How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

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A calling as much as a profession, the field of nursing is a vital part of our health care system. As the nursing industry continues to grow and change, the role of nurse practitioners is evolving to incorporate increased autonomy and respond to the shortage of both physicians and experienced nurses.

nurse practitioner smiling in a hospital corridor.

Following the rising trend toward full practice authority for NPs in many states, the demand is high for specialized nurses to provide quality care nationwide. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an estimated 46% rise in overall employment for NPs between 2021 and 2031, much higher than the national average for all occupations and providing nurses with ample opportunity to shape their futures.

Pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing, opens the door to various nursing specialties, as well as more opportunities for career advancement and autonomy. This additional education does affect how long it takes to become a nurse practitioner, but aspiring nursing leaders often find the time well invested as they work toward their own personal and professional goals and look forward to an active role in the practices that shape the future of nursing.

How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Becoming an advanced certified nurse practitioner takes time and dedication, requiring several years of education and experience. While no mandatory path or fixed timeline exists to become an NP, nurses must meet several benchmarks of education and certification to become a licensed and qualified NP.

Depending on an individual’s goals or preferred specialty, different levels of education and certification are required that can affect how long it takes to become a nurse practitioner. For NPs who pursue their degree certifications back to back, the path to become an NP typically takes between six and eight years to complete. While the path always begins with becoming a registered nurse, some optional educational pathways are available to different roles in specialization, nursing leadership, administration or teaching.

Nurse Practitioner Education Requirements

Nurse practitioner education requirements vary depending on the type of nurse the student would like to become. With each advancement in education and certification, nurses can gain the authority to provide additional care services. These advanced skills and workplace autonomy are a great foundation for those looking to pursue nursing leadership, allowing them to build a better understanding of their field and compete for coveted senior-level roles.

Registered Nurses

The journey to become an NP starts with earning a bachelor’s degree and working as an RN. Prospective nurses can take one of two main routes to become an RN: a Bachelor of Science in Nursing or an associate degree in nursing, followed by certification through the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses.

While an associate degree is a great option for those who aren’t able to dedicate four years to a B.S.N. or who’d prefer to move straight into an RN role, it isn’t adequate preparation for entry into the advanced degree programs required to become an NP.

The necessary academic choice for nurses interested in more advanced nursing roles, such as NP, is the B.S.N.: a foundational degree in nursing that provides students with a background in the practical, theoretical and administrative areas of nursing. Typically a four-year program, the B.S.N. is a critical step in becoming a nurse practitioner.

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice certified nurses. The difference between a nurse practitioner vs. an RN comes down to level of education and experience. An NP is the next step above an RN, having completed either an M.S.N. and post-master’s NP certification or a Doctor of Nursing Practice. NPs must also pass the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse exam as well as any other certificates or licensure required by their state.

An advanced nursing degree, an M.S.N. provides students with the practical and theoretical knowledge and skills they need to pursue a senior-level nursing role. The degree typically takes two years to complete, but nurses with an M.S.N. then have multiple options for their career, from clinical or bedside care to administrative roles or research. Worth noting is that achieving an M.S.N. doesn’t necessarily mean that a nurse is an NP; the nurse must also complete additional training as well as the APRN exam to practice.

As the terminal nursing degree, a D.N.P. typically takes two to three years to complete, which might extend the time it takes to become a nurse practitioner. However, that additional year can be valuable for the future of a nurse’s career. For a nurse looking to pursue a career in nursing leadership, administration or policy or as a nursing professor, a D.N.P. is the highest standard of nursing education, and many organizations look to D,N.P.-certified nurses to take on the challenges of high-pressure roles.

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

Nurses work on the front line of our health care system, providing day-to-day essential care to patients. While most roles involve duties such as patient assessment and support, diagnostics, education, and care programing and monitoring, what a nurse practitioner does can look very different based on the specialty and patient demographic. Depending on their field, NPs may find themselves in different types of health care organizations and providing various patient care services.

The main NP specialties include the following:

  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Women’s health nurse practitioner

The patient demographic and types of care required are different for each of these specializations. For example, learning how to become an FNP as opposed to a PMHNP can require nurses to build a very different skill set, with one specialty focused on long-term family care and another on mental health care.

By pursuing an advanced degree, such as an M.SN., future nursing leaders are able to explore the many different nursing specialties, allowing them to choose the area of nursing that’s right for them and shape a career that they’re passionate about.

Duties of a Nurse Practitioner

In states allowing full practice authority, full practice and prescriptive authority qualifies advanced practice nurses to perform additional care services that would normally require the supervision or participation of a physician. These increased freedoms allow nurses to not only expand the scope of their practice, but also alleviate some of the stress on our health care system by bridging the gap between physicians and nurses.

These duties may include the following:

  • Writing prescriptions
  • Diagnosing and assessing patient health
  • Ordering and reading tests
  • Creating patient care plans
  • Referring patients to other professionals and coordinating care with their team

Through full practice authority, the level of obligation and liability for nurses rises, placing patient outcomes in their hands. While it may be daunting for some, this increased level of independence can provide nurses with valuable workplace autonomy as well as the ability to make influential decisions regarding patient care.

Additionally, with many communities lacking access to affordable local health care, NPs have the opportunity to positively impact their communities by providing underserved areas with the quality care and resources they need.

How Much Do Nurse Practitioners Make?

Nurse practitioners are highly qualified and skilled professionals. How much nurse practitioners make is reflective of the many nurse practitioner educational requirements and years dedicated to education and experience. An NP’s salary may vary by organization and depends on level of education, job location, years of experience and specialty. For general NPs, however, the BLS reported an average annual salary of about $123,780 as of May 2021.

Discover What It Takes to Become a Nurse Practitioner

As the number of primary care physicians has started to decrease, the role of advanced nurse practitioners in the delivery of patient-centered care has grown increasingly important. This evolution in health care delivery represents an opportunity for nurses with advanced degrees. With the growth of specialization and full practice authority, opportunities are increasingly available for future nursing leaders to build the career that’s right for them.

By understanding the value of a higher education, prospective nurses can put themselves in a position to take advantage of these opportunities. Earning an advanced degree, such as the University of North Dakota’s online M.S.N. program, can be a great first step to pursuing personal and professional goals. Our program offers two specialization options: Family Nurse Practitioner and Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner.

Discover how UND’s fully online program taught by an experienced and dedicated faculty can help you build a fulfilling career in nursing.

Recommended Readings

5 Skills Needed to Be a Nurse

Diversity in Nursing: Benefits and Resources

Essential Nursing Skills for MSN Students


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

American Medical Association, “Doctor Shortages Are Here — and They’ll Get Worse If We Don’t Act Fast”

Fierce Healthcare, “Nursing Shortage Looms Large and Projected to Intensify in Next 18 Months: Report”

Indeed, “How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?”

McKinsey & Company, “Assessing the Lingering Impact of COVID-19 on the Nursing Workforce”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

USA Today, “Here’s How to Solve the Looming Shortage of Doctors: Nurse Practitioners”