nurse practitioner, although some employers require a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) for certain APRN roles. In addition to providing comprehensive instruction in core medical and scientific principles, MSN courses typically cover more complex issues, such as political factors that can impact the delivery of health care. Coursework also covers advanced pharmacology and prescription authority laws, teaching students about the effects of medications and treatments on patients. MSN students practice their assessment and evaluation techniques in real-world clinical experiences.

Step 3: Choose a Specialization

Many MSN programs have individual tracks for APRN roles that focus on a specific area of health. With their previous work experience, students will have a general idea of which path they want to pursue, such as family nurse practitioner or nurse educator.

  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP): An FNP works with patients throughout their lives, primarily focusing on family health. FNPs may order laboratory tests and conduct basic medical procedures, such as taking tissue biopsies. Most states allow FNPs to operate a family clinic independently without physician supervision.
  • Adult Gerontology Acute Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP): An AGACNP provides primary care for the adult population. AGACNPs provide care for adults experiencing common or chronic conditions, such as diabetes, or for adults in acute care situations, such as cardiology. AGACNPs use their knowledge of advanced pharmacology to prescribe and monitor patient responses to drug and therapy treatments.
  • Nurse Educator: Nurse educators can teach nursing courses at colleges and universities. They leverage their knowledge of working in a clinical setting to shape a school’s curriculum and help students with their coursework. A nurse educator can also advocate for better patient outcomes through political lobbying and writing proposals for new health policies.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP): A PMHNP works with patients experiencing mental illnesses providing therapy options and prescribing medications to promote optimal health. PMHNPs focus on psychiatric diagnosis, identifying symptoms, and providing treatments for patients with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders.

Step 4: Attain Licenses and Certifications

Nurse practitioners are certified by a national board to work in their selected fields. There are multiple associations and professional organizations that offer board certification, depending on specialty and patient population. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board are all accredited organizations that offer certifications. NPs must pass and maintain their certifications to attain licenses to practice in their states. NP licenses must be current and adhere to federal and state licensing requirements.

Working as a Nurse Practitioner

After attaining the necessary certifications and licenses, nurse practitioners can practice at full capacity. Given their advanced education and broad range of responsibilities, NPs are in high demand in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for advanced practice registered nurses is expected to grow 31 percent between 2016 and 2026, compared with the projected national average job growth of 7 percent. NPs typically earn higher salaries than many other health practitioners, excluding physicians. In 2017, the median pay for nurse practitioners was $103,880, compared with $70,000 for registered nurses, according to BLS.

Becoming a nurse practitioner requires additional years of schooling and experience, but as the demand for qualified nursing professionals continues to grow, nurse practitioners will play a central part in improving and saving the lives of patients around the world.

Learn More

Online MSN programs can help aspiring nurse practitioners develop the skills and experience they need to pursue advanced careers in nursing. Learn more about Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program today.


Recommended Reading:

How Increasing Demand for Nurse Practitioners (NPs) Is Affecting Their Market Value

MSN vs. FNP: Opportunities in Advanced Nursing Practice

What Does a Family Nurse Practitioner Do?



American Association of Nurse Practitioners

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, NP Facts

American Nurses Credentialing Center

American Psychiatric Nurses Association

Ohio University, Online Master of Science in Nursing

Ohio University, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate

Pediatric Nursing Certification Board

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2017”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “How to Become a Registered Nurse”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners”

World Health Organization