Skip to content Skip to Live Chat
Close Nav

Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

May 21, 2020

Nursing & Healthcare

How to become a nurse practitioner.

Nurse practitioner helping a patient

Job stability. A good salary. A sense of fulfillment and purpose. The opportunity to help others. These are elements that everyone wishes for in a career. And for nurse practitioners, these elements are exactly what their career has in store. 

Nurse practitioners or NPs have the opportunity for a high salary and great job security. Their position in the healthcare field means they are able to help others and find fulfillment in caring for patients. If you’re considering a future in the medical field, a career as an NP could be the perfect fit for you.

While a highly sought after position, it’s not necessarily easy to become an NP. You’ll have to become educated and licensed as a nurse, and then get experience in the field before you are able to become a nurse practitioner. 

In the medical field there are many different and important job titles, and it’s crucial to understand the different pathways you can take. Learn more about what it takes to become a nurse practitioner in the guide below, or see your path to other advanced practice roles.

What do NPs do?

Nurse practitioners have specific and important roles in the healthcare industry, so it’s vital to understand how their role differs from other jobs in healthcare. Before you consider becoming a nurse practitioner, you’ll really need to understand what it is they do and if it’s the right fit for you.

NPs are advanced practice registered nurses or APRNs who have skills that go above those of a registered nurse (RN). NPs will have various responsibilities based on the specific career path they have chosen, the state where they live, and the practice where they work. Some of the typical duties of an NP include

  • Perform yearly physicals

  • Perform advanced physicals

  • Diagnose acute and chronic health problems

  • Develop treatment plans for patients

  • Order diagnostic tests and provide referrals

  • Prescribe medications (the state where an NP live will determine if there are restrictions for medication prescription)

  • Order certain types of treatments

  • Perform in-office procedures

  • Educate patients

  • Make referrals where needed

Nurse practitioners may also pursue research, administration, or policy careers. The scope of a NP's work is greatly dependent on the kind of specialty they’ve chosen and where they are practicing. 

Many NPs find their work satisfying, challenging, and collaborative, but there are cases where NPs find that they are overlooked and overworked in the medical field, which is frustrating and leads to lower job satisfaction rates.

Due to the current and worsening shortage of primary care physicians in urban and especially rural areas, NPs will be increasingly relied upon to provide the advanced practice care that they are trained to deliver. NP training is highly efficient, leading to the supply of highly trained and safe providers for a fraction of the cost of physician training. It is estimated that between 3-7 NPs can be trained for the cost of 1 primary care physician, up to 5 years faster.  

A nurse manager speaks with a nurse in a hallway.

Types of nurse practitioners.

The nurse practitioner specialties include: 

  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP). Family nurse practitioners focus on family primary care and work with patients of all ages. They can work with anyone, from newborn babies to elderly patients. Family nurse practitioners may often see patients at well-checks or annual checkups and help empower them to make healthy lifestyle choices.

  • Adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP). AGNPs focus on patients from their late teenage years and up, working in health clinics or hospitals. Some adult-gerontology nurse practitioners may work with very specific groups, like college students or military patients. They can treat, diagnose, and provide patient education about injuries and conditions. 

  • Neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP). Neonatal nurse practitioners care specifically for newborn infants who are sick, premature, or injured after birth. They monitor their equipment, assess the infant’s condition, prescribe medicine and administer interventions, and more. They have knowledge and skills on how to treat newborns who need resuscitation, were exposed to drugs in utero, and can help parents of infants in the NICU. 

  • Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP). Pediatric nurse practitioners work specifically with infants, children, and teens under the age of 21. They share many of the same duties as family nurse practitioners, but specialize in younger patients. They diagnose, create treatment plans, make referrals, prescribe medicine, and give counsel to young children and their families.

  • Women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP). WHNPs focus on care for women and girls. They provide OB/GYN care like pap smears, pelvic exams, pre-natal care, and guides for women going through menopause. They may also make referrals to OB/GYNs. 

  • Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are specifically trained to help patients with mental illness. They can use psychotherapy and mental health counseling to help patients, as well as prescribe medicine. They may also be able to prescribe family counseling. PMHNPs work in private practice, hospitals, correctional facilities, and more.

These nurse practitioner specialties have been quick to respond to market needs, and together have more than doubled between the years 2007 and 2018, from 120,000 to 270,000 total nurse practitioners. With an expanding nurse practitioner workforce, nurse practitioners are able to deliver healthcare services to an increasing number of consumers. In fact, nurse practitioners deliver care through more than 1 billion patient-visits per year, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Importantly, the patient care delivered by nurse practitioners is of high quality. More than 50 years of research on clinical outcomes, safety, and cost-effectiveness of nurse practitioner care support its safety, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness.

Increasingly, healthcare leaders, state governments, and the federal government are acknowledging the safety, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness of nurse practitioners by granting what is known as full practice authority for nurse practitioners. Full practice authority allows nurse practitioners to practice within their full scope of practice, or what they were trained and credentialed to do, without needing to seek permission from another profession. Twenty-two states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) currently allow nurse practitioners full practice authority, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, and more states are looking at eliminating burdensome scope of practice regulations and allowing family nurse practitioners full practice authority. Regulatory changes allowing full scope of practice lead to increased access to healthcare, decreased wait times for that care, increased numbers of family nurse practitioners serving rural residents, decreased healthcare costs, and most importantly, better patient outcomes. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that when nurse practitioners have greater autonomy, teamwork in the facility improves—and so does patient care.

A man in a suit talks to a group of doctors.

Career outlook.

Nurse practitioners can expect a high salary, the average nurse practitioner earns a yearly annual salary of $109,820 according to the BLS. The bottom 10% of nurse practitioners make $81,000 per year, and the top 10% earn more than $152,000. This is nearly twice the yearly annual salary for RNs. Career opportunities for nurse practitioners are expected to grow at least 11% by 2028, much faster than the national average. 

Nurse practitioners with different specialties may earn a little more or a little less, and salaries will depend on where you are located and the specific hospital or clinic where you are working.

Getting started: nurse practitioner schooling.

Before you can become a nurse practitioner, you’ll have to start with a bachelor’s degree and be a registered nurse. If you’re already a registered nurse, WGU has simple nursing program options for you to obtain your RN-BSN degree while you are still working full-time as a nurse. If you aren’t an RN yet, WGU also offers a prelicensure program that helps you obtain your BSN and be qualified and prepared to get your nursing licensure at the same time. Nursing education is key to ensure you're prepared for success in this health care field. Nursing practice and experience goes hand in hand with nursing education, and both are key to your success.

RNs need to have some nursing practice experience in order to be ready to take the next step towards becoming a nurse practitioner. It’s important to work in the field and if you are leaning toward an NP specialty like a family nurse practitioner, work in that area so you will be able to have experience as you move down your career path.

An MSN degree is the bare minimum next nursing program step on the way to a nurse practitioner career. An MSN will give you additional training and credentials that are key to being successful as a nurse practitioner in the health care field. WGU offers RN-MSN degree program options that allow current nurses to earn their BSN and MSN at the same time. Many nurse practitioner hopefuls are finding that a doctoral degree is a huge asset to their career going forward. Whichever advanced degree you choose, it’s important that you find a program that can help you prepare for a successful NP career.

3 Non-Nursing Jobs

Nurse practitioner license requirements.

After obtaining the advanced degrees, the final step to becoming a nurse practitioner is to get licensed. Candidates need to earn a national NP certification from a specialty nursing board, like the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB), American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), and National Certification Corporation (NCC). 

These certifications will often require clinical hours and experience, application fees, and a comprehensive test to make sure you are prepared.

Advanced practice registered nurse licensing.

Different states will have different requirements for nurse practitioners. Wherever you hope to practice as a nurse practitioner, you’ll likely need your RN license in that state. You’ll need to ensure the nurse practitioner certification you pursue licenses you in your state, and work with your state agency to ensure you have met all clinical or other requirements. 

Seeking specialty certification.

There may additionally be specific requirements for the different types of nurse practitioners. Some have national certification exams, while others require experience in a certain field or hospital unit in order for you to be qualified. It’s important to carefully research your specific specialty to ensure you know exactly what you need to do to be qualified and prepared for a career as a nurse practitioner. 

If you’re interested in a career as a nurse practitioner, WGU has degree programs that can help you get on the path. Our BSN and MSN programs are excellent ways to get the credentials and knowledge you need to pursue this exciting career.

Share this:

One online university. Four colleges. Flexible degrees.

Our focus on your success starts with our focus on four high-demand fields: K–12 teaching and education, nursing and healthcare, information technology, and business. Every degree program at WGU is tied to a high-growth, highly rewarding career path. Which college fits you?

Want to see all the degrees WGU has to offer? View all degrees