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Question: How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

Answer: It can take six to eight years to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP) for a student with a high school diploma and no prior college credits or formal training in nursing. However, the total amount of time that it take to become an NP varies based on a several factors, including choices made by an individual regarding his or her progression through the steps necessary to complete the training required to become an NP.

For most nurses, there are three essential steps to becoming an NP: attain a state license to practice as a Registered Nurse (RN); earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree; and complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program in a designated NP specialization. These steps can be sequenced and combined in several different ways, which will determine the total number of years it will take to become an NP.

For example, RNs who receive their training in two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) programs must then spend an average of two years earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree before qualifying for a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program in an NP specialization. MSN programs typically take two or three years to complete, and some NP programs require one or more years of professional nursing experience prior to admission.

Alternately, high school graduates can enroll directly in bachelor’s programs that provide RN training and confer a BSN degree. After that, RNs can opt to pursue an MSN degree in an NP specialization, although some programs, as noted above, require applicants to first spend a year or two working as an RN.

Finally, students who hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field can complete their BSN academic requirements and RN training in one- to two-year Accelerated program or opt for a Direct Entry MSN program in a NP specialization. Direct Entry MSN programs are designed to provide non-nursing bachelor’s program graduates with a pathway to earning an RN license and an MSN degree in three to four years.

Note: There are also RN-to-MSN programs, also known as ADN-to-MSN programs, that accept ADN program graduates and offer a curriculum that combines BSN and MSN requirements. RN-to-MSN programs represent a shorter route for RNs who want to pursue NP licensure when compared to sequentially completing a BSN program then an MSN program.

What Is an NP?

An NP is a licensed Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who has successfully completed an MSN program that provides clinical and didactic training and instruction in a designated NP specialization, such as adult-gerontology, family, neonatal, pediatric, psychiatric mental health, or women’s health care. While licensing requirements for NPs vary by state and by specialization, all 50 states have a process by which NPs are recognized as APRNs with advanced training in a clinical specialization. This process typically involves earning an MSN degree in that specialization; receiving a national certification in that specialization from the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), the American Nurse Credentialing Center (ANCC), the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), or the National Certification Corporation (NCC); and then applying for a state NP license.

Licensed NPs are qualified to perform clinical tasks that RNs are not permitted to engage in, such as independently examining patients, diagnosing illnesses, providing treatments, and prescribing medications. Some state allow NPs to prescribe controlled substances, while others place restrictions on the medication classifications NPs are permitted to prescribe in the absence of a licensed physician. Similarly, in some states NPs must enter into collaborative practice agreements with licensed physicians or physician groups, while other states allow NPs to practice independent of such agreements provided they consult with licensed physicians regarding various types of clinical procedures. There are NPs who specialize in acute care and NPs who specialize in primary care, as well as NPs with specialized training in adult-gerontology, family, neonatal, pediatric, psychiatric mental health, and women’s health care.

The Steps to Becoming an NP

The process of becoming an NP begins with the initial training required for RNs and culminates with the conferral of an MSN degree in an NP specialization followed by formal licensure. There are a number of potential academic training steps along the way to becoming an NP, as detailed below.

Initial RN training can be completed in as few as two years via an ADN program, or as part of a four-year bachelor’s program that is accredited to confer a BSN degree. In order to practice as an RN, a nurse must qualify for and pass the NCLEX-RN exam and then apply for and receive an RN license from his or her state board of nursing. Thus, the time it takes to become an RN and thereby complete the first part of the process of becoming an NP ranges from two to four or more years.

For RNs who have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree, the most common next step toward becoming an NP is to complete a BSN degree. RNs who received their training in ADN programs or in hospital-based nursing diploma programs can complete BSN requirements in RN-to-BSN/ADN-to-BSN programs. While a full BSN program can take four years to complete, a typical RN-to-BSN program gives RNs credit for prior training and undergraduate coursework, thus allowing students in an RN-to-BSN program to graduate in 18 to 24 months of full-time enrollment, or roughly two years of post-ADN schooling.

Alternately, ADN graduates who hold an RN license and are ready to commit to an NP specialization can opt for a program that combines BSN and MSN training. These programs, which are commonly designated as RN-to-MSN or ADN-to-MSN programs, can reduce the amount of time it takes to go from licensed RN to MSN graduate by roughly one year.

For RNs who have graduated from a traditional, four-year BSN program or an RN-to-BSN program, the next step to becoming an NP is to pursue graduate studies in a clinical specialty. This training takes place in MSN programs, most of which are designed to be completed in two to three years by RNs who may continue practicing while earning their degree.

Once an RN has earned an MSN degree in an NP specialization and thus fulfilled the academic training requirements to become an NP, he or she must then qualify for state licensure. The requirements for an NP license vary by state. However, most states require NPs who have completed their training to apply for and receive national certification in their specialization. Proof of national certification, along with a valid and unencumbered RN license and transcripts from an MSN program are generally sufficient for licensing in most states.

The numbered list below offers an overview of the steps most commonly taken by nurses who are working toward becoming NPs.

  1. Complete initial RN training, either through a two-year ADN program or a four-year BSN program
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam
  3. Apply for a state-issued RN license
  4. Complete remaining undergraduate requirements necessary for the conferral of a BSN degree
  5. Enroll in an MSN program that offers training in an NP specialization
  6. Obtain national certification in an NP specialization from the AANP, ANCC, PNCB, or NCC
  7. Submit a valid RN license, MSN program transcripts, and proof of national certification to a state board of nursing for NP licensure

The above steps represent a minimum of six full years of training, instruction, and supervised clinical practice for most nurses who are aiming to become NPs. It may be possible for ADN-trained RNs who opt for an RN-to-MSN program to reduce the amount of time it takes to become an NP to approximately five years. However, RNs who pursue training in an NP specialization commonly continue working as RNs while progressing along the route to becoming an NP and thus take six or more years to achieve full licensure in an NP specialization.

Alternate Routes to Becoming an NP

There are four additional routes to becoming an NP that are worth noting. The first applies to bachelor’s program graduates who would like to enter the nursing field without having to repeat bachelor’s program general education requirements. These are students who have not yet trained for RN licensure and thus qualify for what are often called Accelerated BSN programs. An Accelerated BSN program provides students who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field with only the coursework and clinical training necessary to qualify for RN licensure. Once they earn their BSN and RN license, students can then pursue an MSN program for training in an NP specialty.

There are also Direct Entry MSN programs, which are similar to Accelerated BSN programs, but combine BSN and MSN training into one program. Students in these programs typically earn their BSN, become licensed as an RN, and then continue on through their MSN coursework. These programs, which require a non-nursing bachelor degree, often have strict admissions requirements as they are fast paced and academically challenging.

RNs who hold an MSN degree in a non-NP specialization, such as nursing education or nursing administration, are typically eligible for NP graduate certificate programs. A post-master’s graduate certificate program for NPs is a non-degree program that provides MSN-trained nurses with only the coursework and clinical training necessary to qualify for certification and licensure in an NP specialization. These programs can typically be completed in roughly one to two years.

Finally, training in NP specializations is also available in some Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs. There are BSN-to-DNP programs with NP specializations that can take three to four years to complete, and RN-to-DNP programs with NP specializations that take four to five years to complete (although these programs are fairly rare). There are also MSN-to-DNP programs that are designed to provide doctoral training and the training required to add an NP specialization. An MSN-to-DNP program with an NP specialization typically takes a minimum of two to three years to complete. In all three cases, the additional time spent earning a DNP degree while qualifying for NP certification and licensure adds one to two years to the process of becoming an NP.


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