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Nurse practitioners (NPs) save lives every day. They care for patients, oversee treatment plans, research the latest developments in healthcare, and are often educators in their field.

As such, becoming a nurse practitioner and working in the field requires advanced training, education, and many hours of clinical work so that NPs are able to deliver the best patient care possible.

Below, we take a look at the educational requirements you’ll need to complete to become an NP, as well as the difference between the two advanced degrees you can earn in nursing: A Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Nurse Practitioner Degrees

1. Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN)

In order to become a nurse practitioner, you’ll first need to complete a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN). Earning your BSN prepares you for a career as a NP in a few ways.

First, like earning an associate’s degree in nursing, it will prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN exam, which you must pass before you can become a registered nurse. You must be a registered nurse in order to become a nurse practitioner.

Second, as you will see below, becoming a nurse practitioner will require you to earn a graduate degree, and virtually all graduate nursing degrees will require you to hold a bachelor’s degree before you can enroll.

Of course, in some states you can become a registered nurse by only earning an associate’s degree in nursing. In these cases, you will need to complete your bachelor’s degree before enrolling in a graduate program. There are, however, many accelerated nursing programs that you can consider to make this process as quick as possible.

After becoming an RN, you can choose to work in the field as an RN for a time (as many nurses choose to do), or you can immediately continue your education to become a nurse practitioner.

2. Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN)

While earning your BSN is the only major education degree a registered nurse needs to practice, nurse practitioners must earn both a BSN and a graduate degree in order to practice. One of the most common graduate degrees pursued by aspiring nurse practitioners is the Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN), which is really going to be the lowest level of education you can complete and work as an NP.

Earning an MSN prepares nurse practitioners with the relevant knowledge, skillset, and expertise to become a leader within the healthcare industry and provide specific, hands-on patient care. It is during their master of science in nursing that most nurse practitioners will choose a specialization, of which there are many.

At Regis College, for example, MSN students can pursue roughly 10 education tracks, split between two specializations: nurse practitioner and nurse leadership. The nurse practitioner track consists of pediatric, family, psychiatric-mental health, women’s health and adult-gerontology specializations, while the nurse leadership track encompasses clinical research, health administration, health informatics, health policy, and clinical nurse leader specialties.

As with BSN programs, there are many ways to earn your MSN. At Regis College, for example, you can learn both in-person and online, participate in an RN to MSN (non-nurse BS) program, or opt for the accelerated direct entry to MSN route.

3. Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Another potential degree option for aspiring NPs is to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). These degrees can be earned in place of an MSN or as the next step after earning your MSN. As such, they can either help you become a nurse practitioner or they can help you advance in your career after you are already a nurse practitioner.

A DNP is the highest level of education certification available to nurses, and its curriculum centers on various healthcare research methods, data analysis, and evidence-based nursing practice—making it ideal for NPs who want to hold leadership or senior-level positions, educate other nurses, perform advanced patient care, partake in clinical research, and create healthcare policies.

In all states, you will need to earn at least a master’s degree in nursing in order to become an NP. Some states, however, have begun to require nurse practitioners to hold a DNP in order to practice. Additionally, some employers may require that NPs hold a DNP even if the state only requires a master’s degree. With this in mind, it is important to understand the requirements in the state in which you wish to practice. Earning your DNP may offer some additional career flexibility, making it easier to transfer between states and employers.

If you have only obtained your BSN, you can enroll in a direct entry BSN-to-DNP program that helps you bridge the gap between your undergraduate and graduate careers.

MSN vs DNP

So, what’s the difference between earning your MSN and DNP, and which one is best for you?

In a nutshell, MSN students are trained for direct practice and patient care, while DNP students are trained in healthcare research and policy in addition to this patient care. As such, the DNP is often considered to be a terminal role for nurses, and the highest level of education that one might pursue. Many nurses who work in a leadership capacity will hold their DNP.

You can earn either or both degrees within 3-5 years, depending on the specific program that you enroll in, whether you study full time or part time, whether you complete an accelerated degree, etc.

Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

In order to become a nurse practitioner, you’ll need to obtain at least a BSN and MSN, pass certification exams, perform clinical research, and apply for licensure within the states you wish you to practice. But, depending on your career goals and the specific states in which you wish to practice, you may need to earn your DNP to become a nurse practitioner or advance your career to take on leadership roles.

No matter your decision, being a nurse practitioner is a challenging and rewarding career. You’ll be charged with providing top-of-the-line healthcare for your patients while also shaping the future of the healthcare industry for the better—ultimately saving and making a huge difference in peoples’ lives.

Learn more about information on how to earn your nurse practitioner degree at Regis College here.