How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Learn how to become a nurse practitioner. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information, as well as experience required for starting a career in the medical field.

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Do I Want to Be a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse who provides health care services similar to those of a physician. NPs may choose to specialize in family, pediatric or geriatric nursing. Common duties include diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries, prescribing medications and educating patients. NPs may also order diagnostic tests and analyze the results.

The work of a nurse practitioner can be physical demanding, since they must spend shifts on their feet and help lift patients daily. It can also be emotionally demanding, since they may need to make life-and-death decisions. Some of these nurses must be on call or work night and weekend shifts. Other workers may maintain more regular full-time schedules.

Job Requirements

All nurses must be nationally licensed, which requires passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), certification from a professional association, as well as a nursing master's degree and state licensing is mandatory for NPs. The following table highlights some of the basic requirements necessary for becoming a nurse practitioner.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree in nursing or doctorate of nursing required*
Degree Field Nursing*
Licensure and Certification Nurse practitioner certification and licensing is required*
Experience Minimum of one year of experience as a nurse practitioner (NP)***
Key Skills Problem solving, decision making, written and oral communication skills**
Computer Skills GE Healthcare Centricity EMR, eClinicalWorks software, Medscribbler Enterprise**
Additional Requirements Current basic life support (BLS) certification***

Source:*U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **ONet OnLine, ***CareerBuilder.com job postings in July 2012.

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree in Nursing

Aspiring nurse practitioners can begin their education by earning an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing. Completion of an undergraduate degree program prepares students for entry-level positions in clinical settings and meets state requirements for licensure as a registered nurse (RN). An associate degree program usually takes two years to complete, and credit can often transfer to a bachelor's degree completion program.

Schools offer several options for those interested in earning a bachelor's degree, including full 4-year programs, accelerated programs for associate degree-holders, completion programs for licensed RNs and online options for those with sufficient education and experience. Students on a path to becoming a nurse practitioner will need to earn a bachelor's degree to qualify for the necessary graduate study. Common areas studied in undergraduate nursing programs include pharmacology, anatomy and physiology, pediatric nursing and community health. In the clinical experience part of the program, students will have the opportunity to practice skills learned in the classroom under the guidance of their instructor.

Success Tips:

  • Take communications classes. Prospective nurse practitioners may benefit from taking communications classes. Nurse practitioners must possess excellent writing and speaking skills. Being able to concisely explain a procedure to patients and their families is extremely important.
  • Enroll in an accelerated program. This option allows students who already hold a non-nursing bachelor's degree to complete a program of study more quickly.

Step 2: Become a Registered Nurse

Every state requires a practicing nurse to first pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Additional licensing and registration requirements, which typically include background checks and fingerprinting, may be required at the state level. Before candidates can pursue a graduate degree or advanced nursing licensure, an RN license is required.

Step 3: Complete a Graduate Degree in Nursing

Registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are interested in becoming nurse practitioners can qualify for the position by earning a master's or doctoral degree in nursing. Many nurse practitioners specialize in a specific area of medicine, such as pediatrics or family medicine, during their graduate study. These programs typically take 2-3 years to complete and require students to take courses, seminars and lectures in addition to completing a clinical residency. Common courses may include healthcare management, pathophysiology and advanced pharmacology.

Step 4: Obtain Advanced Practice Nursing Licensure

Most states require additional licensure to work as an advanced practice nurse. Advanced practice nurses operate in one of four roles: nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife or clinical nurse specialist. Licensing is regulated by individual states, and requirements vary; however, all NPs must first be licensed RNs with a master's degree in one of the four advanced practice specialties. Some states mandate extra exams and professional experience. Many states require continuing education classes or maintenance of a national certification to renew a license.

Step 5: Specialize Through Certification

The successful completion of a graduate degree program and licensure requirements prepares graduates to sit for certification examinations specific to their careers. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) are two organizations that offer national certification commonly recognized by state nursing boards. Certification usually requires passing an examination, and most organizations mandate continuing education to maintain the credentials. Available specialty examinations nurse practitioners may choose from include acute care, diabetes management, family care, school nursing, mental health, gerontology and pediatrics.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare for the exam. Nurses wishing to specialize in a specific area of practice should obtain the proper materials needed to study for the exam. Individuals are strongly encouraged to take any practice tests available.
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