Why Become a Nurse Practitioner? How to Choose an NP Program

A nurse practitioner student doing an exercise on a fellow student
A nurse practitioner student doing an exercise on a fellow student

If you are a working registered nurse (RN) or just starting your nursing journey, you may be asking yourself if you should invest in becoming a family nurse practitioner (FNP). As the scope of nurse practitioners’ practice and autonomy grows across the U.S., they are quickly becoming essential to health care delivery.

Being a nurse can be incredibly rewarding. It is a role that allows you to care for patients, work with interesting colleagues and make a real difference in your community of care. If you’re considering a career change in nursing, it can be difficult to choose an educational program that will best set you up for success. If you’re debating if becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) is worth it, we will compare the RN and NP roles and how to evaluate FNP programs, so you can weigh the responsibilities of each role and decide if becoming an FNP is right for you.

 

RN vs. NP: What are the main differences?

Both nursing roles require commitment and specialized education. However, these roles diverge depending on the training program the individual decides to pursue.

The main difference between registered nurses and nurse practitioners is their scope of practice. RNs work to implement and monitor a comprehensive nursing plan of care for each patient. They assess, communicate with interdisciplinary teams and evaluate outcomes. While most of the functions that RNs perform are conducted independently, most work under the direction of a physician or nurse practitioner.

NPs are advanced practice registered nurses—RNs who have pursued specific graduate-level education. They have more autonomy and are authorized to make certain kinds of treatment decisions because they have advanced, graduate-level education (a master’s or doctorate degree) in assessment, pathophysiology, pharmacology, diagnostic reasoning and treatment planning. A nurse practitioner has different training, clinical roles and responsibilities than a registered nurse or a physician. They are authorized to prescribe medications, order diagnostic tests and diagnose conditions, which is a major difference between an NP and RN.

Here is a chart that gives you a quick overview of how nursing degrees correlate to level of practice.

BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
  • Recommended entry-level degree for professional registered nurses
  • Emphasis on nursing practice in foundational clinical skills, organizational and systems knowledge, communication and collaboration, as well as professionalism and professional values
  • Requires a BSN before you can earn your MSN
  • Having a master’s and applicable certification is required to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and specialization as a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife or clinical nurse specialist
  • Some professional nurses begin their careers as RNs with a master’s-level entry into nursing that qualifies them to sit for the NCLEX-RN
  • Some MSN degrees are specialized for education, administration, informatics and more
  • Recommended by the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties as the entry to practice for nurse practitioners
  • Represents the highest level of nurse education, alongside the PhD
  • Emphasis on such topics as improvement of the quality of patient care, optimizing health care systems and leveraging information and technologies to transform health care
  • As of January 2022, all nurse anesthetist programs are only permitted to enroll students into doctoral tracks

 

The expansive world of registered nursing

As stated above, registered nurses form the largest block of health care workers in America. Even though that is true, many experts who study the health care workforce are concerned about shortages of nurses. Some of this is due to the fact that we have an aging workforce—there are many more nurses retiring than there are new nurses to replace them. In addition, the hardships many nurses have faced because of COVID-19 have accelerated job burnout and caused some RNs to leave the profession. 

But the outlook for those who either remain or are entering the nursing profession remains strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 9 percent job growth rate for RNs between the years of 2020 and 2030, with 194,500 positions open each year for that period. Moreover, the national average salary for RNs is currently $80,010, which compares very favorably to the national median salary of $56,310 for all occupations.

RNs deliver care in a variety of clinical settings, including hospitals, physician offices and skilled nursing facilities, to name a few. Here are some of the duties registered nurses perform on a daily basis:

  • Completing patient assessments
  • Taking vital signs
  • Administering medication
  • Communicating with patients and other care providers
  • Developing and evaluating nursing care plans
  • Maintaining accurate records
  • Patient education 
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration 
  • Changing dressings

Nursing duties are dependent on not only the setting but the population being served. An RN working in a pediatric clinic will have a very different day than a nurse working in a correctional facility. In addition, some RNs thrive in nonclinical roles, such as insurance contractor, occupational health nurse or pharmaceutical or technology sales.

Registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees have opportunities for advancement into such roles as nurse manager, nursing supervisor, quality specialist or nurse case manager. Additional certifications, such as critical care, oncology or medical-surgical, allow nurses to specialize in particular areas of care delivery.

Nurse practitioner students learning from their professor

 

Nurse practitioners: Primary care and much more 

Nurse practitioners are becoming critical players in health care delivery. Because of their advanced graduate-level educational preparation, they may—depending on the state in which they practice—be able to perform their duties independently. (Learn more about Full Practice Authority below.) BLS data for 2020 show a cadre of more than 211,000 nurse practitioners in the U.S., with a mean salary of $114,510. Positions for nurse practitioners are widely available as employers seek to fill positions vacated by retiring physicians or to round out their clinical staff with additional providers. The BLS estimates a staggering 52 percent job growth rate between 2020 and 2030.

NPs are able to provide comprehensive patient care, depending on their area of focus and the state in which they practice. The majority of NPs focus on primary care for health promotion and management of stable acute and chronic illnesses/diseases, while others choose acute care. According to the BLS, almost a quarter of nurse practitioners work in hospitals providing acute care (compared to 61 percent of RNs), while roughly half are based in physician offices. Here is a list of specialty areas in which NPs can practice:

  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AG-ACNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AG-PCNP)
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PNP-AC)
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners offers the following list of services that NPs may provide. NPs can: 

  • Manage a patient’s care
  • Order or perform diagnostic tests, such as lab work or X-rays
  • Diagnose and treat acute and chronic conditions
  • Prescribe medications and other treatments
  • Offer counseling
  • Educate patients on healthy lifestyle choices to prevent disease

Beyond these practice competencies, nurse practitioners are expected to be competent in the scientific foundations of nursing practice, quality measures, health delivery systems, ethics and more. Leadership in care delivery and policy is also a significant component of a nurse practitioner’s portfolio.

 

Nurse practitioners’ scope of practice

Each state has its own rules for what tasks can be executed by RNs, NPs and other medical professionals, and these are determined by professional boards that grant licensure. The rules regarding an NP’s scope of practice vary from state to state. Because nurse practitioners are trained to perform many—but not all—of the same procedures as medical doctors (MDs), state boards of nursing and/or medical boards specify what NPs are allowed to do independently and what must be done under the supervision of a physician.

Nurse practitioner advocacy groups have recommended that NPs be given full practice authority under guidelines established solely by each state’s board of nursing. As of August 2021, 24 states and the District of Columbia have granted nurse practitioners full practice authority. The remaining 26 states have limited or restricted at least one element of NP practice (such as the ability to write prescriptions, for example). 

Please note that several states have temporarily suspended or waived supervision or collaboration requirements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check with your state nursing board for current requirements.

 

From here to there: Which degree in nursing to pursue

As you refine your career plans, acquiring an appropriate education should be at the top of your list. Marymount University has online nursing programs that can support a full range of nursing careers, taking into account your current level of education.

If you are not yet a nurse and want to get your RN license as fast as possible, an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) is ideal for people who already have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. By concentrating all coursework on nursing science, students can graduate and take the NCLEX-RN licensing exam in as little as 16 months. 

A nurse practitioner student doing an exercise on her colleague

For current RNs with a BSN, you can choose a Master of Science in Nursing that will prepare you for licensure as a Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP). The online program is structured to allow students to balance education and work responsibilities.

Nurses with a BSN who want to maximize their education can take advantage of Marymount’s program that allows students to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice along with their FNP certification (DNP-FNP) in a little over three and a half years. This intensive program incorporates master’s level coursework along with post-graduate doctoral studies for those interested in the FNP role.

Nurses who currently hold an MSN also have the option of taking a standalone FNP certificate. Build on your MSN to optimize patient care with an in-depth study including clinical experiences that cover acute and chronic illnesses throughout the life cycle. By taking this program, you will master health care technologies, principles of interprofessional collaboration and ethical standards.

Take advantage of Marymount University’s location near the nation’s capital to gain insight on critical health care policy, as well as the school’s foundation on Catholic values emphasizing intellectual curiosity, service to others and a global perspective.

Marymount allows you to fast-track your path to become either a RN or upgrade your BSN to an NP. If you’re not sure which degree program is right for you, reach out to one of our admissions advisors.