What Is a Nurse Practitioner? Your Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn what types of skills and education you'll need to embark on a rewarding health care career as a nurse practitioner.

[Featured Image] A nurse is using a tablet.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for health care workers has grown significantly. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health care jobs are expected to grow 13 percent between 2021 and 2031 [1]. 

Of those health care jobs, nurses make up the largest group of employees within the health care system [2]. A registered nurse can go on to be an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), and then eventually a nurse practitioner (NP) with similar responsibilities to physicians and doctors.

Is this rewarding career in your future? Here's a guide to becoming a nurse practitioner.

What is a nurse practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse who has earned a master's degree and additional training in a specialty area, such as geriatrics or mental health. The skills of the nurse practitioner go beyond those of a registered nurse (RN) and often mimic what doctors do.

Like physicians, nurse practitioners can treat patients by diagnosing illnesses, ordering and interpreting diagnostic or laboratory tests, and prescribing medicine. NPs may also focus on educating their patients to make healthy lifestyle choices. 

Much of the work you can do as a nurse practitioner is determined by state guidelines. In many states, you can work independently of a physician but can consult with a medical doctor when needed. NPs can serve as both primary and specialty care providers. 

Nurse practitioner salary and job outlook

Nurse practitioners can earn quite a high income. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a nurse practitioner in the United States is $123,780 [3]. Salary will vary depending on your location, education and certifications, and specialization.

The BLS predicts that job growth for nurse practitioners will rise 40 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than average for all occupations [3]. If you are seeking an in-demand job in health care, training to become a nurse practitioner may be a good option for you.

Types of nurse practitioners

Nurse practitioners can choose to work in hospitals, doctor's offices, outpatient centers, or schools. Specific types of nurse practitioners include:

  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner: This type of nurse practitioner works within a hospital, offering immediate care to injured or ill elderly patients.

  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist: Anesthetists administer anesthesia to patients during medical procedures.

  • Family nurse practitioners: One of the most common types of nurse practitioners. Family NPs provide primary care to people of all ages.

  • Neonatal nurse practitioner: Neonatal nurse practitioners offer advanced care to newborns who are sick, injured, or born prematurely.

  • Pediatric nurse practitioner: Pediatric nurse practitioners provide primary care to patients under the age of 21.

  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner: These NPs offer primary mental health care to patients.

  • Women's health nurse practitioner: These NPs provide primary, acute, and OB/GYN care specifically to females. 

Skills needed to become a nurse practitioner

While working as a nurse practitioner can be a demanding job, it's also a rewarding one. As an NP, you should consider building both technical and workplace skills.

Technical skills

Becoming an effective nurse practitioner requires a wide range of technical skills. They may vary depending on your specialization, so you may learn some of these skills in your training or certification programs. Typically, you can expect employers to focus on these three areas:

  • Clinical training: Possessing ample clinical knowledge is necessary for a nurse practitioner. Employers will want to assess your clinical experience—that is, direct experience working with patients—to feel confident that you can be trusted to assist physicians and administer treatment effectively.

  • Specialty training: Employers will want to see evidence of mastery, such as certifications or training programs in your specialization.

  • Patient education: You will need to demonstrate that you can help patients make informed decisions about their condition and treatment.

Workplace skills

If you possess the following personality traits and skills, you may be a good fit for a career as a nurse practitioner. These skills can be developed with on-the-job training and experience over time:

  • Communication: It's critical to practice active listening to understand the patient's needs and communicate clearly to demonstrate empathy.

  • Critical thinking: As a nurse practitioner, you'll need to analyze a host of medical problems in order to diagnose and offer treatment plans.

  • Leadership: When caring for patients, you will need to make effective and efficient decisions that benefit their health. As a member of a care team, you will need to make balanced decisions that support you and your clinic.

  • Patience: The work of a nurse practitioner can be stressful at times. Exuding a calm, patient demeanor is an important quality for NPs.

  • Physical endurance: Working as a nurse practitioner can be mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. You will need to take care of your own health in order to continue providing the best care for your patients.

How to become a nurse practitioner

Before you can become a nurse practitioner, you must be a licensed registered nurse (RN). You will also need to complete a master of science in nursing (MSN). Many programs prefer that you have a bachelor's degree in nursing, but some may offer a different type of certification program.

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

If you meet the qualifications above, you can go through the following steps to become an NP: 

1. Get a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP).

Both the MSN and DNP paths require hours of clinical coursework and specialty classroom instruction. While an MSN is the most common path to becoming a nurse practitioner, there is evidence that more places are requiring NPs to earn a DNP degree.

2. Pass the nurse practitioner exam.

After completing all coursework and clinical training, you can take a board-certified examination per your state's requirements. 

3. Apply for nurse practitioner certification or licensing.

Upon passing your exam, you can obtain a license or certification to work as a nurse practitioner. You may decide to complete more training and certification in order to practice with a specialization.

4. Go further in your career.

Becoming a nurse practitioner can take several years of education and training. The work you put in is necessary because you are in charge of people's health and lives, which makes this career path exciting and rewarding.

After becoming an NP, you may choose to pursue more learning and certifications if you want to switch your specialty or dive deeper into your current one. Self-directed learning and professional development are essential to maintaining a steady career as an NP. You will need to continue to update your technical skills as technologies and new systems or tools arise and be open to improving your workplace skills every day.

Career path for nurse practitioners

If you are interested in a career in health care, consider taking Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us offered by the University of Pennsylvania. By learning the vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate, and pain, you will gain insight into this exciting and in-demand profession.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Healthcare Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm." Accessed October 25, 2022.

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