Is nurse practitioner the right career for you?

By: By Kathleen Ballman, DNP, APRN, ACNP-BC, CEN; Dawn Carpenter, DNP, ACNP-BC, CCRN; Christine Colella, DNP, APRN-CNP, FAANP; Donna Lynch-Smith, DNP, APRN, ACNP-BC, NE-BC, CNL; Helen Miley, PhD, APRN, AG-ACNP, CCRN; and Marcia Johansson, DNP, APRN, ACNP-BC

Consider personal attributes and circumstances before you decide.

The nurse practitioner (NP) role, which was developed in the 1960s in response to a shortage of primary care providers, has expanded to include a variety of patient populations, including family care, primary care, acute care, and women’s health. NPs are poised to take an even more prominent role to meet changing healthcare needs. If you’re interested in becoming an NP, consider the role expectations, your career goals, the clinical experience, and your future lifestyle.

NP readiness

The NP role builds on core nursing skills, including compassion and strong clinical expertise. However, it also requires a desire for autonomy, readiness for additional responsibility, and refined critical thinking and leadership skills.  

Schools are looking for applicants who can speak intelligently about the NP role and its functions as well as their population focus. You also should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the role’s expectations and education, the time commitment required for education and training, the financial requirements, and the need to make adjustments that will accommodate a healthy work-school-life balance.  

Also keep in mind that in 2018 the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties announced that all NP programs will convert from masters of nursing science to doctor of nursing practice by 2025. The goal is to prepare NPs to work within an increasingly complex healthcare system and to reflect the rigorous education NPs receive. 

Before striking out on the NP career path, perform a self-assessment of your personal attributes (intrinsic factors such as knowledge, skills, attitudes, and personal preferences) and circumstances (extrinsic factors such as financial and social support as well as planned life events) to determine your readiness to pursue a graduate degree. Taking inventory of these factors will help you select the NP role that’s the best match for you and prepare you to embark on a demanding educational journey.

Intrinsic factors

Consider your knowledge, skills, experience, attitude, learning style, and patient population preference. Many NP programs have specific skills and experience requirements to ensure students have a foundation of knowledge that will help them make connections and enhance success. Attitude—including grit, determination, and perseverance—can make all the difference between success and failure in a program. Because NP programs are available in a variety of formats (online, in-person, or both), knowing your learning style can help you choose a program that best fits your needs.  

You’ll want a full understanding of your population preference as well as what working with that population might entail, including the work schedule and environment. For example, many adult-gerontology acute-care NP positions expect round-the-clock coverage, including nights, weekends, and holidays. If this doesn’t fit in with the work-life balance you desire, then this might not be the right role for you. (See Intrinsic factors.)  

Extrinsic factors

Underestimating time requirements and the support you’ll need during your NP education can impede your success. NP students not only need time for class but also for study. A student can typically expect about 3 hours of study per week plus preparation time for each credit hour of class they’re taking. In addition, they’ll need from 10 to 24 hours per week of clinical time. For this reason, many schools advise students not to work more than 16 to 20 hours per week while in a graduate program, especially if it’s a full-time program. The amount of time one would need to dedicate to a full-time on-line NP program at the doctoral level would be equivalent to a full-time RN job.

Tap into your family and friends for support. It’s not a weakness to ask for help. Your family and friends will want to see you succeed, so talk to them about your plans and ask them to commit to helping with household chores and other daily responsibilities while you’re in school.

Graduate school expenses include tuition, fees, and resources (books, computer, apps), which can be compounded by the possible loss of income if you reduce your work hours. Financial concerns, not just to pay for the program but also to ensure enough to live on, can derail a student’s success. To assess your financial resources, consider your personal finances, investigate scholarship opportunities, explore employer tuition reimbursement, and meet with the financial aid office to learn about federal grant and student loan options. Understanding eligibility, regulations, and deadlines can take time and be overwhelming, so seek guidance from experts. (See Extrinsic factors.)

Be prepared

Graduate school is a high-stakes adventure. You’ll encounter serious consequences if you’re not adequately prepared. Failing a course may require repeating it (and taking on additional financial burden) or dismissal from a program, which can take an emotional toll and be a big hit to your self-esteem. The preparation you do now will have long-lasting effects on your education and career. Look for guidance from the college or university you’d like to attend and from NP colleagues. And be sure to follow your passion. If you’re well prepared, the NP role can be satisfying, fulfilling, and the perfect way to expand your responsibility, increase your accountability, and help improve patient outcomes.

Access more information about NP preparation at 

Kathleen Ballman is an adult acute care NP at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and an associate professor and coordinator of the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner programs at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dawn Carpenter is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. Christine Colella is an adult primary care nurse practitioner and professor and executive director of graduate programs at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. Donna Lynch-Smith is an associate professor, concentration coordinator of the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner program at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing department of acute and tertiary care in Memphis, and a critical care nurse practitioner at Mid-South Pulmonary Specialists in Memphis, Tennessee. Helen Miley is an NP in the MICU at Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center and professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Marcia Johansson is an assistant professor and coordinator of the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner program at the University of South Florida College of Nursing in Tampa.


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