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Home > What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do Day to Day and How to Become One

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do Day to Day and How to Become One

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses (RNs), so the first steps to becoming an NP are earning a nursing degree and obtaining an RN license.

Many students who start with a nurse practitioner degree as a goal will earn a  Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing program, become licensed as an RN and then go on to earn an advanced degree for licensing as a nurse practitioner. In today’s changing educational environment, it is now possible for associate degree- or diploma-prepared nurses to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) through different nursing programs.

No matter an individual’s path as a prospective nurse practitioner, they must become a registered nurse first. After that, the amount of time it will take to become an NP depends on the type of degree they pursue and whether bridge coursework is required to enter their chosen graduate program. Prospective MSN students should also understand what a nurse practitioner does and what the salary potential is.

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

What a nurse practitioner does can vary, but NPs often have many of the same duties as physicians. This includes assessing, diagnosing and treating patients. They can order tests, order further exams and communicate with other healthcare providers to ensure their patients receive comprehensive, holistic care. 

Nurse Practitioners Have Full Practice Autonomy in 27 States

Depending on which state a given nurse practitioner works in, they may be required to be supervised by a physician. However, 27 states currently offer nurse practitioners full practice autonomy. This means NPs can practice on their own without their care being supervised by a doctor. 

A growing number of states have begun leaning toward less restrictive NP practice autonomy because of the nationwide physician shortage. In some states, NPs can even run their own practices.

hospital hallway shot

Where Do Nurse Practitioners Work?

Becoming a nurse practitioner is a practical option for those who want the opportunity to work in a wide range of settings. NPs may treat patients in nursing homes, schools and specialty or mobile clinics.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of NPs work in:

  • Physician’s offices: 47 percent
  • Hospitals: 25 percent
  • Outpatient care: 9 percent
  • Health practitioner’s offices: 4 percent
  • Educational services: 3 percent

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner?

How does an individual step into this high-demand role and do what a nurse practitioner does? There are several unique pathways, depending on the aspiring NP’s previous education and experience, but the general guidelines are as follows.

  1. Start at the beginning, if possible. Graduate from high school with the best GPA possible in an academic program with a strong science background.
  2. Nurse practitioner programs can be competitive. Some prospective NPs volunteer or work in hospitals or other healthcare settings to strengthen their college applications.
  3. Enroll in an accredited BSN program. There are multiple educational routes to an advanced practice nursing degree, but earning a baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution fulfills most of the prerequisites for graduate nursing studies. BSN programs certified by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) are necessary to advance to graduate nursing studies.
  4. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and obtain a registered nursing license.
  5. While not required, many aspiring MSN students work for one to two years to gain experience before resuming school. Employee tuition reimbursement is an attractive option for some students.
  6. Research and apply to an accredited graduate school, and pursue a graduate degree in nursing.
  7. Most advanced nursing degree programs require one and a half to four years to complete. The amount of time needed depends on the type of degree and whether the student chooses to go to school part time or full time. An MSN degree program takes about two years, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program takes an average of four years.
  8. After earning a degree, apply for specialty certification after completing the requirements for that specialty.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

How long it takes to become a nurse practitioner varies depending on the individual’s chosen education path. Some nurse practitioners earn a BSN degree, and then go directly on to earn an MSN, which takes about four years and two to three years, respectively. 

Registered nurses who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree may choose to enroll in an accelerated RN to BSN program, which is shorter than a traditional BSN program and takes between 18 and 36 months to complete. Online learning is an excellent option as it gives aspiring NPs flexibility in how they approach their education, regardless of where they are in their careers. 

Admission Requirements for Graduate School

  • CV or professional resume
  • Official high school and college transcripts
  • Personal mission statement or essays
  • Professional letters of recommendation
  • Admission interview
  • Proof of RN licensure
  • For some schools, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test results
  • Application fee

After earning a degree, most candidates seek specialty certification in their field of choice through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Most certifications require the following:

  • RN licensure
  • NP degree from a program accredited by CCNE or ACEN
  • Coursework completed in specialty area
  • Proof of 500 supervised clinical hours in specialty area
  • Passing certification exam
  • Certification fee

Types of Advanced Practice Nurses

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have earned an MSN or DNP and passed a certification exam. This exam allows them to practice as an NP.  

What a nurse practitioner does can vary based on the areas of specialty they can take on. The family nurse practitioner (FNP) and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP) roles are fairly common. Two organizations offer NP certification in the family and adult-gerontology specializations: the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). 

The difference between these two specializations involves the patient populations the NPs serve. FNPs can treat patients of any age. AGNPs are focused on providing specialized care for adult and older adult patients. Both focus areas are offered through SAU’s online MSN-NP program. 

NPs can take on more than one specialization by completing a postgraduate certificate program and obtaining additional licensing. In addition to family nurse practitioner and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, other specialized NP roles are:

  • Acute care nurse practitioner 
  • Emergency nurse practitioner
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner
  • Women’s health nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioner

NPs can also choose from subspecialties including dermatology, cardiology, endocrinology and emergency care. Depending on the subspecialty, additional education and certifications may be required.

group of medical staff

The Need for Nurse Practitioners

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of nurse practitioners will increase by 45% between 2022 and 2032, making this one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. The nursing shortage, the aging baby boomer population and recent healthcare reforms have contributed to the growing need for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNS).

For those interested in what a nurse practitioner does, it’s important to know that APRNs must have an advanced degree, either an MSN or a DNP. In addition to assessing, diagnosing and treating patients in their certification specialty, APRNs in some states can work independently without physician supervision, and can also prescribe medication. Nurse practitioners work in just about every area of healthcare, and the need for qualified nurse practitioners shows no signs of slowing.

Begin Your Career as a Nurse Practitioner With an Online Master’s Degree

The demand for healthcare providers is on the rise, and nurse practitioners have more autonomy than ever, making them popular among those seeking quality care. By earning an online Master of Science in Nursing degree from Spring Arbor University, you can be a valuable part of this incredible growth and provide the healthcare that so many Americans need. Learn more about the flexible online degree programs available at SAU that can meet you at every stage in your career. 

Learn more about Spring Arbor's MSN-NP program

Recommended Readings


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?”

American Nurses Credentialing Center, Our Certifications

Indeed, “How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

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