If you're passionate about increasing access to healthcare while also enjoying job security, an advanced nurse practitioner degree is an ideal credential. Within the next decade, experts estimate that the U.S. will need millions of new healthcare professionals to take care of the aging population. Nurse practitioners, also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), can help meet this need by offering individualized primary and specialized care services. Not only are nurse practitioners projected to enjoy an occupational growth rate of over 30% in the next decade, but on average, they earn over $100,000 per year.
Becoming a nurse practitioner requires a master's degree. On this page, we'll cover the basics of earning your nurse practitioner master's degree, outlining important details such as the average cost and length of programs, admission requirements, and some of the best on-campus nurse practitioner programs in the country.
Should I Get an APRN Master's Degree?
Most universities tailor nurse practitioner programs to registered nurses interested in providing advanced primary or specialty care services. As a result, the ideal candidate for this degree already has both a bachelor's in nursing and at least a few years of experience working as a nurse -- although some programs do admit students with nonnursing bachelor's degrees. Often, future nurse practitioners want to concentrate on a focused area of healthcare, such as anesthesiology, pediatrics, or women's health.
Master's in nursing programs typically teach students how to apply organizational leadership skills to clinical environments, how to use new and advanced healthcare technologies, increase access to healthcare services, and work as culturally sensitive professionals in diverse settings. Additionally, nurse practitioner programs all emphasize practical learning experiences to provide the professional experience necessary to finding a job after graduation. Classes typically include advanced simulation lab experiences, and advanced degrees in nursing universally require students to complete clinical experiences and/or internships in their chosen specialty field. Clinical experience varies widely in scope, taking place in out-patient, in-patient, emergency care, private practice, labor and delivery units, or even schools. Because many accredited nurse practitioner programs align their curriculum with requirements of credentialing organizations, graduates can earn further professional certifications.
While most advanced nursing degrees require candidates to have nursing licenses, on-campus degrees differ from online degrees in many ways. Often, advanced online degrees appeal to busy professionals already working full time in a healthcare setting. However, the on-campus degree might appeal to students who prioritize direct interaction with their peers or who want to regularly meet face to face with a faculty mentor or professional supervisor.
What Can I Do With an APRN Master's?
Graduates with nurse practitioner degrees can pursue a variety of advanced nursing practice specialties, providing primary and acute care to a diverse range of social groups, including families, children, the elderly, mothers, and veterans. Most APRNs work full time in hospitals, schools, private healthcare clinics, prisons, or homeless shelters. Since nurse practitioners generally function as specialists in a particular healthcare field, they often work on a diverse team of healthcare providers that might include social workers, nursing administrators, doctors, or physicians. The following list describes just a few of the job opportunities available to APRNs, although actual nursing duties vary from state to state.
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
Pediatric nurse practitioners care specifically for children, although this task often involves working with parents and other relatives. Pediatric nurses must have a master's degree, but they can specialize in either primary or emergency care. Working in this role can require extra professional certification.
- Nurse Anesthetists
Nurse anesthetists work alongside doctors and physicians to deliver anesthesia and care for patients at all stages of an operation. After assessing each patient's needs, these nurses determine whether to administer local or general anesthetic and ensure the operating room is fully equipped with all necessary equipment.
- Nurse Midwives
Midwives provide holistic care for pregnant women, monitoring a mother's physical and psychological well-being, prioritizing birth as a natural process, and minimizing technological interventions. Midwives might provide general counseling services in addition to direct assistance during labor. Since only some states allow midwives to practice with just a bachelor's, midwives with master's degrees enjoy greater career mobility.
- Oncology Nurse Practitioners
Oncology nurse practitioners specialize in treating patients with cancer. Working in both hospitals and at patients' homes, oncology nurses help individuals through the stages of cancer treatment and may provide palliative care services.
- Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners
While all nurse practitioners provide some measure of emotional support, psychiatric nurses often specialize in this role. These nurse practitioners generally specialize in mental health and are experts at providing counselling services, often in response to drug addictions, depression, or anxiety. Like all nurse practitioners, psychiatric nurses need a master's degree.
How to Choose an APRN Master's Program
An APRN master's program specifically for nurse practitioners requires two or three years of full-time study, or 45-50 credit hours and more than 500 hours of clinical experiences. On average, students spend between 550 and 650 hours, or about three to five days per week, working in a clinical placement in their specialty.
While on-campus programs feature more hands-on lab work and mentoring experiences than online programs, both degrees offer similar classes, including courses in evidence-based practice, ethics for advanced practice nursing, pharmacology across the lifespan, and public or global health. Specific classes differ between nurse practitioner concentrations, which most commonly include neonatal nursing, nurse anesthesia, adult gerontology, family health, pediatric care, and psychiatric or mental health. Students do not need to complete a thesis or dissertation, but do need to pass a comprehensive exam. Most nursing schools maintain accreditation from either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
Tuition for a nurse practitioner master's programs can cost between $20,000 and $40,000 per year. Other factors affecting the total cost of education include lab fees, textbooks, and the location of the school. That said, when evaluating the location of a college, students should factor in more than just cost; since nurse practitioner programs emphasize clinical experience, students need to ensure that a university has access to a practicum site relevant to their career interests and goals.
Programmatic Accreditation for APRN Masters Programs
When applying to graduate school, prospective students should only consider accredited nurse practitioner programs. Accreditation is proof that a school can meet and maintain standards of excellence. Colleges and universities can qualify for both regional and national accreditation. Students who graduate from nursing programs that are not accredited have trouble finding a job after graduation.
Most nursing schools have either CCNE or ACEN accreditation. Other accrediting bodies include the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education, and the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs. In addition, most nursing schools align their curriculum to prepare for important professional exams and certifications, such as the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).
APRN Master's Program Admissions
The admissions processes for online and on-campus nursing master's programs are very similar. Both require at least a bachelor's degree, an RN license, and a competitive GPA. Most programs also require at least some experience working full time as a nurse. However, while online programs often feature rolling admissions, on-campus graduate programs usually have hard deadlines that often fall between early December and early March. Some residential nursing programs feature multiple deadlines spanning the beginning of winter to late spring or even early summer.
Applying to graduate school can take time, so students should start the application process several months in advance of the deadline. While applying to more than one program increases the chances of admission, students should ensure they apply only to programs in suitable locations that support their projected concentration or specialty.
- Bachelor's Degree: All APRN master's programs require students to have a bachelor's degree. Most often, programs prefer candidates with a bachelor's in nursing, as this qualification ensures readiness for advanced clinical work.
- Professional Experience: Most graduate nursing programs require at least one year of relevant work experience, although students do not always need to be currently practicing as nurses. Usually, applicants should have experience in a field relevant to their projected specialty.
- Minimum GPA: The minimum GPA for admission to an advanced nursing program is generally 3.0. However, competitive candidates often have a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Sometimes, applicants can make up for a low GPA with competitive GRE scores.
- Application: While application times vary, students should allow at least three to four months to apply.
- Transcripts: Applicants must provide transcripts from each academic institution they have attended. Students can request transcripts from their school registrar, and this transaction can be free or cost as much as $3-$10 per transcript.
- Letters of Recommendation: Most applications require two or three letters of recommendation from former nursing professors, clinical supervisors, or employers. Since writing letters requires careful thought, students should give recommenders notice of at least one month.
- Test Scores: Admission to APRN master's programs requires scores from the general GRE. However, applicants with at least a 3.5 GPA can often waive their GRE requirements.
- Application Fee: While application fees can vary, $40 is fairly typical. Most programs allow students to waive this fee if they can demonstrate significant financial need.
What Else Can I Expect From an APRN Master's Program?
Before beginning a master's program, it's important to understand available courses and concentrations, the average time it takes to complete the degree, and the cost of education. Some examples of concentrations in the field are listed below.
|Adult Gerontology||This specialty prepares graduates to care for adults at all life stages, focusing on preventative or chronic illness care. More specifically, master's candidates learn how to prescribe medication, analyze patient histories, and refer patients to other specialists. Tracks tend to focus on either primary or critical care.||Nurse practitioner in hospitals, community health clinics, private practice clinics, and assisted living settings.|
|Family Nurse Practitioner||Family nurse practitioner programs prepare students to focus on primary care for individuals and families. Often, this concentration emphasizes preventative care rather than treating chronic illnesses. Additionally, some family nurse practitioner programs teach students how to work in a community health-based setting.||Nurse practitioner in hospitals, wellness centers, prisons, and shelters.|
|Nurse Anesthesia||Students specializing in anesthesia learn how to care for patients from pre-operational assessments to post-operational recovery. The program focuses especially on developing anesthesia plans for each patient's individual needs, as well as providing counseling and emotional support services. The nurse anesthesia concentration is also common in doctoral programs.||Nurse anesthetist|
|Women's Health||In the women's health track, master's candidates specialize in providing all-around healthcare for women, though the focus is often on sexual and gynecological health. In addition to monitoring women's fertility and reproductive health, women's health specialists might also learn the significance of cultural and social influences on women's physical and mental wellbeing.||Nurse practitioner in the OB-GYN field.|
|Psychiatric/Mental Health||Students study the treatment of mental illnesses and practice diagnosing psychiatric problems, providing psychotherapy services, and helping patients identify and recover from trauma or chronic stress. They also might learn how to work as case managers for patients suffering from psychiatric disorders.||Nurse practitioner in hospitals, private practices, court clinics, and prisons.|
Courses for an APRN Master's Degree
While the curriculum in nurse practitioner programs can vary, many programs offer a few similar core courses. Most require students to take classes in ethics, evidence-based practice, and applied statistics. Additionally, all reputable programs emphasize the clinical experience, which is often the most important part of a student's training.
- Evidence-Based Practice Research
In evidence-based research classes, students analyze current research studies and evaluate their applicability to their individual clinical work. Nursing students often study prominent research methodologies and use them to evaluate relevant clinical topics. Overall, the course explores the intersection of research theory and applied nursing practice and is useful for any nurse practitioner role.
Ethics courses instruct students in the process of making ethical decisions in all avenues of nursing, including clinical practice and critical research. Courses also typically examine how students can apply ethical principles to their specific nurse practitioner specialty. All nurse practitioner positions require at least some ethical training.
Building on basic foundations of biology and chemistry, students in pharmacology courses study drug receptor mechanics and chemical interactions. In practical terms, most pharmacology courses cover how different medications or drugs affect parts of the body, such as the nervous, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems. All nurse practitioner roles require at least some familiarity with pharmacology.
- Women's Health
This course often entails researching how culture, race, and socioeconomic status impacts women's health. Some classes might also explore the role of parenting in women's health. These classes are suitable for future family nurse practitioners or OB-GYNs.
Forensics courses emphasize the study of forensics cases from court systems. Usually, these classes study real legal cases to understand the manifestation of mental illnesses and disorders and how they lead to actions such as murder, suicide, child abuse, or juvenile violence. These classes are essential for nurse practitioners specializing in psychiatric or mental health.
How Long Does It Take to Get an APRN Master's?
Typically, a student studying full time can finish a nurse practitioner program in about two to three years. Full-time students generally graduate in about two years, while part-time students might take more than three years to finish all requirements. The curriculum for the average nurse practitioner program is about 40-50 credits, although some concentrations might include more than 50 credits due to intensive clinical requirements. Students who finish nursing programs in two years or less often must take classes over the summer, sometimes in concentrated, intensive sessions. Conversely, students who begin a master's program with a bachelor's degree in a field other than nursing must complete prerequisites before starting master's classes.
How Much Is an APRN Master's?
Tuition for nurse practitioner programs can cost $20,000 to $40,000 per year. Part-time students might pay twice as much per credit as full-time students, and in-state students generally pay less for tuition than out-of-state students.
Additional fees usually accompany tuition. As a discipline requiring significant use of advanced technology and laboratory simulations, nursing students could pay up to $300 per year in clinical and technology fees. Also, because nursing students often work with medications, they often have to pay up to $200 per year in drug screening and/or background checks. Finally, some programs require nursing students to pay medical insurance, which might cost as much as $3,000 per year.
Prospective students should not only research the overall cost of a program, including both tuition and fees, but should also look for financial aid opportunities at each institution. Most universities provide resources detailing opportunities for internal and external aid. In particular, graduate students can usually apply for nursing-specific scholarships and fellowships or teaching assistantships, which often cover part or even all of tuition.
Certifications and Licenses an APRN Master's Prepares For
- Certified Nurse Practitioner
Before practicing in any position, all nurse practitioners must pass the national certification exam. This exam tests nurses' knowledge of their specialization and is a necessary prerequisite for APRN state licensure. Nurse practitioners generally take this exam while finishing their graduate programs.
- APRN State Licensure
All nurse practitioners must obtain APRN licensure for the state in which they plan to practice. The APRN license allows nurse practitioners to practice within state-approved professional boundaries. As regulations for licensure differ in each state, nurses should thoroughly research their state's guidelines and expectations before applying.
- Emergency Nurse Practitioner
A specialized APRN certification, the emergency nurse practitioner certificate documents professional expertise in emergency healthcare settings. The exam tests nurses on their knowledge of emergency care at all life stages, including natal, pediatric, and adult. This certification benefits nurse practitioners working in emergency rooms and other critical care settings.
- HIV/AIDS Certified Nurse
This certification is a voluntary professional credential focusing specifically on care for patients with HIV/AIDS. The exam tests knowledge of HIV/AIDS treatment, including prevention strategies and clinical and psychosocial care components. The test benefits nurses with at least two years of professional practice related to HIV/AIDS care.
- Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse
The ACHPN certification targets nurses with extended experience working in end-of-life care, including hospice and palliative care settings. To apply for this credential, nurses must document 500-1,000 hours working in end-of-life care settings within the last one or two years.
Further Education for APRNs
Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate Programs
Obtaining a graduate certificate can benefit nurse practitioners who already have a master's degree, as extra certification increases a candidate's competitiveness on the job market. A post-graduate certificate enables nurse practitioners to specialize in an area of nursing outside their master's concentration, thereby broadening their clinical expertise. Nurse practitioners can earn graduate certificates in fields similar to those offered as master's concentrations, including adult gerontology, psychiatric mental health, and family or pediatric health.
The length of graduate certificate programs vary according to each candidate's level of expertise in a given subject area. However, certificate programs can last anywhere from two semesters to more than two years, requiring 12-30 credits and over 500 clinical hours. Tuition can cost between $550-$650 per credit hour. Additionally, graduate certificate curricula often focus only on a specific subject area, such as women's health or pediatrics, to help nurses develop proficiency in a specific task or healthcare discipline. All specialty areas tend to include specific instruction regarding health assessment, preventative care, the diagnosis of acute and chronic illnesses, and applied research methods. All programs also include some kind of clinical residency in the student's specialty field or concentration. Graduate certificate classes might use online, on-campus, or hybrid formats.
APRN Doctoral Degrees
While an APRN master's degree is ideal for nurses in the early stages of their careers, the doctor of nursing practice, or DNP, caters to nurses with extensive professional experience. A doctorate in nursing practice can help make advanced nurses more competitive when applying to healthcare management positions and is generally a necessary credential for practicing nurses who want to shift focus to an academic, teaching, or research-focused role. The DNP emphasizes the applied practice element of nursing, while the Ph.D. in nursing prioritizes research. Whatever a nurse's professional goals are, earning a doctoral nursing degree usually leads to a salary increase.
The average doctorate in nursing practice degree requires at least four years of study, although some accelerated programs might allow students to earn an MSN and DNP within two years. A DNP has more clinical, leadership, nursing philosophy, and public policy emphasis than a master's degree. In general, doctors of nursing practice might have more preparation in assessing large-scale healthcare systems, alongside expertise in clinical specialties. To that end, doctoral programs could include courses in policy advocacy, bioethics, quantitative research, and scholarly writing. As in the master's program, doctoral candidates complete a mentored clinical experience in addition to coursework. Tuition for a doctorate in nursing practice program can range from $20,000-$40,000 per year.
Resources for APRN Graduate Students
The AANP supports an archive of online resources for students, helping them identify the best programs for their interests as well as search for grants and scholarships.
This mobile app functions as a portable reference guide for clinical nursing students. For an annual subscription fee, uCentral gives students access to important materials such as the Davis Drug Guide, Taber's Medical Dictionary, and Harrison's Manual of Medicine.
This is a free online resource for both physician assistant and nurse practitioner students. Resources include articles on topics such as passing the AANP exam and job search techniques.
This organization offers free online resources for students, including an online career database, a guide to the NCLEX exam, and advice specific to future pediatric nurses.
The product of recruiting firm Barton Associates, this site offers advice and tools for students and working nurse practitioners.
Professional Organizations for APRNs
Professional organizations not only cultivate national and international networks of healthcare professionals, but also support those working in specific nursing fields, such as women's health, gerontology, and end-of-life care. Most professional organizations offer members networking opportunities, online continuing education resources, and the chance to learn about developments in their fields at national and regional conferences. The list below details a few of the many professional organizations for nurse practitioners.
The AANP is a national organization that advocates for the work of nurse practitioners across the country. The association publishes a peer-reviewed journal, maintains an expansive fellowship program, and hosts both national and specialty conferences.
The ICN seeks to strengthen professional connections and the collaboration of nurse practitioners on an international scale. In addition to organizing international conferences, the council provides a forum for nurses to share research and professional insights.
This organization establishes a network of nurse practitioners working in palliative and hospice care. The association offers continuing education programs and funds grant programs for researchers studying end-of-life care.
The NPWH is an organization that supports nurse practitioners working in areas related to women's health, focusing especially on promoting equal access to healthcare and holistic care models. This network maintains professional coalitions focusing on specific topics within women's health.
This association supports and connects nurse practitioners working primarily with elderly adults, including those working in primary and acute care settings. Members can access digital resources designed to educate professionals and consumers on health issues specific to aging.