Nursing is a profession in which there are many distinct and specialized roles, particularly for nurses engaged in direct clinical practice. While there are general practice Registered Nurses (RNs), advancement in clinical nursing typically requires formal, graduate-level training in an advanced practice specialization and certification in an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specialty. Nurse Practitioners (NPs) represent one of the most common types of APRNs. The NP designation applies to RNs who have graduate training and certification in an NP specialization, such as Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP or AGACNP), Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PACNP or PPCNP), Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP), or Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP).
Post-master’s NP certificate programs allow licensed RNs who have completed a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program to receive training in an NP specialization without the need to complete a second MSN program. Depending on their educational and professional background, students pursuing post-master’s certificate programs may be seeking to become NPs (for example, transitioning from a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) to an FNP), while others may be seeking certification in a new/second NP specialty (for example, an FNP looking to add a PMHNP certification or a WHNP looking to become an FNP).
A post-master’s or post-graduate NP certificate program is an academic training program designed to prepare RNs who hold a graduate nursing degree (typically an MSN) for licensure in an NP specialty. These programs prepare students to become eligible to take certification exams in an NP specialty. However, they do not directly lead to certification and licensure. The certificate earned in a post-master’s certificate program is a certificate of completion, not certification as an NP.
Unlike MSN programs, which require students to complete a broad range of general advanced practice coursework and training, post-master’s NP certificate programs focus primarily on coursework and clinical instruction in an NP specialty. Therefore, students are able to complete a post-master’s certificate program in a shorter period of time by only taking courses that are required in order to become certified in that NP specialty. Post-master’s NP certificate program students typically do not have to repeat courses or clinical training previously completed in an MSN program.
Online post-master’s NP certificate programs are generally considered to be a more flexible and convenient alternative to traditional campus-based programs. Students in an online NP certificate program complete all or most of their required coursework by logging on to a distance-learning platform that provides access to lectures and other instructional materials through a secure Internet connection. Some online graduate nursing programs may require a limited number of on-campus sessions as part of the curriculum (typically for labs or other hands-on clinical training), but many offer all of their didactic instruction online.
In addition, NP certificate programs require students to complete clinical hours through in-person practicums at a local healthcare facility. These practicums must be completed under the supervision of a qualified preceptor at a site approved by the program. Most online NP certificate programs require students to find their own clinical practice sites and preceptors; however, some programs offer placement services that match students to sites and preceptors. In some cases, students are matched with alumni from the program.
OnlineEducation.com researches post-master’s NP certificate programs and classifies them based on several important criteria. To be listed on the site, a program must be offered by a regionally accredited college or university with a nursing school that has programmatic accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Online post-master’s certificate programs in non-NP specialties (e.g., CNL, nursing administration, nursing informatics) are classified separately from online NP certificate programs, and post-master’s NP certificate programs that require students to attend more than three campus sessions per year are currently not listed on the site.
The curriculum for NP certificate programs varies by specialty and may also depend on a formal evaluation of a student’s prior academic training. RNs who are accepted into a post-master’s certificate program are typically subject to a gap analysis in which program administrators determine the courses and practicums that will be required in order to complete the certificate program. Students who have completed graduate-level coursework and/or practicums relevant to a certificate program’s specialty are generally not required to repeat those courses or practicums.
For example, students who completed advanced pathophysiology, advanced pharmacology, and advanced patient or physical assessment courses (the “three P’s,” as they are commonly known) during their MSN program typically do not need to repeat these courses in a post-master’s certificate program. However, students who have not completed these courses will have to take them as part of their certificate program.
Note: There are a limited number of online post-master’s NP certificate programs that require students to have completed the three P’s prior to enrolling in the program and that may not offer these courses online. Students who have not completed one or more of these courses may be able to take advanced physiology, advanced pharmacology, and/or advanced patient health assessment courses through a different institution or they can apply to programs that do not have this requirement.
Most of the core requirements in online NP certification programs focus on developing knowledge and skills in an NP specialty. These specialties include:
Some online NP certificate programs may also provide training in an NP subspecialty, such as cardiology, neurology, or oncology. Students in an online NP certificate program typically complete a four to eight courses and practicums, depending on their prior training. This may include up to 600 or more hours of supervised clinical practicums. Students are typically not required to repeat clinical practicums in settings where they have already completed clinical training as part of their MSN program.
As noted above, most of the training in an NP certificate program is specific to an NP specialty. However, there may be several general core requirements that RNs must complete in order to qualify for an NP certificate if they have not taken these courses previously. These typically include classes in the role of the professional nurse, health promotion and disease prevention, and the three P’s (advanced physiology, pharmacology, and patient health assessment). Again, students who have already completed these courses as part of their MSN program typically do not need to repeat them.
The table below provides an overview of the types of courses that are typically required by online NP certificate programs in various NP specialties.
|NP Specialty||Certificate Program Courses|
RNs who have completed a graduate degree in nursing from an accredited program are generally eligible to apply to online post-master’s NP certificate programs, although specific admissions policies vary by program. Some NP certificate programs are designed for RNs who hold an MSN degree in any specialization, while others only accept applicants who have an MSN in an APRN specialty. There are also a limited number of programs that require applicants to have training in a specific type of NP specialization (for example, programs that are specifically designed for FNPs who want to add a PMHNP specialty). RNs who are interested in online post-master’s NP certificate programs should research admissions requirements carefully before applying to ensure that they meet eligibility requirements.
The application process to online post-master’s NP certificate programs is similar to that for other types of graduate programs in nursing. Applicants are required to submit copies of their RN license and any APRN/NP licenses they hold, as well as academic transcripts and an up-to-date resume. Some programs may prefer candidates who have one or more years of professional experience and/or a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a four-point scale. In addition, applicants may be asked to supply two or three letters of recommendation and/or a written personal goals statement. Some programs may also hold in-person or telephone interviews with applicants.
Online NP certificate programs are generally designed to accommodate professional nurses who intend to continue working while earning their certificate. However, there are several key variations in program formats that can impact the relative convenience and flexibility of an online program. These include: online instructional methods (synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction); enrollment options (part-time vs. full-time enrollment); and campus visits (also commonly referred to as immersion sessions, campus residencies, and intensives). Each of these factors is handled separately in the sections below:
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: These are the two primary methods for delivering online lectures and coursework. Synchronous instruction takes place in real-time and requires students to be logged on to a program’s online learning platform for scheduled virtual-classroom sessions. Asynchronous instruction does not have a real-time component. Instead, students are given access to pre-recorded lectures and instructional sessions that they can view at their convenience, 24-7. While asynchronous instruction provides online students with a greater amount of scheduling flexibility, it requires more self-discipline than synchronous instruction, as student are responsible for keeping up with course syllabi. Synchronous instruction provides move structure than asynchronous instruction, but it requires students to work around scheduled class meeting times.
Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: RNs who hold an MSN degree can typically complete a post-master’s NP certificate program in one to two years of part-time enrollment, and some students may be able to complete certain NP certificate programs in less than 12 months of full-time enrollment. Many programs have flexible enrollment policies, allowing students to choose the number of courses they complete per term. However, there are also programs that have a set curriculum structure, requiring students to follow a sequence of courses and, in some cases, commit to taking a specific number of courses each term. Students who enroll full-time in an NP certificate program should be prepared to spend up to 40 hours per week on coursework and clinical training while classes are in session. Part-time enrollment typically requires between 15 and 20 hours of schoolwork per week while classes are in session.
Campus Visits: In addition to online courses and in-person clinical hours, some online NP certificate programs require students to attend a limited number of campus-based sessions. These campus visits are typically integrated into the instructional curriculum and may include orientations sessions, workshops, labs, colloquia, and other activities. OnlineEducation.com currently does not list programs that require more than three campus visits per year. Students who would prefer not to travel to a campus in order to complete an online NP certificate program should look for programs that do not require campus visits. Students who would like the opportunity to meet face-to-face with instructors and interact with other students in-person may want to consider programs that require campus visits.