General Nurse Practitioner with a patient

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Explore the Duties, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salaries of Nurse Practitioners

General Nurse Practitioner with a patient

It’s rare to find a personally rewarding field that is also in constantly growing demand. Nursing is one such field. From the earliest days of modern medicine, nurses have played a key role in patient care, but there has been a continual shortage of nurses. This situation has worsened as the world’s population has become older. The recent pandemic made this shortage painfully obvious.

In the nursing world, a great way to boost your options and your salary* is to become a nurse practitioner. This requires additional education — either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree — but the rewards for your extra training are excellent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners earn, on average, around $30,000 more than registered nurses (RNs) and more than double the earnings of licensed practical nurses (LPNs).

Let’s get into what you’ll need to know about the path to becoming a nurse practitioner, along with the duties, practice settings, compensation, and other details about this excellent healthcare career.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Achieving this level of expertise requires either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Most nurse practitioners specialize in a specific population. Over three quarters of nurse practitioners are “family nurse practitioners.” Nurse practitioners can also specialize in specific areas such as pediatrics, gerontology, orthopedics, and various other areas.

A nurse practitioner is a medical professional who shares many responsibilities with doctors — they prescribe medicine and treatment, diagnose illnesses, and, in 25 states, nurse practitioners operate with “full practice authority” (meaning they aren’t required to work under the supervision of a doctor).

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

Nurse practitioners work directly with patients, often taking the role of primary care provider. That area of care is a key difference between an RN and a NP. Nurse practitioners can examine patients, diagnose illnesses, provide treatment, prescribe medications, and order diagnostic tests. In many cases, patients primarily see a nurse practitioner rather than a doctor for their ongoing day-to-day care.

Their primary responsibility is to manage their patients’ health conditions and prevent disease. In many states, a general nurse practitioner works under the supervision of a doctor, but an increasing number of states (25 as of 2022) allow general nurse practitioners to operate with full autonomy.

Nurse Practitioners: Day-to-Day Responsibilities

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of nurse practitioners include:

  • Recording patients’ medical histories and symptoms
  • Performing physical exams
  • Creating patient care plans
  • Performing and/or ordering diagnostic tests
  • Performing small medical procedures, depending on specializations
  • Diagnosing various health problems
  • Analyzing test results
  • Prescribing medications and treatments and evaluating their effectiveness
  • Consulting with doctors and other healthcare professionals
  • Counseling patients and their families on the patient’s status
  • Conducting research
  • Managing RNs, LPNs, CNAs, and other staff members

Where Do Nurse Practitioners Work?

Wherever healthcare is provided you’ll find nurse practitioners. The five most common settings are:

  • Hospitals
  • Emergency rooms
  • Private practice offices
  • Nursing homes
  • Public health departments

You’ll also find NPs in hospice facilities, long-term care centers, schools, and in-home care centers.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Nurse Practitioner?

To become a nurse practitioner, you’ll need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) advanced degree.

What Are the Steps Necessary to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Stethoscope draped over a laptop

Step 1. Earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree

Option 1: The first step to becoming a nurse practitioner is earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree. If you have no prior nursing education or experience, a BSN program will take you about three to four years to complete.

Option 2: If you already have a diploma or associates degree in nursing (ADN), you can enroll in an RN-to-MSN program. Programs such as these could take an average of three years of full-time study.

Option 3: If you have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, you can skip the BSN and earn an MSN degree by completing what’s known as a Masters Entry Program in Nursing (or MEPN). These programs provide an accelerated nursing curriculum to non-nursing college graduates.

Step 2. Earn your Master of Science in Nursing Degree (MSN)

After earning your BSN, a graduate degree in nursing (MSN) is required to become a nurse practitioner. Most MSN programs take about 18 to 24 months to complete. Some of the most common MSN courses include management techniques, advanced biology, organizational leadership, and nursing science.

Regardless of your future nursing specialty, earning your MSN will position you to earn much greater compensation in a wider range of available career paths than possible with only RN or LPN levels of training.

Step 3. Pass the NCLEX-RN Certification Exam

Upon graduating from your BSN or MEPN program, the next step to becoming a nurse practitioner is earning your nursing license. The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is a standardized exam nationally mandated for all nurses to become registered nurses.

Step 4. Get Certified as a Nurse Practitioner

To become a nurse practitioner, the specifics for licensure vary with the individual states. That means you’ll want to do some research into the requirements to become an NP in the state or states where you’re interested in working. There is talk of the creation of a national model for NP licensure, but that is still only talk at this point.

You can view the different requirements as they vary with the individual states here.

How Much Do Nurse Practitioners Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners earn an average annual salary* of about $118,000. The highest-paid 10 percent of general nurse practitioners make more than $163,000 per year.

The salary* of a nurse practitioner can vary depending on many factors, including location, industry, level of certification, and experience. Here are some BLS statistics for the industries with the highest levels of employment for nurse practitioners:

Industry Hourly Pay Average Salary
Physicians’ Offices $55.23 $114,870
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $59.12 $122,960
Outpatient Care Centers $62.11 $129,190
Other Health Practitioner Offices $52.35 $108,890
Home Health Care Services $64.03 $133,170

Location can also play a large role in overall compensation.

Highest Paying States for Nurse Practitioners

State Hourly Pay Average Salary
California $72.99 $151,830
New Jersey $65.87 $137,010
New York $64.39 $133,940
Washington $62.90 $130,840
Massachusetts $62.28 $129,540

Highest Paying Cities for Nurse Practitioners

City Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Jose, CA $95.13 $197,870
Napa, CA $88.80 $184.700
Vallejo, CA $86.72 $180.380
San Francisco, CA $85.18 $177,160
Yuba City, CA $76.57 $159,260
San Luis Obispo, CA $73.70 $153.300
Sacramento, CA $73.58 $153.050
Santa Rosa, CA $73.15 $152,150
Santa Cruz, CA $72.25 $150,280
Fresno, CA $71.04 $147,760

Beautiful nurse typing on a laptop

What Is the Job Outlook for Nurse Practitioners?

According to the BLS, overall employment for nurse practitioners (as well as nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives) is expected to grow 45 percent from 2020 to 2030. This is much faster than all other occupations.

The positive job outlook for nurse practitioners can be attributed to the increased healthcare demands of an aging baby-boomer population, as well as an increased focus on preventative care services and treatment for a wide host of complex medical issues. Plus, in order to help keep healthcare costs down, nurse practitioners are increasingly taking the place of doctors when seeing patients for routine health screenings such as yearly physicals.

Are You Ready to Start Your Career as a Nurse Practitioner?

There isn’t a profession in the United States that has as rosy an outlook for available jobs as nursing. And a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree en route to becoming a nurse practitioner can expand those opportunities exponentially beyond what can be attained with an RN certification alone.

If you enjoy the autonomy of treating and diagnosing patients but don’t see yourself spending a decade in medical school and residency, becoming a nurse practitioner could be the perfect career for you.

If you’re ready to take the next step toward becoming a nurse practitioner, you can start by earning your MSN degree at our sister college, Eagle Gate College.

Click here to learn more about our MSN program, as well as our MEPN program.