Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses who have completed additional levels of education and training. They may be able to perform a wide range of healthcare services, including diagnosing and treating diseases, performing physical exams, ordering laboratory tests and educating patients about healthy decision-making. In some states they work alongside or under the supervision of a doctor, while in others they are able to treat patients and prescribe medication independently. Nurse practitioners can work in a number of different settings, including hospitals, doctors' offices, outpatient care centers and home healthcare agencies.
Nurse practitioners can specialize in a particular health field, such as women's health, pediatrics, oncology, neonatology, geriatrics or cardiology. In addition to allowing the flexibility to forge a career path according individual interests, nurse practitioner careers can offer other benefits. Nurse practitioners may work in fast-paced, stimulating workplace settings where they encounter new challenges every day. Nurse practitioners also get to form close connections with their patients and earn the satisfaction of knowing they are making a meaningful impact on the health of their communities.
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
The most common nurse practitioner training path involves fulfilling the requirements for becoming a registered nurse and then pursuing additional graduate training in order to qualify for certification and licensure as a nurse practitioner. While these steps can't guarantee employment, they represent one possible route for those interested in nurse practitioner careers:
- Earn a high school diploma or equivalent.
- Earn a bachelor's degree in nursing from an accredited institution.
- Contact your state's board of nursing to determine specific nurse licensing and certification requirements.
- Pass the NCLEX-RN exam and fulfill other state licensing requirements to become a registered nurse.
- Complete a master's or doctoral degree nurse practitioner (NP) program.
- Upon completion of an approved NP program, earn national certification by passing an exam in your planned area of specialty through a national nursing organization, such as the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
- Fulfill NP state requirements and proceed through licensure process.
- Apply for nurse practitioner jobs.
- Maintain certification/license through continuing education courses.
Note: The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has proposed changes that call for a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree to be the new minimum education requirement for advanced practice nurses by 2015, including nurse practitioners. However, state boards of nursing and national certification agencies are ultimately responsible for regulating nursing credentials, and they may not abide by or enforce this recommendation.
Post-Education Requirements: Certification and/or State Licensing
To pursue nurse practitioner jobs, registered nurses generally need to become licensed as a nurse practitioner in their state, which can often include earning national certification. National certification is available through a number of different organizations, including:
American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP): The AANP offers certification in three specialties: Adult Nurse Practitioner, Family Nurse Practitioner and Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner.
American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC): The ANCC offers certification to nurse practitioners in a number of different specialties, including Emergency NP, Family NP, Gerontological NP, and Psychiatric - Mental Health NP.
Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB): The PNCB offers two certifications for nurse practitioners -- Primary Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP-PC) and Acute Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP-AC).
Every state has unique licensing requirements, which are regulated by boards of nursing. National certifying agencies also have their own requirements. Nurse practitioners are expected to take continuing education to maintain their certification.
Nurse Practitioner Specialties
Nurse practitioners may choose to pursue a variety of specialty roles, often through certification. Examples include:
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
- Gerontological Nurse Practitioner
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
Nurse Practitioner Job Growth and Average Salary
The demand for registered nurses of all types is growing throughout the U.S., due to an aging baby boomer population that will require increased medical attention and a healthcare system that is placing an increased emphasis on preventative healthcare. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for registered nurses will expand by 26 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020, a much faster-than-average growth rate (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). According to the BLS, the median national annual wage for nurse practitioners in May 2012 was $89,960. The top 10 percent of earners made over $120,500, while the bottom 10 percent earned below $64,100 (bls.gov/oes, 2013). Salary can vary based on education, training, employer and location.
List of Related Careers
Those interested in nurse practitioner careers may also want to consider pursuing related careers, including:
- Registered Nurses: Work with doctors to provide patient care, educate patients about health and wellness, perform diagnostic tests, and help teach patients to manage their health conditions. Registered nurses often complete the same bachelor's degree-level education as nurse practitioners, without the additional nurse practitioner graduate training.
- Physician Assistant: Practice medicine under the supervision of physicians or surgeons, including examining patients, diagnosing illnesses, and offering treatment. Generally requires a master's degree and state licensure.
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographers: Use ultrasound technology to assess and diagnose medical conditions. Requires some type of postsecondary credential and may also require certification and/or state licensure.
Links to Sources and Associations
For more information about nurse practitioner careers and training, explore the following websites: