How to Become a Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists earn the highest salary in nursing. Learn how to become a nurse anesthetist with our step-by-step walkthrough.

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by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published August 15, 2022

Reviewed by Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, CCRN, RN

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How to Become a Nurse Anesthetist
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Today, nursing careers report strong demand. Advanced practice registered nurses provide primary and specialty care for patients. And among these well-paid nurses, nurse anesthetists report the highest salary.

Becoming a nurse anesthetist takes several years. These highly trained nurses complete a focused graduate program. And the average graduate from a nurse anesthesia program brings over 9,300 hours of clinical experience, according to the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA). Discover how to become a nurse anesthetist in our following guide.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Nurse Anesthetist Do?

Nurse anesthetists specialize in pain management. They administer anesthesia during a surgical or obstetric procedure. Nurse anesthetists administer general anesthesia and local anesthesia, depending on the medical procedure.

Current registered nurses seeking a career change can become a nurse anesthetist with 1-3 years of critical care experience and a graduate degree from a nurse anesthesia program. This route typically takes 2-3 years for those with a BSN or 3-4 years for RNs without their BSN. Those with no prior healthcare experience can become a nurse anesthetist in 7-10 years.

Nurse Anesthetist Responsibilities

  • Meet with patients before a procedure to discuss allergies, illnesses, and other factors that might influence pain management options.
  • Administer anesthesia before a surgical or diagnostic procedure that requires general or local anesthesia.
  • Administer anesthesia in labor and delivery settings, including for c-sections.
  • Monitor patients during medical procedures to adjust their anesthesia.
  • Meet with patients after a procedure to recommend pain management strategies.

Nurse Anesthetist Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Nurse Anesthetist?

Nurse anesthetists must hold a graduate degree in nursing and pass a specialized exam. However, RN licensure is the first step in the multi-year process of becoming a nurse anesthetist. This section walks through the steps required to work as a nurse anesthetist.

Step 1: Earn a BSN

Before applying to nurse anesthetist programs, nurses need a bachelor's degree. In most cases, nurses earn their BSN degree. However, those who choose a non-nursing major may qualify for admission to some graduate programs. RNs can also meet this requirement in a RN-to-BSN program.

During an undergraduate nursing program, learners gain hands-on training while strengthening key soft skills. Those planning to become a nurse anesthetist benefit from clinical rotations in acute and emergency care settings. Clinical rotations are also a great time to choose a career path. Nurses can expect to spend at least $40,000 to complete a BSN degree, according to NurseJournal.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX Exam

After earning a nursing degree, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to qualify for a registered nursing license. The exam, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), includes 75-145 questions. Test-takers have up to five hours to complete the computer adaptive test. Those who demonstrate proficiency in less time pass before completing the full exam.

Nurses begin preparing for the NCLEX-RN exam during their program. They can also take practice tests to study for the exam.

Step 3: Obtain RN Licensure

Nurse anesthetists need their RN license before receiving an advanced practice RN license. Each state sets its own requirements and process for earning an RN license. The fees for an RN license also vary by state.

However, in every state, candidates must meet educational requirements and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. For example, California requires a nursing diploma or degree from a state-approved program. Check the RN license requirements in your state to learn more.

Step 4: Work in an Acute Care Setting

Nurses can find jobs that help advance their career goals. They can also start career planning during their RN program. Many nurse anesthetist programs require 1-3 years of experience in an acute care setting.

Working in an ICU, emergency room, or other critical care setting meets this requirement. These roles strengthen decision-making and critical thinking skills. Nurses in acute care settings also learn how to work under pressure. ICU nurses can expect to make around $28 per hour for entry-level positions, according to July 2022 data from Payscale.

Step 5: Earn Your MSN or DNP

Nurse anesthetists need a graduate degree. Unlike other fields with alternatives to grad school, advanced practice RNs (APRNs) like nurse anesthetists must complete a master's or doctorate.

Currently, nurse anesthetists can earn a master's degree in nursing or a doctorate in nursing. However, starting in 2025, nurse anesthetists will need a doctorate to practice.

Nurses considering their options today can pursue an MSN, which takes two years, or a DNP, which takes three years. During a graduate program, nursing students complete over 2,500 clinical hours. According to the AANA, these programs cost between a median of $37,000-$61,000, depending on the school type. Nurses benefit from many grad school scholarships and other funding opportunities.

Step 6: Get Certified from the NBCRNA

In every state, nurse anesthetists must hold certification from the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). Candidates for certification must pass an exam that measures their nurse anesthesia knowledge and skills. The test topics include basic sciences, equipment and instrumentation, and general anesthesia principles. It also covers anesthesia for surgical procedures and special populations.

The variable-length test uses a computer adaptive format. Candidates answer 100-170 questions to assess their qualifications. Test-takers have up to three hours to pass.

Step 7: Earn Advanced Practice RN Licensure

Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) can apply for an advanced practice RN license through their state. The licensure process varies by state. Some states offer a nurse anesthetist license, while others offer a more general APRN license.

Applicants provide information about their educational program and NBCRNA credential. They may also need to complete a background check. Nurse anesthetists can then practice in their state.

What to Know Before Becoming a Nurse Anesthetist

Accreditation

Nurse anesthetists must attend an accredited nursing school to earn their certification. As a result, prospective nurse anesthetists should pay attention to accreditation status. In addition to programmatic accreditation, prospective students should also look for accredited schools. Students should also prioritize accredited online nursing programs.

Cost

The total cost of an online program to become a nurse anesthetist can easily exceed $100,000. First, prospective nurse anesthetists need a BSN degree, which costs $40,000-$100,000. Then, nurse anesthetist school can cost anywhere from $50,000-$200,000. Students can save by comparing online and on-campus programs and paying attention to the hidden costs of education.

Salary

Nurse anesthetists reported a median salary of $195,610 per year in May 2021, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That makes nurse anesthetists the highest paid nurses. But salaries vary by location, industry, and education. For example, the states with the highest nurse anesthetist salaries include Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, and West Virginia.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Nurse Anesthetist

What qualifications do you need to become a nurse anesthetist?

Nurse anesthetists need a graduate degree from an accredited nurse anesthesia program. However, before applying to graduate programs, applicants typically need a registered nursing license, a bachelor's degree in nursing, and 1-3 years of experience in a critical care setting.

After meeting these requirements, nurses apply to MSN and DNP programs in nurse anesthesiology. These programs often include a heavy clinical component. At the end of these programs, graduates apply for certification through the NBCRNA, which requires passing scores on a national certification exam. Those who pass become certified registered nurse anesthetists.

How many years does it take to become a nurse anesthetist?

Most nurse anesthetists spend around 7-10 years in training. First, healthcare professionals need a bachelor's in nursing and a registered nursing license. This typically takes four years. Then, RNs gain 1-3 years of experience in a critical care setting, such as an ICU or emergency room.

After gaining professional experience, RNs can apply to nurse anesthesia programs. These programs typically take 2-3 years, depending on the degree level and nursing school. At the end of a nurse anesthesia program, graduates take a national certification exam to become a CRNA.

Is it hard to become a nurse anesthetist?

Yes, it is challenging to become a nurse anesthetist. These highly trained nurses bring years of specialized training. First, they need an RN license and experience in an acute care setting. Nurses typically meet this requirement by working in an ICU, ER, or medical-surgical role.

Then, nurses apply to accredited nurse anesthesia programs. These programs generally include over 2,500 hours of clinical training, according to the AANA. After graduating with a master's degree or doctorate, nurse anesthetists study for a national certification exam. In 2021, around 84% of test-takers passed the exam, according to the NBCRNA.

Can I become a nurse anesthetist with an online degree?

There are a few online nurse anesthesia programs. In these programs, students complete coursework in a virtual format while meeting clinical requirements locally. Most nurse anesthesia programs operate in a traditional format where students attend classes in person.

However, RNs considering a nurse anesthesia career path can potentially complete an online RN-to-BSN program to advance their education before applying to graduate programs. Online RN-to-BSN programs appeal to working nurses, and students can often meet clinical requirements at their current workplace.

How much money can I make as a nurse anesthetist?

According to BLS data from May 2021, the median nurse anesthetist salary is $195,610. Salaries vary by location and industry. Nurse anesthetists in outpatient care centers, specialty hospitals, and medical and surgical hospitals report salaries above the median.

The top-paying states for nurse anesthetists include Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois. All of these states report average nurse anesthetist salaries of over $250,000 per year. Nurse anesthetists also see salary increases with experience, like other healthcare professionals.

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