Education for Nurse Practitioners

Whether you’ve been working as an APRN for decades or you’re considering attaining a higher degree, the education system for nursing is a confusing one. Here are answers common questions related to nursing education, which will hopefully help you decipher which path is best for you.

What are the pros and cons of pursuing more education?

The cons usually relate to time and money, which you will have to suss out for yourself. But if you’re currently working, your employer may help you pay for your program.

Benefits of a Doctorate of Nursing Practice

Practicing at the highest level for nurses. These programs are designed to make you a leader in your field. They empower you to excel in organizational leadership, health policy implementation, direct patient care and more.

No “going back to school.” Nursing bodies, including the AACN and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), are working to make the DNP the minimum educational requirement for APRNs. While some MSN-prepared APRNs will be grandfathered in, this may not apply to everyone.

Better salary, more opportunities for advancement. This is the case if you choose to pursue more education, no matter your end-degree. The DNP in particular emphasizes scholarship, research and innovation, and practice improvement.

Pro tip: To learn more about earning a master’s degree in nursing, visit Florence Health’s education guide for registered nurses.

How to earn a Doctorate of Nursing Practice

To improve your job prospects, you should find an accredited program with the path you need. With an MSN, you can usually expect to graduate within three to six years. There are 300+ DNP programs in the U.S. If you are already a practicing as an APRN, consider choosing a program where you can focus on a different patient population.

Pro tip: If you’re already a practicing APRN, then an online program may be the easiest option for you. When deciding, just make sure it’s accredited and that it suits your learning style. You also may need to set up your own clinical hours, if applicable.

Benefits of a PhD for nurses

Obtaining the highest level of education for nurses. Like a DNP, a PhD is at the doctoral level. Becoming a doctor as a nurse challenges existing, reductive notions about what nurses are capable of.

Becoming a teacher. A higher percentage of PhD-prepared nurses, versus DNPs, go on to teach, Rosseter says.

Becoming a leader in research. Many nurses who pursue PhDs do so because they’re more interested in research than clinical practice. Another popular career option for PhD nurses is health systems leadership.

How to earn a PhD in nursing

The most common programs for earning a PhD as a nurse are: BSN to PhD, MSN to PhD and dual DNP/PhD. If you aren’t an APRN and want to become one, the DNP/PhD option (or just a DNP) makes the most sense.

PhD programs aren’t usually accredited because they’re individualized to the institution, which makes choosing the right program even more important. While some topics, such as research methods, will be included in most if not all, make sure the coursework covers the areas you want to study.

Pro tip: Look up the faculty at the school or program and see what primary research areas are. If they don’t align with yours, you may want to find a different school.

What should you look for in a nursing educational program?

  • Coursework. Make sure it aligns with your interests. If you are pursuing APRN certification, make sure the school has a program for your desired track.
  • Certification/licensure pass rates. This information may not be available online, so contact the school and ask to see this data.
  • Graduate exit surveys. These will show how students felt about the school and include info on job placement and earnings after graduation.
  • Professors. If you are pursuing a post-graduate degree, the school should have professors with research backgrounds in your interest areas.
  • Cost. Make sure it’s within your budget.

Nursing salaries depending on educational level

ADN or ASN: These nurses earn an average of $70,820 a year, according to

BSN: RNs with BSNs make around $80,000, according to Wolters Kluwer’s 2018 nursing salary report.

MSN: According to PayScale, the average nurse with an MSN earns $93,000 a year. That said, pay for MSN-prepared APRNs varies widely based on profession. CRNAs earn an average of $161,076 a year, followed by CNMs at $102,115, NPs at $99,962 and clinical nurse specialists at $95,773.

Doctorate: Many DNPs can earn more than MSNs, but it depends on your profession and specialty. According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurses with doctorates earn around $125,000 year.

Should APRNs pursue specialty certification?

Becoming an APRN already requires specialized knowledge in a certain population focus area. To be come one, you must be certified by one of two accredited organizations — either the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or the Accreditation Board for Specialty Nursing Certification — in one of the following areas:

  • Family/individual across lifespan
  • Adult-gerontology
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatrics
  • Women’s health/gender related
  • Psychiatric-mental health

These certifications are issued by five different bodies. Per the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, these include:

American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Board (AANPCB)

  • Family Nurse Practitioner Certification (FNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (A-GNP)
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioner Certification (ENP)

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

  • Adult Nurse Practitioner Certification (ANP-BC)
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (AGACNP-BC)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (AGPCNP-BC)
  • Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certification (PMHNP-BC)
  • Advanced Diabetes Management Certification (ADM-BC)
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioner Certification (ENP-BC)
  • Family Nurse Practitioner Certification (FNP-BC)
  • Gerontological Nurse Practitioner Certification (GNP-BC)
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (PPCNP-BC)
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC)
  • School Nurse Practitioner Certification (SNP-BC)

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)

  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification Adult-Gerontology (ACNPC-AG)
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNPC)

Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)

  • Primary Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP-PC)
  • Acute Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP-AC)

National Certification Corporation (NCC)

  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Certification (NNP-BC)
  • Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (WHNP-BC)

Should APRNs earn additional certifications?

Some nurse practitioners choose to pursue another certification for a subspecialty within their main area of population focus area. Common examples include cardiology, orthopedics, palliative care, oncology and dermatology. These exams each have different experience requirements, cost and renewal schedules.

To take the test, you usually must have a valid, unrestricted nursing license, a degree from an accredited APRN program, and a few years of experience working with the relevant patient population.

While the state or your employer may not require such additional certification to practice, pursuing one can increase your earning potential and help you secure leadership opportunities in the future. To learn more, contact the relevant professional organization or board for your subspecialty. Examples include:

What are the basics of continuing education for NPs?

Many states require nurses to complete a certain number of continuing education units to renew their license. The same goes for agencies that provide certifications. Depending on where you practice and your specialty, you may have to complete a certain number of hours on a certain topic, and the rest you can choose. To avoid any challenges relating to the validity of your CEUs, it’s best to use ANCC-approved continuing education providers.

Check with your state’s board of nursing and specialty-certification organization for CEU requirements.

For more information about CEUs, visit Florence Health’s guide to free and low-cost resources and how to stay organized with CEUs.