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Finding an accurate answer to “How long does it take to become a nurse practitioner?” can vary greatly depending on your education and certification. It may only take three to four years if you’ve already obtained several nursing-related degrees and are ready to sit for a board-certified Nurse Practitioner’s (NP) exam.

Alternatively, if you’re just starting your education, reaching the position could take the better part of a decade. Though, with some forethought and planning, it may be possible to speed up the process.

This guide will outline the necessary educational and professional steps to becoming a NP, including potential accelerated pathways that may save you time.

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What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

If you’re interested in becoming a nurse practitioner but not sure of everything the job holds, you may wonder how it differs from other careers in the nursing field. Nurse practitioners can go by several titles, including Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP) and Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

Whichever nurse practitioner job title is used, NPs can be distinguished from RNs by their graduate degrees in advanced nursing practice. While RNs traditionally have an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), NPs usually have a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or another related advanced degree.1 

Their higher nursing education means NPs can be entrusted with more patient care responsibilities than RNs. They've completed an MSN program that equips them with advanced knowledge and skills. Some duties that NPs may be expected to perform include the following:2

  • Inquiring about a patient’s medical history, carrying out physical exams, and recommending lab tests
  • Diagnosing conditions, administering medicine, and managing diseases
  • Consulting patients, deciding on treatment, and prescribing medication
  • Referring patients to specialists
  • Educating patients and other nurses on medical topics and healthcare practices

If this scope of responsibilities interests you, pursuing a career as a NP may be the right path. To get started, you’ll likely need to study for an undergraduate nursing degree. However, if you’ve already obtained a bachelor’s in another science-related field, it may be possible to skip this step and head straight to a master’s through a MSN direct entry program.

Begin With A BSN

If you’re wondering, can I become an RN without a BSN? The short answer is yes. However, earning a BSN can lead to a larger pool of career opportunities. A BSN is generally considered a necessary prerequisite to many careers in the nursing field, and becoming an NP is no exception.3 BSNs take a scientific look at the field of nursing and can prepare students for future study in the discipline. 

They can also fulfill the educational requirements to sit the National Council Licensure Examination – Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) exams. The NCLEX is a necessary step on a nurse's path to becoming an NP, so passing it is required.

A robust, in-depth BSN program from an accredited university can prepare students to take the NCLEX exam by:

  • Providing hands-on clinical practice so students know what to do in real-world medical scenarios—a key focus of many of the questions on the NCLEX4
  • Teaching the kind of theoretical medical knowledge that may appear on the test
  • Having them read a variety of medical texts, refining their study skills, and honing their abilities to take exams

Besides being a stepping stone to a RN license, a BSN can help you form career connections and better understand nursing. Then, once you’ve obtained your degree and are ready to start your career, it’s time to take the NCLEX.

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Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam and Get an RN License

The NCLEX-RN exam is the standard that every nurse in America must pass to work as an RN. It’s an in-person, five-hour test that challenges students on their theoretical, practical, and pragmatic nursing skills.5

Passing the NCLEX-RN qualifies nurses for RN licensure, which can open up the rest of the pathway to becoming an NP. Once you pass the NCLEX and obtain your nursing license, you may be able to:

  • Seek employment at jobs in the medical sector that require nursing qualifications 
  • Start a role as a nurse and accumulate clinical practice hours
  • Move forwards toward your ultimate goal of becoming an NP

After passing the NCLEX, nurses can apply for their RN license. RN licenses must be renewed periodically following a state’s Board of Nursing (BON) regulations. Individual BONs can set their guidelines regarding:6

  • How often licenses need to be renewed
  • The amount of clinical hours nurses need to perform to be eligible for renewal
  • Continuing educational requirements nurses need to satisfy as part of the renewal process

Nurses may not necessarily need to immediately pursue further nursing education after obtaining their RN license, even if becoming an NP is their ultimate goal. They can work in the field and gain experience before returning to school for a graduate degree. In fact, it is necessary to accumulate the required clinical hours to write an NP exam.7

Practice as a Nurse

NPs, just like RNs, must pass a licensure exam to practice legally. But, before being permitted to sit for the NP exam, students must meet a certification board’s prerequisites. There are several different NP certification boards operating in America, including:8

  • The American Academy of Nurse Practitioner’s Certification Board 
  • The American Nurses Credentialing Center
  • The American Association of Critical Care Nurses
  • The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board

All of these and other NP licensing boards can have varying requirements that candidates must fulfill before being allowed to sit for their exams. Many people may even have clinical contact hour minimums that need to be met before prospective NPs become eligible to test for an NP license.9

Even if a board doesn’t necessarily require a certain amount of practice hours, all NP licensing exams require candidates to have valid RN licenses.10 Thus, nurses should be aware of meeting different boards’ mandatory working standards to maintain their RN licenses and stay on track toward becoming an NP.

Then, after satisfying the clinical experience and components necessary to sit for the NP exam, nurses can work on fulfilling the educational requirements.

Obtain a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)

After obtaining the registered nursing licensure, the next step is graduate education. Candidates generally need a nursing-related graduate degree to qualify to sit for an NP licensing exam.11 MSNs can be accepted as valid prerequisites, and they may also seem like a natural next step for students after finishing their undergraduate degree in nursing. 

Likewise, students who have obtained a bachelor’s degree in another subject may use an MS nursing program as an entry point into the field of nursing. If you don’t have a background in nursing but do have a bachelor’s of science (BS) in a related discipline, you may be able to begin the path to becoming an NP at this step.

That’s because some MSN programs accept students with BSs, even if they’re in a different discipline than nursing. Master’s of science in nursing, direct entry programs can allow students to switch from other fields to nursing. Pursuing a master’s can:12

  • Qualify nurses to write their NCLEX-RN test and apply for their RN license
  • Allow prospective NPs to take their licensing tests, depending upon their completion of other prerequisites
  • Help prepare students for these exams and their careers in nursing by expanding on established practical and theoretical knowledge

Assuming candidates meet the other qualifications for permission to sit for their licensing exam, they may move on to the final step in their journey to becoming an NP. Depending on the nurse practitioner school, your state and career goals, you may choose the MSN or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). While MSN can lead to a nurse practitioner job, a DNP prepares you for more advanced positions. 

NPs can specialize in different roles like a pediatric nurse practitioner, family nurse practitioner, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or nurse midwife among many others. Each specialization requires completing relevant coursework and getting certification from recognized boards such as the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

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Get a Certification that Aligns with your Nursing Career Goals

If you already have a specific patient population in mind that you prefer when you picked your nursing degree, then a nurse practitioner certification can be an effective means of getting there. You can choose to be a family nurse practitioner, pediatric nurse practitioner, psychiatric nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist or a nurse midwife. 

The criteria for earning such certifications vary depending on the specific certification and the organization providing it. Generally, most registered nursing specialty certifications need the completion of the required academic coursework, a specified amount of clinical experience, and successful passing of an examination. It's best to choose a graduate degree program that offers a corresponding specialty track.

Pass an NP Licensing Exam

There are a variety of NP licensing boards offering certification examinations, but they don’t all necessarily have the same entry prerequisites. Before being allowed to take the nurse practitioner certification exams, a candidate may have to do any or all of the following:13,14

  • Prove their educational history meets the licensing board’s standards
  • Show that they have a valid RN license
  • Provide evidence of sufficient clinical contact hours
  • Select a patient focus, such as pediatric or geriatric care,  to obtain their NP license in
  • Enroll in and complete a course centered on their patient focus
  • Provide proof of identity, such as government identification, palm-scans, or fingerprints
  • Pay associated fees

When an aspiring nurse practitioner has satisfied all these requirements and passed the test, they may finally be able to apply for their license. Then, after all that hard work, they may call themself a certified NP.

Employment Opportunities

The demand for advanced practice nurse graduates is growing with nursing career varying based on location and setting. Those in hospitals may generally earn more, while those in educational settings may earn less. If you're interested, look for your preferred NP program specialty. You can apply for an MSN FNP program or a nurse executive program.

How Long Does the Whole Process of Becoming an NP Take?

As noted at the beginning of this guide, how long it takes to become an NP depends on where you stand in the process. Exams and applying for RN and NP licenses can take time, but most of your time pursuing an NP role will likely be spent working toward degrees. How long it takes to earn those in a medical school can depend on the type of degree:

  • BSN – BSNs, like other traditional bachelor’s degree programs, generally take about four years of full-time education to complete.15
  • MSN – MSN program completion times can vary depending on the specificities of study and nature of the program but can take up to three years to finish.16

Factor in time for taking exams, accumulating practice hours, and applying to schools, and a prospective NP could be looking at about eight years before they’re fully licensed. There is, however, a way of potentially speeding up the schooling process.

The Road to Your NP License Can Start at Alliant International University

While some BSNs can take four years to complete, the Alliant International University nursing program can be done in less than three. Our nursing school in Arizona, includes required clinical practice hours, can allow you to sit for the NCLEX-RN upon completion. 

Likewise, while many MSNs can take three years to finish, you can complete yours in just two at Alliant International University. Whether you’re new to nursing and want to become an RN, or are a practicing nurse pursuing an MSN to become an NP, Alliant can prepare you for your licensing exam. 

Contact our admissions department to learn more about how you can begin your path toward becoming an NP.


Sources: 

  1. “Nurse Practitioner (NP).” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001934.htm. 
  2.  “Nurse Practitioner (NP).” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001934.htm. 
  3. “Pathway to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP).” American Association of Nurse Practitioners. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://storage.aanp.org/www/documents/research/Pathway-to-Becoming-an-…;
  4. NCLEX-RN Test Plan.” NCLEX. NCSBN. Accessed March 20, 2023. https://www.nclex.com/files/2023_RN_Test%20Plan_English_FINAL.pdf.
  5. “Exam Day.” NCLEX. NCSBN. Accessed March 20, 2023. https://www.nclex.com/exam-day.page.
  6. What You Need to Know about Nursing Licensure and Boards of Nursing.” NCSBN. NCSBN. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://ncsbn.org/public-files/Nursing_Licensure.pdf. 
  7. “Statement Regarding Nurse Practitioner Students and Direct Care Hours.” Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.pncb.org/sites/default/files/resources/2020323_Final_Statem…;
  8.  “Nursing Practitioner (NP) Certification.” American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.aanp.org/student-resources/np-certification. 
  9.  “Statement Regarding Nurse Practitioner Students and Direct Care Hours.” Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.pncb.org/sites/default/files/resources/2020323_Final_Statem…;
  10. “Pathway to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP).” American Association of Nurse Practitioners. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://storage.aanp.org/www/documents/research/Pathway-to-Becoming-an-…
  11.  “Pathway to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP).” American Association of Nurse Practitioners. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://storage.aanp.org/www/documents/research/Pathway-to-Becoming-an-…
  12.  “Master of Science in Nursing, Direct Entry.” Alliant Intl University. Alliant Intl University. Accessed March 19, 2023. https://www.alliant.edu/health/nursing/msn.
  13.  “The Path to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP).” American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.aanp.org/news-feed/explore-the-variety-of-career-paths-for-…;
  14. “CPNP-PC Certification Steps.” Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.pncb.org/cpnp-pc-certification-steps. 
  15. California Board of Registered Nursing. “Steps to Become a California Registered Nurse.” California Board of Registered Nursing. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.rn.ca.gov/careers/steps.shtml. 
  16. “Master's Education.” American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Accessed March 21, 2023. https://www.aacnnursing.org/Nursing-Education-Programs/Masters-Educatio…;

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