How to Become a Nurse Practitioner: Earn Your MSN-FNP Degree Today

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A smiling nurse practitioner holding a tablet in a hospital room.

Nurses have long been essential to effective health care delivery. While these impactful medical professionals continue to buoy mission-critical administrative and clinical workflows, the nature of their work is changing rapidly.

Health systems and practices everywhere are asking nurses to assume more extensive duties due to various industry developments, including an ever-growing physician shortage. In 2021, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projected a shortage of as many as 124,000 physicians by 2034. This has catalyzed the emergence of various advanced practice roles in the nursing profession — most notably, nurse practitioner (NP).

NPs handle many sophisticated clinical tasks once reserved for doctors. Their duties can include evaluating patients, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, offering diagnoses, creating treatment plans, and prescribing medication. These highly knowledgeable medical professionals, most of whom work with families, touch every phase of the health care delivery process.

Earning advanced credentials that focus on this type of care, such as a post-master’s certificate (PMC) in nursing, is a crucial step for those who want to become a nurse practitioner.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

More than 355,000 NPs are licensed to practice in the U.S., according to survey data from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) released in 2022. In 2020, nearly 70% of NPs held certifications in family care as family nurse practitioners (FNPs).

Although their specific roles vary by state, in most cases, NPs are permitted to perform functions similar to those of physicians. For example, AANP reports 96% of NPs prescribe medication, with all 50 states and the District of Columbia permitting the practice — although some require physician oversight. Other responsibilities can include the following:

  • Evaluating patients
  • Ordering diagnostic exams
  • Making diagnoses

The path to pursuing this advanced nursing role includes earning bachelor’s and graduate credentials as well as obtaining licensure. Following are the key steps for becoming a nurse practitioner:

Step 1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is generally required for enrollment in graduate nursing programs that prepare students for NP careers. Some BSN programs offer accelerated programs for those with bachelor’s degrees in another field and for registered nurses (RNs) with associate degrees.

Step 2. Pass the NCLEX and Receive an RN License

Prospective NPs who aren’t already RNs should take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Passing this certification exam is typically a requirement for state licensure as an RN. State boards of nursing are responsible for granting RN licensure.

Step 3. Enroll in a Graduate Program

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs build on the education that nurses receive in BSN programs, typically allowing students to focus on a particular NP specialty. In addition to an FNP, some other examples of NP types are adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP) and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

These programs cover a variety of essential topics, including:

  • The role of data in modern health care
  • Legal and ethical issues that arise in care delivery
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Advanced pathophysiology and pharmacology

Students in an MSN program also complete clinical practicums, which consist of hands-on learning experiences where they’re given the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in real-world environments.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees, which expand on MSN education, are another option for nurses seeking to advance their skills. For MSN holders who want to broaden the focus of their work or target a new area of specialization, PMCs are another route for graduate studies.

Step 4. Pass the National NP Certification Board Exam and Obtain NP Licensure

After completing their graduate program, nurses must pass the national board certification exam for their chosen specialization. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Certification Program and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB) are two examples of NP certifying bodies.

After passing the exam, to begin practicing as an NP, nurses must apply for licensure from their state.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Six to eight years is generally how long it takes to become a nurse practitioner. Following is a breakdown of the time required for the education, training, and other requirements to become a nurse practitioner:

Becoming an RN

It typically takes about two to four years for the education and testing required to become an RN, depending on the education credential. A diploma or an associate degree can take about two or three years to complete. A BSN degree, generally a requirement for admission to graduate education for prospective NPs, can take as long as four years.

The duration may vary depending on the format of the program and whether the student takes courses full time or part time.

Obtaining a Graduate Degree

The time required to earn a graduate degree also varies. MSN programs can take two to three years to complete, depending on the format and full-time or part-time status. For nurses seeking PMCs, the time to completion can be as little as 1⅓ to two years. DNP degrees may take around a year to just over three years to earn.

Earning National Certification

Obtaining the national certification and state licensing required to become an NP typically takes less than a year. This timing depends on factors like how long it takes to prepare for and pass the exam.

The NP Experience

What does the average NP’s day look like? These medical professionals can start their shifts in a variety of locations, including community clinics, hospitals, private practices, and urgent care centers.

About 59% of NPs see three or more patients per hour, according to an AANP survey from 2020. Most of these visits involve assessing patients, offering diagnoses, ordering tests, and eventually prescribing medication or specific treatment regimens. The majority of NPs focus on family-based care, working with patients from infancy to adulthood. Others navigate medical specialties, such as acute care, gerontology, and pediatrics.

The Emergence of the NP: A Brief History of the Nurse Practitioner

The NP role didn’t exist before the 1960s. Primary care doctors and specialists dominated the clinical landscape. However, population growth and an accompanying decline in hospital space forced stakeholders in the health care sector to seek out strategies for increasing access to care. For example, hospital beds per 1,000 patients dropped from 9.2 to 7.9 between 1960 and 1970, according to 2019 data from the World Bank.

Nurse educator Loretta Ford and pediatrician Dr. Henry Silver came up with a potential solution: upskilling nurses. Nurses were numerous at the time, and Ford and Silver believed with some additional education, these professionals could move into more advanced roles. After becoming nurse practitioners, they believed, nurses could possibly take on some of the tasks that belonged to doctors. The two launched the first postgraduate NP program in 1965, according to AANP.

By 2022, of the 355,000 NPs in the U.S., those in 28 states and territories and the District of Columbia had full practice authority. Within this practice environment, NPs are permitted to evaluate patients, order diagnostic exams, make diagnoses, and prescribe medication, including controlled substances.

In the remainder of U.S. states and territories, NPs are subject to restricted practice, preventing them from performing one or more industry-standard duties. In highly restricted practice areas, NPs must also adhere to tight health care provider supervision statutes.

Despite these and other obstacles, NPs have an immense impact on patient populations, particularly those in rural areas where doctors are few and far between.

American health care providers are therefore boosting their NP hiring and recruitment efforts to minimize or prevent drops in service availability and quality. Because of this, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates employment of NPs will grow by 46% between 2021 and 2031, adding nearly 113,000 jobs over that period.

Advance Your Career by Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

If you’re interested in taking your nursing career to a higher level, consider earning an advanced nursing degree. If you already have an MSN, Bradley University’s online Post-Master’s Certificates in Nursing may be an ideal route. With options that focus on the popular FNP specialty, as well as other areas of practice, the certificate can provide an opportunity to grow your career and serve patients in new ways.

Discover how Bradley’s online PMCs in nursing can help you achieve your career goals.

Recommended Readings

Certification vs. Licensure for Nurses: What Are the Differences?

Clinical Nurse Specialist vs. Nurse Practitioner: What’s the Difference?

FNP vs. PMHNP: Which Nursing Career Is Right for You?


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, NP Fact Sheet

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Practitioner (NP) Certification

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Practitioner Education in the United States

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, The Path to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP)

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

Association of American Medical Colleges, “The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections From 2019 to 2034”

Incredible Health, “What Is the NCLEX Exam?”

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

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

World Bank, Hospital Beds (Per 1,000 People) — United States