Become a Nurse Practitioner (NP) – Education, Licensure & Salary

At a time when the US is facing a shortage of primary care providers, nurse practitioners are becoming an increasingly important part of the healthcare system. Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses who have completed graduate-level education and training in diagnosing and treating medical conditions. They can provide many of the same services as a traditional doctor, including prescribing medication and ordering diagnostic tests, at a much lower cost and with fewer years of education. They often specialize in areas such as family health, pediatrics, geriatrics, women’s health, neonatal care, psychiatric care, and more.  

To become an NP, nurses must first earn an associate of science in nursing (ASN) or a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). These general nursing education programs prepare students to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination – Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN) and obtain a registered nurse (RN) license. After meeting these two requirements, nurses can find entry-level work as a nurse, eventually preparing them to apply to an NP program. 

Once nurses have completed their degree and gained experience working as an RN, they can apply to an NP program. These programs offer specialized graduate education for those who wish to pursue a career as an NP. These programs generally take two to four years to complete, including coursework in advanced health assessment, diagnostics, pathophysiology, pharmacology, and physical examination.  

Students can pursue a master’s of science in nursing (MSN), doctor of nursing practice (DNP), or post-master’s certificate. All programs require clinical hours where students gain hands-on experience working with patients under supervision.  Graduates who completed their program and fulfilled all other requirements can sit for certification exams from several NP certifying organizations, such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), National Certification Corporation (NCC), or the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)  

After obtaining certification, NPs must obtain state licensure before they can begin practicing. The licensure process varies by state but generally requires passing an exam, holding a national certification,  and completing a graduate degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), the median annual salary for NPs was $118,040. Salaries will vary based on factors such as geographic location, type of employer, years of experience, and specialty area. For example, NPs working in outpatient care centers earn more than those working in hospitals.  NPs with a DNP or PhD degree tend to earn more than those with only an MSN degree.    

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as an NP, use the step-by-step guide below to learn what is needed to enter this field. Also included are certification options and a state-by-state licensing guide.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Step 1: Complete High School Or Equivalent (Four Years)

A high school diploma or a GED is the first step to becoming a nurse because most nursing programs require applicants to have at least this minimum level of education. A high school education provides the basic knowledge and skills essential for nursing school success. 

Students who focus on classes in biology and chemistry will have a head start in understanding the complex topic of human anatomy and physiology. Math and English courses will help students develop the critical thinking and communication skills that are also necessary for success in nursing.

Step 2: Attend A Nursing Program At An Accredited School (Two to Four Years)

Completing a nursing program at an accredited school is the next step to becoming an NP. The curriculum in a nursing program is designed to give students a solid foundation in medical and nursing theory, as well as provide them with practical experience through clinical rotations. During their time in nursing school, students will learn how to assess and treat patients, how to administer medications, and how to perform various diagnostic tests. 

In addition, they will also gain an understanding of the ethical and legal issues associated with healthcare. Students can complete either an associate of science in nursing or a bachelor of science in nursing. 

Step 3: Pass the National Council Licensure Examination Practical Nurse Exam (NCLEX-RN) (Timeline Varies) 

Graduates of accredited nursing schools are prepared to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) exam. This exam is a pass/fail and determines if an individual has the knowledge and skills necessary to safely and effectively practice as a registered nurse. All state boards of nursing use the NCLEX-RN as part of the licensure process.

Step 4: Obtain Entry-Level Work Experience (Timeline Varies) 

Starting a career as a registered nurse (RN) is a necessary step before pursuing additional education to become an NP. RNs gain valuable experience working with patients and learning about different medical conditions, which can give nurses insight into which specialty they want to pursue. Also, many educational programs require that candidates for admission have a certain number of years of work experience before enrolling in their school. 

Step 5: Complete a Graduate Nursing Degree (18 months to Four Years)

All NPs must complete a master’s of science in nursing (MSN), doctor of nursing practice (DNP), or post-master’s certificate. The time it takes to complete one of these programs depends on the program and prior education completed, but typically takes between 18 months to four years. 

The choice of which program to complete is often based on the NP’s area of specialty and practice goals. NPs who wish to specialize in primary care may find that an MSN program provides the necessary training, while NPs who wish to specialize in advanced practice may find that a DNP program is more appropriate.

Step 6: Obtain National Certification (Timeline Varies) 

National certification is required for NPs to practice. Certification ensures that NPs have the necessary skills and knowledge to provide high-quality patient care. Various organizations offer certification, so it is important that NPs research their options and choose the one that best suits their needs. NPs should also ensure that the certification they obtain qualifies them for licensure in their state. 

Step 7: Meet The Requirements For State Licensing (Timeline Varies) 

All states require that NPs hold a license as an RN and as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or another title that the state uses to practice. The requirement to obtain a license will vary. Use the guide below to learn the requirements for your state.

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

NPs can work in various settings, including hospitals, clinics, physician offices, schools, and community health centers. While NPs may specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as pediatrics or geriatrics, they can be general primary care providers. Day-to-day duties may include:

  • Conducting physical exams and completing health history assessments 
  • Ordering, interpreting, and acting on diagnostic tests 
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses 
  • Prescribing medications and other treatments 
  • Counseling patients on preventive care and healthy lifestyles 
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals to develop treatment plans 
  • Educating patients and families about conditions and treatment plans 
  • Managing patient records 
  • Supervising nurse aides and technicians 
  • Performing other clinical duties as needed

How Much Do Nurse Practitioners Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 234,690 NPs across the US earn $ 118,040 per year on average. The percentiles for wages were:

  • 10th percentile: $79,470
  • 25th percentile: $99,540
  • 50th percentile (median): $120,680
  • 75th percentile: $129,680
  • 90th percentile: $163,350

Nurse Practitioner Certifications

To be eligible to practice, NPs must obtain a national certification approved by their state’s nursing board. There are several certifications to choose from, depending on an NP’s area of specialization. They include, but are not limited to: 

  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)
  • National Certification Corporation (NCC)
  • Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
  • American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB)
  • Dermatology Nursing Certification Board (DNCB)
  • Nephrology Nursing Certification Commission (NNCC)
  • Orthopaedic Nurses Certification Board (ONCB)
  • Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC)

The requirements for certification will vary by agency but the most common requirements are:

  • Complete a master’s of science in nursing, doctor of nursing practice, or post-master’s certificate in that specialty
  • Have a required number of hours of work experience in that field
  • Pass a certification exam
  • Pay applicable testing and certification fees

Nurse Practitioner (NP) Licensure Requirements By State

State Licensing Authority Eligibility & Details Renewal Requirements

Alabama Board of Nursing

To be licensed as a Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP) in the state of Alabama applicants must:

  • Hold an unencumbered registered nurse license in Alabama
  • Have a master’s degree of higher from an institution with a curriculum designed to prepare nurse practitioners
  • Hold a national certification from the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), National Certification Corporation (NCC) or the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
  • Submit a signed copy of the Standard Protocol and Quality Assurance Plan for collaborative agreements
  • A completed online application
  • Pay a $175 application fee and $3.50 transaction fee

CNPs in Alabama must renew their license when their national certification expires or when their RN license expires, whichever comes first.

Renewal requirements include 24 hours of continuing education from approved providers, including six hours in pharmacology.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Thanks to her experience writing in healthcare, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth articles on timely topics for since 2022. Her aim is to assist both students and professionals in navigating the intricate process of selecting a nursing program and understanding the ever-evolving realm of nursing education.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.