Eight Steps to Become a Nurse Practitioner

What is a Certified Nurse Practitioner?
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

A certified nurse practitioner or CNP is a nurse with advanced training who is licensed to provide direct care to patients. CNPs are a type of Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN). Among the types of APRNs NPs are the most common. Within the population foci listed above, as an CNP you can assess, diagnose, treat, and educate patients.  CNPs provide comprehensive holistic patient care. CNPs are also able to diagnose and prescribe medications to patients. The extent of your scope of practice will depend on the state you live in. Some are more strict than others.

As a CNP you are not simply limited to the population foci described. Through hands on experience or structured education you can further specialize. Some areas that you may choose to specialize in include emergency nursing, cardiology, orthopedics, infectious disease and more. That being said, when you enter your MSN or DNP program, you will still be within one of the 6 population foci. After that you can choose to take your training further if you decide.

  • Where Do Nurse Practitioners Work: You can work in hospitals, primary care offices, private practices, community health centers, universities, colleges, the military, and more.
  • How to Become Nurse Practitioner:  After you earn your RN you will need to at minimum get your MSN. If you want to earn a terminal degree in nursing and provide direct patient care, you can earn your DNP. Whatever path you choose, make sure that your  university is accredited through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). After that you can become certified by taking an exam through your certifying body. Then you can apply for licensure in your state.
  • Educational Pre-requisites for Practitioners: At minimum you will need certain science courses and an RN and/or bachelor’s degree to enter into an NP program.  The pre-requisite flexibility is due to the high demand for primary care providers. NPs are a cost effective way to fill this need so the industry is booming. If you have your bachelor’s in a non-nursing field you can become an NP by completing a Direct Entry program. With these programs you have to complete pre-requisite science courses and then you can apply to earn your MSN to become an NP in about 2 years. Typically pre-requisite courses include subjects like anatomy and physiology, microbiology, developmental psychology. Some programs may require clinical experience of some type before you can be accepted, so be sure to research individual program requirements thoroughly.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

To become an NP you will need to earn your bachelor’s and your MSN. There are various ways to do this depending on you educational and professional background. Pathways to becoming an NP exist for people with or without RN licensure.

  • RN to MSN: These programs combine what you have already learned in your associates degree, and your experience as an RN with the pieces you are missing from a bachelors and the MSN program. Typically it takes around 3 years to complete including supervised clinical hours. With these programs you will earn a BSN in the process unless you have been accepted into the program with a bachelors in a  non-nursing field while having your RN. If the latter is the case you will just earn your MSN during the program. Either way you will be an NP when you finish.
  • RN to DNP: These programs prepare you to be an NP at the DNP level. They will take around 4 to 5 years to complete. Often you will need to complete the BSN requirements first along the way and then you work on the DNP portion of the program including obtaining your supervised NP clinical hours. 
  • BSN to MSN: With a BSN you can complete a 2-year master’s in nursing program.
  • Bachelors to MSN: These programs are commonly referred to as Direct Entry or Accelerated MSN programs. This may be for you if you have a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field and want to work as an NP. Before applying you will have to check your programs pre-requisite requirements and complete some hard science classes like chemistry, anatomy and physiology, biology, and more. These programs take between 2 and 3 years to finish.
  • BSN to DNP: If you have your BSN and are already an RN you can do a 4 year DNP program and be prepared to work as an NP after.
  • MSN to DNP: In 2 to 3 years you jump from an MSN to a DNP. This will give you the terminal degree in nursing and prepare you to work as an NP if your MSN program did not cover that.

Certification and Licensure: You will need to get certified in your population foci after graduation. This is a way to prove that you have the knowledge and training to provide advanced care as an NP to your population of patients. Each certifying body offers an exam that you will take. the exam will focus on key concepts your learned in school and ensure that you will be a safe and effective provider. After you are certified you can apply for licensure with your state BON. This often involves a fee, an application, and submitting materials that prove you completed an accredited NP program, are certified, and are an RN. Depending on your certifying body and state you will need to complete a certain number of CEs over the span of 2-3 years to keep your certification and apply for license renewal.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner in Your State

How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner

How much time it takes to become an NP in really depends on your background. Depending on the path you take it will be 2 to 4 years of education before you can become a CNP. If you’re already an RN it can take as little as 2 years by earning your MSN. If you are not an RN some direct entry programs are as short as 2 years as well. If you already have your MSN but are not an NP you can do a DNP program in 2-3 years and become and NP while also earning your doctorate.

Here are examples of how long it will take you to become an Nurse Practitioner depending on what degree you are starting with:

Starting Degree

How Many Years to Become an NP

Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

2 years
Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)2 years

Bachelor’s in a non-nursing field2 – 3 years

Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)

1 – 2 years

Where Do Nurse Practitioner Typically Work?

As an NP the world is at your fingertips. You can work in a variety of settings and will have the flexibility throughout your career to change it up. Here are some examples of where you may work.

  • Adult Gerontology Acute Care NP: Cardiology,  neurology, emergency departments, intensive care units, medical surgical units, military settings, and more.
  • Adult Gerontology Primary Care NP: primary care clinics, nursing homes, correctional facilities, college health, occupational health, military settings, and more.
  • Family NP: Primary care clinics, community health, urgent care, college health, occupational health,  military settings, dermatology, shelters, and more.
  • Neonatal NP: neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), emergency departments, labor and delivery units, and more.
  • Pediatric Acute Care NP: Emergency departments, specialty units in children’s hospitals, urgent care.
  • Pediatric Primary Care NP: community health centers, schools, children’s hospitals, private practices.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health NP: outpatient therapy, inpatient psychiatric units, partial hospitalization units, nursing homes, and more.
  • Women’s Health NP: Community health centers, women’s prisons, private practices, urogynecology practices, adolescent health, and more.

What is a Nurse Practitioner Salary?

As an NP you will earn a competitive salary. Just how much make will depend on your population foci, experience, and setting that you work in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics NPs earn a median salary of $104,610 annually. If you are in an acute care setting versus primary care you will likely earn a bit more. Additionally while your living costs may be higher, you can expect to make more money living in urban areas in comparison to rural ones. While NP school may be pricey, there are a number of ways to get your education paid for. The Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program will pay off a percentage of your student loans over 3 years of working in a medically underserved area. If you have Perkins loans, you may be eligible for Perkins Loan Forgiveness. Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is another way to get your debt paid off by working in medically underserved communities. As you move through your career you will likely receive raises and additional benefits. Certain states also pay NPs more than others. See our state guides for more information.

Compare a Nurse Practitioner salary to a Physician Assistant salary.

Here are the average Salaries for NP specialties across the country:

Population Foci

Average Annual Salary

Adult Gerontology Acute Care


Adult Gerontology Primary Care$85, 163

Family Nurse Practitioner

$91, 573


$108, 804

Psychiatric Mental Health

$101, 577

Pediatric Acute Care$91, 906
Pediatric Primary Care $86, 916
Women’s Health$90, 981

Online Nurse Practitioner Programs

One barrier to people continuing their education often has to do with time commitments and the convenience of the programs available. Fortunately for you, online programs are becoming more advanced and more popular as time goes on. These programs allow you to attend classes, complete coursework and even do class discussions and quizzes from the comfort of your home. You will still need to complete your clinical hours, but your school can help you arrange these in a location convenient for you. Check out our individual NP guides for more info on online programs.

Campus / Online / Hybrid NP Programs Offered by Specialty

Nurse Practitioner Programs Offered by Degree Level

What is a Typical Nurse Practitioner Curriculum?

Your curriculum will depend on your population foci as well as the school you attend. Regardless of your population foci, all NP students can expect to take the following courses offered at Boston College’s NP programs:

  • Ethical Issues in Advanced Practice Nursing
  • Role of Advanced Practice Nurse
  • Advanced Pharmacology Across the Life Span
  • Conceptual Basis for Advanced Practice Nursing
  • Advanced Health Assessment Across the Life Span
  • Research Methods for Advanced Practice Nursing
  • Advanced Pathophysiology Across the Life Span
  • Advanced Specialty Theory I
  • Advanced Specialty Theory II

Nurse Practitioner Resources and Organizations

Since it is such a popular career path there are multiple resources and organizations available for you to utilize as you gather more information: