Nurse Practitioner Credentials: What Do All of Those Titles & Letters Mean?

Becoming a nurse practitioner may feel like eating a bowl of alphabet soup. With so many degrees and titles represented by all-caps acronyms, people wonder: what do all these letters mean? Understanding the nursing profession requires some familiarity with nursing degrees, specializations, certifications, and professional organizations, all represented by acronyms. 

This jargon aims not to confuse people but to make short work of lengthy titles and accurately display credentials. This guide decodes common nurse practitioner (NP) credentials, including the display order, designations, degree and certification programs, specializations, and fellowship award titles.

How to Display Nurse Practitioner Credentials – The Proper Order

Nursing titles aren’t to be thrown about – there are rules on how to display them correctly. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) provides these guidelines for displaying nursing credentials (see examples in parentheses): 

  • Highest-earned degree (e.g., MSN, DNP)
  • Licensure (e.g., LPN, LVN, RN)
  • State designations or requirements (e.g. APRN, NP, CNS, CNA, CNM)
  • National certifications (e.g., FNP-BC, PMHNP-BC)
  • Awards and honors (e.g., FAAN or Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing)
  • Other recognitions (e.g., EMT, cardiopulmonary resuscitation [CPR], basic life support [BLS], or advanced cardiac life support [ACLS])

The principle behind these guidelines is this: permanent credentials come first, and more voluntary credentials are last. For example, if a family nurse practitioner has an MSN, state licensure, and board certification, their title would be Janice Doe, MSN, APRN, FNP-BC.

For legal purposes, nurse practitioners need only display the APRN credential next to their names when writing, prescribing, or presenting. For example, if a nurse practitioner is authoring a research paper, presenting at a conference, or providing legal testimony, they should address themselves as Janice Doe, APRN.

All nurse practitioners have advanced degrees, but those with two advanced degrees need only display their highest level of education. Also, if an NP has a master’s or doctoral in a non-nursing field, those degrees are listed first. For example, suppose a family nurse practitioner has a master’s of public health (MPH), a master’s of science in nursing (MSN), a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP), and board certification. In that case, the ANCC recommends they write their title in this order: Janice Doe, MPH, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC (note the MSN is omitted).

NP Degree Abbreviations

All nurse practitioners have a minimum of a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) degree, and some have a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). However, many MSN and DNP degree programs are advertised with the level of education an applicant has and the final conferred degree. For example, a BSN-to-MSN program requires applicants to have a bachelor of science in nursing, which results in an MSN degree. 

When searching for NP degree programs, knowing all the degree abbreviations in the nursing field is helpful. Here’s a list of degree abbreviations, the type of program, and a general time-to-completion. 

Degree & AbbreviationDuration
LVN: Licensed Vocational Nurse LPN: Licensed Practical NurseOne year or less
ADN: Associate Degree in Nursing ASN: Associate of Science in NursingTwo years
BSN: Bachelor of Science in Nursing Three to Four years
MSN: Master of Science in NursingTwo years
Post-Master’s Certificate (leads to a specialized NP designation; see below for details)One to two years
DNP: Doctorate of Nursing Practice Two to six years

NP Licensure

Regardless of the level of education, all nurses must be licensed in all 50 states to work legally. Earning licensure involves graduating from an accredited nursing program, passing the NCLEX exam, and meeting other requirements specified by the State Board of Nursing (SBON). There are three types of licensure: 

  • LPN: Licenced Practical Nurse
  • LVN: Licensed Vocational Nurse
  • RN: Registered Nurse
  • APRN: Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

NP Designations

Nurse practitioner designations signify that an RN has earned a master’s or doctoral level degree, passed a certification exam, and has a state-level APRN license. Here are the four most common nurse practitioner designations: 

  • NP: Nurse Practitioner
  • CNS: Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • CNA: Clinical Nurse Anesthetist 
  • CNM: Certified Nurse Midwife

NP Certifications

To become a nurse practitioner, one must earn one or more professional certifications. Several professional organizations certify nurse practitioners in general and specific fields of patient care. 

Here are two NP professional organizations and the certifications they offer: 

American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)

  • ACNP-BC: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • AGACNP-BC: Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • AGPCNP-BC: Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • ANP-BC: Adult Nurse Practitioner
  • ENP-BC: Emergency Nurse Practitioner
  • FNP-BC: Family Nurse Practitioner
  • GNP-BC: Gerontological Nurse Practitioner
  • PMHNP-BC: Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
  • PMHNP-BC: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan)
  • PPCNP-BC: Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)

  • ACCNS: Clinical Nurse Specialist; Wellness through Acute Care (Adult-Gerontology, Pediatric & Neonatal)
  • ACNPC: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (Adult)
  • ACNPC-AG: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (Adult-Gerontology) 
  • CCNS: Acute/Critical Care Clinical Nurse Specialist (Adult, Pediatric & Neonatal)

NP Awards Fellowships

Earning an award is a high honor for any professional and nurse practitioners are no exception. Awards can be very high-profile and worthy of inclusion in a professional title. Here are three examples of awards and fellowships that nurse practitioners can earn. 

The American Academy of Nursing (AAN) honors 2,900 Fellows who are nursing leaders in education, management, practice, and research. NPs with this award can use the FAAN designation in their title. 

The Society of Hospital Medicine offers three levels of awards to physicians, healthcare administrators, nurse practitioners, and physician associates:  

  • Fellow in Hospital Medicine (FHM)
  • Senior Fellow in Hospital Medicine (SFHM)
  • Master in Hospital Medicine (MHM)

Clinical healthcare professionals can use these designations in their titles if awarded. 

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) awards Fellows through the Fellows of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (FAANP). Award winners can display the FAANP credential should they be nominated for and receive this award. For example, the 2022 winner’s name and designations were: William E. Rosa, PhD, MBE, AGPCNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN.

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond


Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).