What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

a nurse practitioner talking to a patient

There are many different types of nursing careers, such as Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), Registered Nurses (RNs), and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) — to name only a small handful. So what is a Nurse Practitioner (NP), and what distinguishes this type of role from other careers in nursing? We’ll answer both of those questions in this article, along with some other FAQs about becoming a nurse practitioner, including:

  • What are some of an NP’s responsibilities and job duties?
  • What are the education requirements to become an NP, and are there any additional examination or licensing requirements?
  • What is the median salary for a nurse practitioner, and what is the job outlook for this career?

If you’re considering a career in nursing, read on to learn whether the role of NP could be a good fit with your skills, interests, and goals. For more information, contact our admissions office or explore nurse practitioner programs in California.

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

What types of settings does a nurse practitioner work in, and for what sorts of employers or organizations? NPs work in a wide variety of medical settings, ranging from private practices and skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) to hospitals and even patients’ homes. Some states also allow NPs to establish their own practices and provide care autonomously without oversight from a physician or hospital system, meaning nurse practitioners provide an essential link in the healthcare chain in underserved and rural communities.

So now that we’ve established where NPs work and with what sorts of employers, what is the role of a nurse practitioner? Here are just a few examples of the duties and responsibilities you can expect to perform in your career as an NP:

  • Communicating with patients and their families
  • Examining patients to detect signs of illness or injury
  • Perform outpatient procedures
  • Obtaining patient histories and critical details that could impact care plans
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Furnishing medications
  • Performing physical examinations
  • Teaching patients and their families about illness prevention and disease management
a nurse practitioner and doctor talking

Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

What is the difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician? There are two chief areas where nurse practitioners differ from doctors: salary and training requirements. Let’s break down some of these differences in closer detail to examine some possible pros and cons of each career path.

  • Training — As we’ll discuss in more detail later in this article, nurse practitioners are generally required to possess a master’s degree or higher in nursing, in addition to passing various professional exams. This process typically requires anywhere from six to eight years, though students at National University can hit the ground sooner thanks to our dynamic and fast-paced course structure. Aspiring doctors, by comparison, must complete training requirements such as earning a bachelor of science in pre-med, successfully passing an exam called the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), going to medical school after completing an undergraduate program, successfully completing a residency, and additional stages — a process that, depending on the student’s specific goals and specialty area, can take anywhere from 10 to 14 years in traditional programs.
  • Salary — There are also differences between nurses and physicians in terms of a typical salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a nurse practitioner was $123,780 per year as of 2021, compared to the median salary of $208,000 for physicians and surgeons during the same period. For more information about the job outlook for nurses, plus some additional salary data, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Thinking about exploring other careers in healthcare, like becoming a medical researcher or health system manager? Ask our knowledgeable admissions counselors about our accredited degree programs like the MS in Health Informatics, BS in Clinical Laboratory Science, or BS in Allied Health.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

If you’re interested in becoming a nurse practitioner, it’s important to plan how you’ll complete the rigorous educational requirements and prepare for the necessary exams. So what are the steps to becoming an NP?

First, it’s essential to explore appropriate degree programs. While there are various entry-level nursing jobs that accept applicants with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, a registered nurse (RN) must generally earn a master’s degree in nursing in order to become an NP. Aspiring nurse practitioners must also successfully pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become a registered nurse, followed later by either the AANP exam, which is administered by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, or the ANCC exam, which is administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. These exams are based on the area of population focused on in the training.

Even if you aren’t already an RN or don’t have a background in nursing, you will be required to take the NCLEX-RN exam. You will also need to earn an advanced degree in nursing by completing either a graduate or doctoral program. The education and training requirements for nurse practitioners are discussed in more detail below.

Training and Education

As we mentioned earlier, nurse practitioners are generally required to both:

  1. Possess a master’s or doctorate degree related to nursing.
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam, followed by the ANCC or AANP exam.

So what are some degree programs that can help aspiring RNs or NPs prepare for these exams and fulfill their state’s professional requirements, while also gaining hands-on experience and developing core nursing skills like providing competent medical care, communicating with diverse patient groups, exercising clinical judgment, and collaborating effectively with interdisciplinary teams?

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) — National University offers a variety of undergraduate degrees in nursing, including the following three options:

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) — A graduate degree is one of the requirements for becoming a nurse practitioner. Once you’ve completed your RN education and training, advance your career to a higher level by earning your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) from National University.

Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) — The Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice at National University is a unique 15-month residency at the Fresno campus combined with a blend of online classes, merging convenience with hands-on experience. Follow the link above to learn more about the DNAP program at National University — including our status as the first academic institution in the world to pursue and achieve Planetree Recognition. Our DNAP program should not be confused with a DNP, which is a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.

Registered Nurse (RN) License — Not a nurse yet? Learn how to become an RN before you undergo the additional examinations like the ANCC or AANP necessary to become a nurse practitioner. We have accredited programs to help get you there, like our Bachelor of Science in Nursing, along with financial aid options to provide support for your academic journey.

Specializations & Certificates

Open new doors and explore a niche or specialty you’re passionate about by earning a professional certificate that enables you to practice as a family nurse practitioner (FNP) or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

  • Family Nurse Practitioner Certificate — An FNP, or family nurse practitioner, is an NP who provides preventative care and treats patients with a wide range of conditions across diverse age groups, rather than focusing on a specific population such as children or older adults. To become an FNP, you’ll need to obtain your master’s degree in nursing, such as the MSN at National University. We also offer a Post-Graduate Family Nurse Practitioner Certificate program, which is designed for nurses who have already earned their MSN or DNP and prepares students to take the ANCC or AANP exam. Follow the link above to learn more about the FNP certificate program at NU.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate — Are you driven to help patients manage and improve the quality of their mental health? Consider becoming a PMHNP. National University offers several certificate and degree programs to help you explore this rewarding career path, such as the certificate program linked above, along with our RN to BSN online program. Learn more about how — and why — to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner here.

What is a Nurse Practitioner’s Salary and Career Outlook?

According to the BLS, the median salary for a nurse practitioner was approximately $124,000, or a wage of about $60 per hour, as of 2021. For nurse practitioners who worked within certain industries or fields, BLS data indicates that there may be higher earning potential. For example, nurse practitioners who worked in hospital settings had higher median earnings (over $128,000) than NPs who worked in “educational services” or the “offices of other health practitioners” (between $102,000 and $105,000). By comparison, the median salary for a registered nurse during the same period was $77,600 per year, showing the potential for increased earnings as a nurse after obtaining your MSN or doctoral degree.

The BLS also provides data about projected job growth, which it defines as “the projected percent change in employment from 2020 to 2030,” adding, “The average growth rate for all occupations is 8%.” Compared to this 8% figure, the BLS projects an astounding growth rate of 45% during the coming decade for nurse practitioners and related professions. NPs are incredibly sought-after as this career path surges in demand and popularity, making this the perfect time to pursue your MSN or other degrees and certificates.

studying to become a nurse

Ready to Become an NP or FNP? Explore Accredited Nursing Programs at National University

National University offers a broad range of accredited nursing and healthcare programs, including hybrid programs that blend clinical experience with online material. Whether you’re taking the very first steps on your nursing journey by working toward your BSN, or you’re an experienced nurse looking to advance your career by earning a graduate degree, doctorate degree, or specialized certificate, you’ll find a program that matches your needs at NU — plus flexible options for financial aid and support.

Discover the possibilities of an exciting career as a nurse practitioner. Contact our admissions office to learn more, or get started today by applying online.

Chat with an Advisor