How to Advance from Registered Nurse to Nurse Practitioner

Updated on March 16, 2022

If you’ve been working as a registered nurse (RN) for a while, you may have given some thought to advancing your career. If you want to take your career to the next level, the next step is usually nurse practitioner, also known as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

But maybe you’re not certain if that’s the right move for you. How does becoming a nurse practitioner differ from being an RN? How much education do you need? How long does it take? Read on for answers.

Registered Nurse vs. Nurse Practitioner: Key Differences

First, let’s start with how becoming a nurse practitioner is different.

The first and perhaps most important difference is that nurse practitioners are able to prescribe treatments, diagnose patients, and order tests — three things RNs are not able to do. An RN usually operates under a physician who performs those tasks, whereas an APRN has more autonomy in that regard. Of course, this also means more responsibility.

In some states, this means a nurse practitioner can practice independently, without the oversight of a physician. They can be fully responsible for a patient, and take all the same steps a doctor can in order to secure their good health.

Another major difference between RNs and APRN’s: the salary. Where a registered nurse typically makes around $74,000 a year, a nurse practitioner can earn an average of $115,800 a year.

How to Advance from Registered Nurse to Nurse Practitioner

The educational requirements to become an APRN are, unsurprisingly, a bit more demanding than those for an RN. In order to become an RN, you must get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (depending on the state), pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), and then apply for licensure in their state.

A nurse practitioner must have earned a master’s degree or higher, as well as complete more clinical hours (typically 500) than is required to be an RN. Depending on what kind of patients you may be working with, a candidate might also have to get additional certifications.

A master’s degree is required to become an APRN because of the advanced training it provides in:

  • Advanced health management
  • Research methodology and statistics
  • Leadership in nursing
  • Advanced nursing practice

Nurse Practitioner Specialties

In addition to developing advanced skills in the nursing field, the road to becoming a nurse practitioner also allows for specializing in a particular subset of that field. Some of the more common examples of specializations are:

  • Family nurse practitioners (FNP), who provide primary and specialty care to patients of any age, developing treatment plans and educating individuals and families about wellness and disease prevention.
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs), who specialize in diagnosing and treating patients with mental illness and psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, dementia, insomnia, and so on. Their treatment plans may include counseling, medication, and therapeutic treatments.
  • Acute Care, or ACNPs, provide a high level of care, often in hospitals and ICUs where patients have critical, life-threatening, or severe conditions requiring advanced treatment.
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGNP). These practitioners specialize in treating individuals from thirteen years old to end-of-life. They might focus on treating illnesses specifically, or focus on more general health and wellness care. An AGNP might work in a hospital or private clinic, or, if they have a geriatric focus in their specialization, they may work in nursing homes or in home health to help caregivers and patients manage their health issues.

How Long Does It Take?

So exactly how long does it take to become a nurse practitioner? The answer: it depends. There are different paths to the role of nurse practitioner, and the necessary degrees, certifications, and potential specializations could take a varying amount of time. In general, though, becoming a nurse practitioner will take at least six years of schooling and clinical experience. This includes gaining the necessary degrees, certifications, and completing the necessary clinical hours.

This timeline entails the steps outlined above: earn a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), become a licensed RN, earn a graduate degree, obtain board certification, and get licensed by the state where you are practicing.

It should also be noted that there isn’t just one path to becoming an APRN. Some graduate programs don’t require you to have a bachelor’s in nursing (which takes around three years to complete). You might also get an Associate’s Degree in Nursing, a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, or other diploma, depending on the requirements of the graduate program in question.

Just as with becoming an RN, the road to being a nurse practitioner is not an easy one — but the personal and financial rewards can be significant, and the skill set you learn could take your nursing career to a whole new level.

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