How Long is Schooling for a Nurse Practitioner?
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So you’re thinking of becoming a nurse practitioner. The next question many people ask is: how long is schooling for a nurse practitioner (NP)? The short answer is NP schooling depends on various factors, such as which type of degree to pursue (e.g., master’s, doctoral, or post-master’s certificate), on-campus or online format, and full-time or part-time enrollment. Fortunately, there are several advanced nurse practitioner degree programs for registered nurses and those with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees.
Why are there so many nurse practitioner educational programs? For starters, nurse practitioners are the fastest-growing occupation in the United States. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts all healthcare jobs will grow by 13 percent from 2021 to 2031, more than double the national average (5 percent). By comparison, nurse practitioner growth far exceeds that rate, growing at 46 percent or more than nine times the national average and adding 112,700 jobs in the same period. O
ther reasons for increased demand include expanded healthcare access through the Affordable Healthcare Act, an aging Baby Boomer population, and a nationwide physician shortage that’s leaving many Americans without a primary care provider. In addition, enrollment in nursing programs has been steadily increasing in the last 20 years, and nursing schools have seen increased enrollment during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As with all educational programs, becoming a nurse practitioner represents an investment of time and money. An NP program’s length and format (on-campus versus online) can affect one’s earning potential while attending school. Fortunately, various degree pathways and types of degrees are offered on part-time, full-time, and accelerated timelines that can lead to lucrative salaries. NPs earn an average annual salary of $118,040 (BLS May 2021), which is more than double the national average of $58,260 (BLS May 2021).
If you already have a nursing degree, your path to becoming a nurse practitioner may be shorter than someone with a non-nursing degree. Likewise, those with non-nursing degrees have several options to become nurse practitioners without any previous nursing experience. Keep reading for more information on different educational pathways and learn how long it takes to become a nurse practitioner.
Full-Time vs. Part-Time Study for NPs
One factor affecting how long it takes to complete a master’s or doctoral program in nursing is whether a student is studying full-time or part-time. By studying full-time, students with a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) can typically complete a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) degree in approximately two years. However, if a BSN-prepared student opts for part-time study, it can take three to four years to complete a master’s or doctoral degree since students will take fewer classes each semester.
Types of NP Degree Programs
Another factor that can affect the length of nursing education is the degree a prospective applicant already has and the degree they decide to pursue.
For example, registered nurses (RNs) with a two-year associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) can complete an RN-to-BSN to MSN program in four years of full-time study. By comparison, RNs with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) can complete a BSN-to-MSN program in two years or a BSN-to-DNP in three or four years of full-time study.
For those with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees and are interested in pursuing a career in nursing, accelerated BSN programs can be completed in as little as 12 months. Nursing programs for non-nursing majors are also called direct entry programs. Direct-entry BSN, MSN, and DNP programs for non-nursing bachelor’s degree holders can be completed in two to six years of full-time study.
Read on for seven online, on-campus, and hybrid educational pathways to become a nurse practitioner. Please note that most online nursing programs are hybrid, with didactic courses online and clinical rotations at a healthcare facility.
RN-to-MSN: Two to Three Years
RN-to-MSN programs are designed for registered nurses without a bachelor’s degree to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. These programs offer a direct path to an MSN degree, allowing RNs to build on their existing knowledge and skills. RN-to-MSN programs typically take two to three years to complete and may be offered as full-time or part-time options.
RNs who pursue an RN-to-MSN program can specialize in a particular area of advanced practice nursing, such as family nurse practitioner, nurse anesthesia, or nurse-midwifery. Prospective NP students can find RN-to-MSN programs at colleges and universities nationwide.
- Sample program: Chamberlain University
BSN-to-MSN: Two to Three Years
BSN-to-MSN programs are designed for registered nurses who hold a BSN and wish to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. These programs allow students to complete their coursework online and clinical components in person. BSN-to-MSN programs typically take two to three years to complete and often culminate in a capstone project or thesis.
Upon completing a BSN-to-MSN program, graduates are prepared to sit for national board certification exams and assume leadership roles in nursing. In addition, BSN-to-MSN programs offer nurses the opportunity to pursue advanced practice roles such as nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or certified registered nurse anesthetist.
- Sample program: Southern New Hampshire University
BSN-to-DNP: Two to Five Years
BSN-to-DNP programs are for registered nurses who want to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. These programs build on the knowledge and skills nurses have acquired at the baccalaureate level, providing advanced training to assume leadership positions in nursing.
BSN-to-DNP programs typically take two to five years to complete and usually include coursework in evidence-based practice, informatics, and health policy. In addition, BSN-to-DNP programs prepare nurses to assume responsibility for caring for individuals, families, and communities at the advanced practice level.
- Sample program: University of Arizona
Direct-Entry MSN: Two to Three Years
Direct-entry MSN programs are designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field who want to enter nursing. The direct-entry MSN program curriculum typically includes nursing coursework, clinical rotations, and coursework in the student’s chosen area of specialization.
Direct-Entry MSN programs generally take two to three years to complete and prepare graduates for careers in advanced nursing practice, such as nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist. Direct-entry MSN programs are offered at colleges and universities across the United States, on-campus and online.
- Sample program: Herzing University
Direct-Entry DNP: Four to Five Years
Direct-entry DNP programs are designed for students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field and want to pursue a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP).
These programs allow students to complete the DNP in a shorter time frame than traditional programs, as they do not require completing a master’s degree first. Direct-entry DNP programs prepare nurses for various advanced practice roles, including clinical practice, education, administration, and research.
- Sample program: Seattle University
MSN-to-DNP: Two to Three Years
MSN-to-DNP programs are designed for nurses who wish to pursue a terminal degree in nursing practice. These programs build upon the knowledge and skills acquired in an MSN program and prepare nurses for advanced practice roles such as nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or certified registered nurse anesthetist.
MSN-to-DNP programs typically require around 80 credits of coursework and can be completed in two to three years of full-time enrollment. Some programs offer part-time or online options to accommodate working nurses. MSN-to-DNP programs culminate in a capstone project, which allows students to apply their knowledge to a real-world problem or issue in nursing practice.
- Sample program: University of Cincinnati
Post-Master’s Certificate Programs: One to Two Years
NP post-master’s certificate programs are designed for RNs who have completed a master’s degree in nursing. These programs offer advanced coursework that builds on the MSN curriculum and prepares them for a specialized area of patient practice as a nurse practitioner.
NP post-master’s programs typically take one to two years to complete and emphasize different practice areas, such as acute care, family, adult-gerontology, psychiatric-mental health, women’s health, pediatrics, and neonatal care. Graduates can sit for national certification exams after completing an NP post-master’s program.
- Sample program: UMass Boston