How to Become an APRN

An APRN discusses a treatment plan with a colleague.From coordinating patient care to providing primary and specialty health care, working as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) can be a rewarding career option. This is especially true for individuals who seek a stable, in-demand job that pays well. The median annual salary for APRNs and similar roles was $123,780 as of May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

With the increasing need to replace advanced nursing professionals who are retiring or transitioning to other professions, individuals interested in how to become an APRN have a promising job outlook. The BLS projects 40% employment growth for nurse practitioners and similar occupations between 2021 and 2031.

What Is An APRN?

The APRN role is an advanced-level nursing position focused on improving health care through evidence-based practice. APRNs possess extensive clinical knowledge to deliver patient-focused care, treat and diagnose illnesses, manage chronic diseases, and provide services throughout a patient’s life.

In describing what an APRN is, it’s important to note that advanced education is necessary. This education enables APRNs to achieve greater autonomy in their careers while delivering high-quality primary, acute, and specialty health care services. APRNs can also choose from one or more specific practice areas. Four key roles include nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives.

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are licensed independent practitioners. They are responsible for providing advanced primary and specialty nursing services, assessing patient health, and creating strategies to manage patients’ care. Several trends are creating an urgent need for nurse practitioners.

The first trend is the aging population in the U.S. According to nurse employment portal Incredible Health, the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to double by 2040. This population will demand more medical and nursing services as they continue to age. Other trends include the growing physician shortage, expanding health care services in retail settings, and the increasing scope of nurse practitioners’ responsibilities as defined by federal and state legislation.

Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) provide direct patient care in various clinical practice settings including hospitals and clinics; manage care; and provide nurse, patient, and family education. The job of a clinical nurse specialist is highly collaborative. It can involve overseeing medical personnel and working with physicians and other health care professionals to plan and provide treatment to patients.

According to a 2020 National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists survey, more than 42% of CNSs reported working in adult health/gerontology practice, and nearly 23% in pediatrics. CNSs can also specialize in family practice, psychiatric/mental health, women’s health, and neonatal care.

Nurse Anesthetists

Certified registered nurse anesthetists, also known as CRNAs, are advanced practice nurses who provide anesthetics to patients ahead of surgical, therapeutic, and diagnostic procedures. Nurse anesthetists can work in various practice settings. These include hospital surgical rooms, ambulatory centers, dentists’ and ophthalmologists’ offices, public health facilities, and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. CRNAs also monitor patients’ vital signs during procedures and adjust the anesthesia as needed. According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA), more than 50 million Americans receive anesthetics from nurse anesthetists every year.

Nurse Midwives

Certified nurse midwives, or CNMs, deliver care to women. Their responsibilities include conducting gynecological exams; delivering family planning services; and providing prenatal, delivery, and postpartum care in various types of health care settings. Nurse midwives are qualified to treat lacerations when emergency situations arise during labor. In the case of cesarean births, nurse midwives can support physicians during the surgical procedure. In addition to providing primary maternity care, nurse midwives help women throughout their lives by addressing sexual or reproductive health issues; providing wellness care, education, and nutrition; and playing a key role in disease prevention.

How To Become An APRN

Responsibilities for APRNs vary by specialty and even the type of work setting. As nurses, APRNs perform activities that registered nurses (RNs) perform, including monitoring patients’ condition, tracking their vital signs, recording their progress, assessing their needs and comfort, and ensuring they follow the care plan established by their physician.

However, typical APRN responsibilities across the board also include writing prescriptions, diagnosing and treating diseases, conducting physical examinations, and ordering diagnostic tests. In some states, APRNs can practice independently, carrying out many of the same activities as primary care physicians. In other states, they can provide primary care under the supervision of a physician. Prospective nursing students looking at how to become an APRN should be aware of practice restrictions in their home state.

Obtaining a graduate degree in a healthcare-related field is one requirement for the role, and individuals often go on to earn a doctoral degree in nursing. For example, the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) states that about one in ten CNSs hold a doctorate.

Clinical experience matters, too.

There is no default path to obtaining the clinical experience to qualify for APRN roles. In fact, the journey to becoming an APRN varies, depending on factors such as an individual’s career goals, interests, and location. State requirements for APRN employment can also play a decisive part in an individual’s pursuit of APRN roles.

How Long Does It Take To Become An APRN

How long it takes to become an APRN can range from six years for those pursuing their master’s degree up to eight years for doctorate degree candidates. The timespan for every individual will vary depending on whether they enroll full-time or part-time. Other considerations may also come into play, such as an individual’s existing responsibilities to work and family. But for many individuals, the autonomy and fulfillment that comes with APRN roles are worth the effort.

Common steps for individuals pursuing this career include the following.

Become a Registered Nurse

To become an APRN, an individual must first become an RN. While not all RN jobs require a Bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), the degree is recommended for those who are aiming to become an APRN. A BSN lays the groundwork for a Master of science in nursing (MSN), which is required for APRNs.

Gain Clinical Experience

As RNs, individuals gain first-hand knowledge of working with patients of all types in diverse hospital settings. This experience is valuable for prospective APRNs because it can help them acquire important clinical knowledge and vital competencies such as communication, critical thinking, active listening, organizational, and active learning skills.

Earn A Master’s Degree

An MSN can teach advanced clinical and leadership skills and prepare individuals to meet the licensure requirements for becoming an APRN. In addition, an MSN opens far more doors for individuals looking to advance their nursing careers beyond APRN roles. For example, students can choose a generalist career path to become a clinical nurse leader or clinical research nurse.

Stay Current with Changes in the Field

Participating in post-graduate education can help APRNs maintain qualifications for licensure and stay abreast of the changes taking place in the nursing field. This type of education can be formal, taking place through college coursework, or it can include attending seminars and reading medical journals to learn about the latest evidence-based practice techniques, guidelines, and technologies.

Explore Your Advanced Nursing Career Options

An APRN career can provide opportunities and flexibility for individuals looking to advance in the nursing profession. Many APRNs find their work rewarding because of the autonomy it provides, as well as the opportunities to make an impact in patients’ lives through evidence-based practice. Individuals can also choose from different types of APRN roles based on their interests. Additionally, the positive employment outlook and salaries for APRN positions make it a financially attractive career.

Prospective nursing students looking at how to become an APRN would do well to explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (BSNDNP) program, where they can earn their DNP in as few as 34-44 months. Core curriculum courses include Introduction to Advanced Practice Roles, Advanced Nursing Research, and Advanced Assessment and Diagnostic Reasoning.

Students enrolled in the Hawai‘i Pacific University online BSNDNP can choose from one of three academic programs based on specialties: Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP), and Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP). DNP-level courses include: Evidence Based Practice for Advanced Nursing, Optimizing Quality in Health Care Systems, three doctoral projects, and more.

Explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online BSNDNP program and learn how it can help you set a path to becoming an APRN.

Recommended Readings

Chief Nursing Officer vs. Director of Nursing

Servant Leadership in Nursing

How Long Is Nurse Practitioner School?


American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology, "Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists Fact Sheet"

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, "The Path to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP)"

American College of Nurse Midwives, "Nurse-Midwifery: A Natural Fit for Nurses"

American Nurse, "Is Nurse Practitioner The Right Career For You?"

American Nurses Association, "Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)"

Incredible Health, "Job Prospects for Nurse Practitioners"

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, "These Are The Most Lucrative Nursing Careers Right Now"

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, "The Role of the CNS: Findings from the 2020 Census"

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners"

Verywell Health, "What Is a Nurse Practitioner?"