Nurse practitioners play a vital role in assessing, treating, and educating patients in a variety of healthcare settings. In exchange for this crucial work, they are rewarded with competitive salaries, substantial job security, and an emotional boost that comes from knowing they’ve made a difference in the lives of others.

It’s little wonder, then, that when it comes to pursuing a career in nursing, many aspiring nurses have an ultimate goal of becoming a nurse practitioner.

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But while many individuals might know that they want to become a nurse practitioner, and might even know the steps that they need to take to make that goal a reality, one thing that many people don’t have a firm grasp of is what the typical nurse practitioner career path looks like. And yet, it’s important to understand the key milestones in this career in order to orient yourself as you work toward becoming an NP.

Below is a look at the key milestones that most individuals hit on their way to becoming a nurse practitioner, as well as the next steps available for those looking to advance further in their careers.

Nurse Practitioner Career Path

Before discussing the typically nurse practitioner career path, it’s important to note that the milestones below are common to all nurse practitioners. What can be substantially different, however, is timeline.

For aspiring nurses who know they would like to become a nurse practitioner during their undergraduate education, it’s possible to enroll in specific programs that can help you reach that goal in a much faster format. In this case, the milestones below will often be spaced relatively close together.

However, many undergraduate students approach their education through the lens of wanting to work as a registered nurse, and only make the decision to become a nurse practitioner after having worked in the field for a number of years. For those nurses, the milestones below will be spaced further apart, potentially with years or even decades in between them.

The beauty of nursing is that there will always be a need for skilled professionals, which means there will always be the opportunity for self-improvement and professional advancement, says Donna Glynn, PhD, RN, ANP, and associate dean of pre-licensure nursing at Regis College.

1. Becoming a Registered Nurse

In order to eventually become a nurse practitioner, you will need to first become a registered nurse. This will entail completing the required undergraduate education, passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), and applying for licensure through the state in which you wish to practice.

While it’s possible to become a registered nurse in some states by completing an associate’s degree in nursing, it’s worth noting that nurse practitioners must complete a graduate program (discussed below). Virtually all of these graduate programs require that applicants hold a full bachelor’s degree in order to enroll. With this in mind, students who know for certain that they would like to work as a nurse practitioner are typically encouraged to earn their full Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) instead of an associate’s degree.

Even for students who are not sure if they wish to become an NP, earning a BSN will typically provide you with more career stability and flexibility than earning an associate’s degree. This is due to the fact that many states now require registered nurses to hold a BSN at a minimum. Even in states that do not require a BSN, employers can set their own educational requirements as well. Earning your BSN will allow you to remain competitive as an RN no matter where you practice.

The good news for students who have already earned their associate’s degree is that many colleges and universities, including Regis, offer programs specifically designed to take someone from their associate’s degree to the full BSN.

2. Gaining Experience (Optional)

Aspiring nurses who know that they want to work as a nurse practitioner will ultimately need to complete a graduate program, and so it is not uncommon for many RNs to continue their education immediately after earning their BSN.

But as mentioned earlier, many nurses don’t know that they want to become a nurse practitioner until they have spent time working in the field. They can spend anywhere from a few months to a few years to a few decades working as a registered nurse before deciding to continue on the career path. This is an excellent opportunity to gain experience directly treating patients, and can even help a nurse explore potential specialties they may wish to focus on later in their career.

Even for those who know they want to become an NP, gaining experience before enrolling in their graduate program can be an extremely informative experience.

3. Enrolling in a Graduate Program

Once you are ready to take the next step in becoming a nurse practitioner, you will need to complete a graduate-level nursing program. Which degree is right for you will depend on your ultimate career goals and where you wish to practice, but the two options are typically your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

In order to work as a nurse practitioner, you will need to earn a minimum of your MSN, but ultimately this will depend on the requirements of the state in which you wish to practice. Increasingly, states and employers are requiring NP applicants to hold their DNP in order to practice.

Additionally, the MSN and DNP degrees are typically designed to prepare you for different types of work. While an MSN prepares nurses to directly perform clinical practice and patient care, DNPs tend to be focused on research, education, and healthcare policy on top of the clinical work.

With this in mind, if the state in which you wish to practice allows you to become a NP with only an MSN, but you think you’d like to eventually move into a research position or leadership role within the industry, earning your DNP can be a wise choice.

4. Applying for Licensure

After you’ve completed your graduate education, your final step to becoming a nurse practitioner will be to apply for your license in the state or states in which you will be practicing. The exact process, fees, and timeline will vary from state to state, so it’s important to understand what this looks like in your locale.

You can learn more about becoming a nurse practitioner in Massachusetts.

5. Continuing to Advance

Once you’ve become a nurse practitioner and begin working in the field, it’s important to recognize that your career path hasn’t suddenly come to an end. Nurses of all stripes, whether RNs or NPs, should always be continuing to advance in their education and abilities, says Carol Martin, Assistant Dean of the NP program at Regis College.

Two options that Martin specifically notes are:

  • Post-Master’s Certificates: These allow an NP to add on another population focus/specialty and are a great opportunity for career advancement.
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): For NPs who have only earned their MSN, earning a DNP can be an excellent means of stepping into more senior-level roles. Many colleges, like Regis, offer a post MSN-to-DNP degree program that can help you do this in an efficient manner.

Your Career Path, On Your Timeline

Glynn and Martin both stress the fact that there is no specific timeline that you must follow in order to become a nurse practitioner or enjoy the rewards of the career. While some may choose to complete all of their educational requirements in a straight shot, others will choose to work for a length of time between their degrees, and that’s okay!

No one should expect their career path to perfectly match someone else’s career path. No matter where you are in your career today, there is always the opportunity to grow and advance tomorrow.

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