Both registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) work closely with clients and their families. RNs consult patients, monitor progress, and assist with treatment and therapy. NPs occupy an advanced healthcare role, analyzing patients to provide accurate diagnoses and create individualized treatment plans. NPs can also prescribe medications. They may focus their work on areas like adult gerontology, psychiatric mental health, or midwifery and women's health.
To become an NP, candidates need at least a master of science in nursing. These graduate programs typically total at least 30 credits, which students can complete in 1-2 years depending on course structure. Required classes often include health assessment, pharmacology, and nursing leadership. Students also generally complete clinical training. After obtaining their master's, NPs can obtain specialized credentials from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. They may also strengthen their skills by earning graduate certificates.
Master of nursing programs require applicants to hold a bachelor of science in nursing and at least one year of work experience. Prospective students also need an active and unencumbered RN state license. Aspiring nurses with associate degrees may still enroll in master's tracks but must first complete prerequisite coursework through a bridge program.
Prospective students should begin their research by consulting this nurse practitioner school rankings list. The page contains 25 of the best online programs, chosen based on their affordability, flexibility, and academic quality. Candidates can also learn about program accreditation and the admission process.
What Can a Nurse Practitioner Do?
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 nurse practitioners 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 nurse practitioners, 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 both in 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.
Nurse practitioner students should access this career guide for comprehensive information on job options and entry requirements. The guide also delves into professional development opportunities through advanced academic degrees and nursing certification/licensure.
What to Expect in a Nurse Practitioner 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.
Concentrations Offered for a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
- 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.
- 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 Anesthesia
Students specializing in anesthesia learn how to care for patients from preoperational 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. A nurse anesthesia concentration is also common in doctoral programs.
- 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 well-being.
- 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.
Courses for an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (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 impact 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 to Choose a Nurse Practitioner Program
A nurse practitioner is a type of APRN. An MSN program specifically for nurse practitioners requires 2-3 years of full-time study involving 45-50 credit hours and more than 500 hours of clinical experiences. On average, students spend 550-650 hours, or about 3-5 days per week, working in a clinical placement within their specialty.
While on-campus programs feature more hands-on lab work and mentoring experiences than online programs, both degrees offer similar classes. This includes 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 they 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).
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, prospective applicants should factor in more than just cost; since nurse practitioner programs emphasize clinical experience, students need to ensure that the university has access to a practicum site relevant to their career interests and goals.
Programmatic Accreditation for Nurse Practitioner Programs
When applying to graduate school, prospective students should consider only 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 often struggle to find 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).
Nurse Practitioner 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 nurse practitioner 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.
- While application times vary, students should allow at least 3-4 months to apply.
- 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.
- Placement Exam Results
- Admission to MSN programs requires scores from the 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.