Earning your master’s to become a nurse practitioner
Health care continues to grow and evolve as a profession alongside new, more effective methods of providing care and treatment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported available positions in the health care sector are expected to increase 15% by 2029. That’s nearly four times higher than the projected rise in available positions across the economy, 4%. And the nurse practitioner (NP) role is in even higher demand.
A master’s in nursing offers you an opportunity to take on an advanced clinical role, providing comprehensive primary care to patients facing common ailments. The nurse practitioner role offers substantial financial rewards in addition to the satisfaction that comes from helping patients. Nurse practitioners, anesthetists, and midwives earned a median annual pay of $115,800 as of 2019.
What is a master’s in nursing degree?
A master’s in nursing degree is a graduate-level professional degree that prepares you for health care responsibilities beyond the scope of most other types of nurses. Nurse practitioners are able to:
Assess and examine patients
Order necessary testing and evaluate the results
Directly diagnose those they treat
Develop and oversee treatment plans
Prescribe medication as needed
The education and experience you build in a master’s program will prepare you to serve as a mid-level practitioner who operates either independently or under a physician. After you select a concentration, complete your studies, and pass the national certification board exam in your chosen specialization, you can begin practicing in your selected field. NPs have options ranging from family and adult care to gerontology and hospice care.
Why should you consider this degree?
Nurse practitioners have increased responsibilities in terms of providing complete care for common health issues. You’ll enjoy significantly more freedom to act independently, whether or not you’re supervised by a physician. And if you want to take your nursing career to the next level by incorporating new knowledge and duties into your daily work, a master’s degree can offer a clear path to those goals.
Growing career prospects for nurse practitioners
Health care in general is a thriving field. We already noted the estimated 15% increase through 2029 for positions in the health care sector, and nursing has even brighter prospects. The BLS projected nurse practitioners, anesthetists, and midwives will see employment increase by 45% during the same time period. That’s an additional 117,700 positions on top of the 263,400 already available in 2019.
Nurse practitioners are in especially high demand even compared to other types of nurses. Among the top nursing roles that take longer than to fill, nearly half are NP positions that require postgraduate education and specialized skills developed through a concentration:
Average time to fill nursing roles:
2019 Job Postings
Average Days to Fill
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
Pediatrics Nurse Practitioner
Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
Director of Nursing
Intensive/Critical Care Nurse
Clinical Nurse Educator
Mental Health Educator
Clinical Case Manager
NPs just starting out in the field also benefit from strong demand and salaries that are at least double the national median annual wage for all workers, which was $39,810 as of May 2019, according to the BLS. As a recently graduated NP, you can be confident that you will be well compensated for your work once you secure a position. It’s also important to note that the vast majority of job postings for common NP roles seek candidates at the master’s degree level as opposed to the doctoral level.
Market for entry-level candidates:
Entry-Level Job Postings
Average Entry-Level Salary
Percent of Master's Entry-Level Job Postings
Percent of Doctoral Entry-Level Job Postings
Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
Pediatrics Nurse Practitioner
As an NP, you can enjoy a rare combination of a lucrative, personally rewarding, and highly in-demand career path that directly improves the lives of others, from your first day on the job to your last. And, because health care will always be a significant need, long-term prospects are strong.
The master’s degree curricula builds on existing nursing knowledge, introduces valuable new concepts, and provides options for aspiring NPs to develop expertise in their chosen specialty. Course examples include:
Care for pregnant mothers
Students develop relevant and valuable skills through NP curricula, practicums, opportunities to put nursing skills to use, and through seeing current NPs in action. Along with technical knowledge of nursing, your educational experience will help you build competency in the following in-demand general soft skill areas:
Teamwork and collaboration
It’s important to note that technology skills are a growing, although still limited, desire among employers for certain NP roles. NPs who seek out emerging hybrid positions that combine practice and technology will be well-served to develop proficiency in areas related to programming languages, databases, and analytics, such as:
Note that Microsoft Excel is the only skill to cross over onto both lists. These lists were assembled by Burning Glass Technologies based on job postings for graduates with a nursing degree in traditional and hybrid technology roles that requested specific skills. No matter what type of NP path you decide to take, familiarity with this common spreadsheet application can help you stand out when applying for a new role.
In terms of nursing- and health care-specific abilities, skills increasingly referenced in job descriptions posted for nurses and physician’s assistants include:
Onboarding and employee training
Clinical care nursing
Ensuring patient comfort
Handling of crisis and emergency situations
Interactions with patients and fellow medical personnel
You will have the opportunity to focus on an area of practice that appeals to your individual interests through concentrations. The AANP noted the most common specialization certifications as:
Family primary care — Providing health care services to infants, children, adolescents, adults, and elderly people
Adult primary care — Focusing on health issues, treatment, and wellness specifically related to adults
Adult-gerontology primary care — Addressing the unique health care needs of adults and elderly people
Acute care — Emphasizing secondary care for individuals currently facing severe injury or illness, or recovering from an operation
Pediatrics-primary care — Specializing in the health care needs of children
Other, less common yet fully recognized areas of specialization range from family psychiatric and mental health to palliative and hospice care. You can focus on your chosen specialization when you start your master’s degree.
Online vs. on campus: What to expect
Online learning has proven itself as an effective and enriching method for delivering a complete curriculum to students. If you’re a working nurse, as a significant number of prospective and current students in this program are, an online degree can help you balance your current position with the additional responsibilities that come along with earning a postgraduate honor.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions you might ask when researching your online master’s degree options:
The curriculum and course content, and the quality thereof, is generally the same for leading programs, whether offered in person or online. The difference comes in how you will learn and engage with instructors as well as fellow learners. Video lectures, message boards, and virtual collaboration are common approaches for online learning.
Classroom learning is usually accomplished through either pre-recorded videos of lectures or live streams of instructors leading a class. In live courses, you may have the opportunity to ask questions through virtual means. When existing videos are used, message boards can accomplish the same function. You will likely deliver coursework through virtual platforms, such as uploading completed assignments to a digital dropbox or course management software.
All online master’s degrees for nurse practitioners involve an element of hybrid learning. This means you will need to complete lab and clinical work in in-person settings to satisfy the demands of your degree. Residencies, practicums, internships, and similar experiential learning opportunities require in-person attendance.
Assuming you’ve completed the prerequisite steps to earning this degree, such as holding an undergraduate diploma in nursing and maintaining an active RN license, you can complete the program in as few as two years. Students who choose part-time learning to maintain their current employment and manage personal responsibilities can move along at their own pace, as long as they meet any progress requirements set by the institution they attend.
What are my next steps after graduation?
Just as you needed to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) before working in an RN role, you must successfully complete an NP-level national exam. With several certifying bodies in operation, be sure you select one that offers an exam in line with your desired specialty. The AANP listed five current accredited certifying bodies:
The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB), offering adult-gerontology primary care, family care, and emergency certifications
The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) Certification Corporation, emphasizing acute care
The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Certification Corporation, providing many different options for certification across the spectrum of NP specializations
The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), giving NPs the opportunity to earn a certification in primary and acute pediatric care
The National Certification Corporation (NCC), featuring certifications for neonatal and women’s health care
You will also need to be licensed on the state level to work as an NP. While this doesn’t require passing an exam, it is a critical step in working as an NP no matter your specialization.
While not required, you can also join one of the many professional organizations that either include RNs or are exclusively open to them, such as the AANP and the American Nurses Association (ANA). There are organizations in nearly every state, as well as national and international groups. Membership can help you network with fellow nurses and NPs to discuss trends in the field, identify new job opportunities, and more. They can also help you find options for completing the state-level continuing education requirements needed to keep your license in good standing.
You have goals. We have a path.
Nurse practitioners play a crucial role in the modern health care system in both primary and acute care. They help the population as a whole and specialized subgroups alike to address health concerns and improve quality of life.
As the world’s learning company, we proudly partner with universities to offer you many options for earning your master’s degree. Whatever your career goals, we have a path for you.