It is no secret that the US population is getting older as a whole and their healthcare needs are surging. Rates of chronic health conditions and mental health diagnoses have never been higher, putting a strain on the healthcare infrastructure. At the same time, the physician workforce has been decreasing, leading to an even bigger imbalance between supply and demand. Millions of Americans currently lack a primary care provider.
Many industry experts are pointing to nurse practitioners (NPs) as a vital part of the solution to this crisis. Nurse practitioners are nurses who have the training and experience to assess patients, diagnose conditions, and prescribe medications, meaning they can serve as primary care providers. NPs are uniquely poised to ease the strain on the healthcare industry, with a wide array of jobs projected to be available in the next decade.
Many nurses are growing curious about advancing their careers as NPs. However, potential NPs may hesitate when considering the time commitment and length of NP programs. These NP candidates should know that it is often possible to become an NP in less than three years.
Let’s dive into the process of earning this education and certification and explore the details of how long it takes to become an NP.
What is a nurse practitioner?
A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse (RN) who has completed advanced training and holds a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.
Nurse practitioners typically have a credential from the American Nurses Credentialing Center in a concentration that reflects their field of study. Areas of NP focus include mental health, pediatric nursing, family practice, and adult-gerontology-acute care, among others.
The roles and responsibilities of a nurse practitioner can vary widely. Nurse practitioners are authorized to:
- Take medical histories and measure vital signs
- Assess and diagnose patients
- Refer patients to specialists/other medical and healthcare professionals
- Create and implement treatment plans
- Prescribe medication
- Perform therapeutic and corrective measures based on their specialty/area of practice
The authority for a nurse practitioner will vary according to the state laws where they practice. Some states give NPs full scope of practice authority, while other states offer reduced or restricted practice to NPs. NPs with full scope of practice can operate independently without a physician’s oversight, while NPs with reduced or restricted practice need to have an active, written agreement with a physician who reviews their patient records on a pre-determined basis.
What is the job outlook for nurse practitioners?
The job outlook for nurse practitioners in the US is strong. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists is expected to grow by 38% in the next ten years. Nurse practitioner jobs are projected to grow by 45%, adding 118,600 new jobs! That is far faster than almost every other occupation.
The BLS points out that the aging US population and an emphasis on preventive care will contribute to a surge in demand for providers who can prescribe and treat medical conditions. The healthcare industry needs far more primary care providers than it currently has, and an anticipated physician shortage will only increase demand for nurse practitioners.
Nurse practitioners earn a mean annual wage of $121,610 per year, according to BLS data collected in 2022.
Steps to Become an NP
Step one: Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree
The path to becoming a nurse practitioner usually begins with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN). Some nurses earn their BSN in a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program.
Others may enter nursing as a second career or after earning a bachelor’s in another field. These candidates may choose an accelerated BSN (ABSN) program, which can take between 12 and 24 months.
Note that if you are an RN who holds a bachelor’s degree that is not a BSN, there are some Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs that will allow for direct entry into the NP field (more on those later). These programs may save you time but could limit some of your career options in the long run since some NP jobs will prefer a BSN.
Step two: Become a registered nurse
After completing their ADN or BSN education, all nurses are required to pass a timed test called the NCLEX-NGN (formerly the NCLEX-RN) exam. Once you have passed that test, you can apply to your state board of nursing for RN licensure. You may also be required to submit proof of clinical training hours and continuing education hours.
Some NP concentrations and programs require that you work as an RN for a year before beginning a master’s level program.
Step three: Obtain a graduate degree in nursing.
Nurse practitioners have an MSN or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Accredited degree programs take place in person or online.
Step four: Apply for state licensure as a nurse practitioner.
To become a licensed nurse practitioner, you must pass a state-recognized national certification exam administered by either the ANCC or AANP in your chosen NP specialty. Once you pass that exam, you may also need to provide proof of your work experience or postgraduate educational hours before getting your license. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.
Educational Pathways to Become an NP
There are a few educational pathways to becoming a nurse practitioner. The one you choose will determine how long it takes for you to become an NP.
A direct-entry MSN program is a master’s degree that does not require a BSN. However, these programs typically require applicants to have a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field. A graduate of these types of programs will enter the nursing vocation with a Master of Science in Nursing, hence the name “direct entry.”
These programs take two and a half to three years to complete. They also require students to pass the NCLEX-NGN before beginning graduate coursework.
Traditional MSN programs
Traditional MSN programs are another option for NPs to consider. These programs require applicants to have a BSN degree and an RN license before beginning their coursework. Some work experience is also sometimes a requirement.
These traditional MSN programs take around two years to complete.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs
A DNP degree focuses on advanced skills of clinical nursing practice and some administrative skills, such as leadership and program management. DNPs are qualified for the highest-paying nurse practitioner jobs and are well-positioned for advancement within the field.
However, NP candidates should know that DNP programs are the lengthiest option for becoming a nurse practitioner, requiring three to five years of study.
What is the fastest way to become a nurse practitioner?
Rockhurst University offers several educational pathways for becoming an NP in less than three years. With three in-demand concentration options and one dual-track option, each program provides
- Clinical placement services.
- Flexible options for full or part-time study.
- 100% online coursework (except for clinicals).
Learn more about the MSN degree options at Rockhurst:
- MSN-Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
- MSN Adult-Gerontology/Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
- MSN Dual Track FNP/AGACNP (two specializations)
- MSN Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)