When you’re exploring career paths as a registered nurse (RN), you may want to consider a future as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or nurse practitioner (NP). These challenging but rewarding career paths require graduate-level training, preparing you for greater job responsibilities and enhancing your earning potential.
The roles of APRNs and NPs are sometimes confusing because NPs are a type of APRN, and the duties of APRNs can overlap. This guide compares nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses based on education and certification requirements, job responsibilities and salaries to help you decide your next career steps.
APRN and NP: Basic Definitions
Let’s start with definitions of the two roles to make it easier to distinguish between them.
To begin, we must define the often-asked question, What is an advanced practice nurse? An APRN is an RN who holds a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and specializes in one of the following four roles:
An NP is a specific type of APRN. Nurse practitioners hold an MSN or DNP and are certified in a specific population or area of practice, such as:
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Emergency Nurse Practitioner
- Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
Comparison of APRN and NP Job Descriptions
NPs and other APRNs provide primary and specialty medical care to patients, helping to ease some of the burdens on the healthcare system due to the shortage of medical doctors. Advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and clinical nurse specialists, assume some of the duties of physicians. Broadly speaking, these responsibilities include:
- Assessing patients
- Performing routine physicals and detailed examinations
- Ordering imaging and lab tests
- Diagnosing conditions
- Creating treatment plans
- Prescribing medication
- Referring patients to specialists
Nurse anesthetists have a slightly different focus. They provide anesthesia care to patients, taking on similar duties as anesthesiologists, who are medical doctors.
Advanced Practice Nurse Responsibilities
Each type of APRN has a different focus and set of responsibilities:
- A nurse midwife provides primary care to women in sexual and reproductive health, including birth control and family planning. They provide gynecologic exams, order diagnostic tests, prescribe medication, care for women through labor and childbirth and provide prenatal and postpartum care.
- A clinical nurse specialist provides primary care but also plays a leadership role in educating patients, families and RNs. They conduct research, develop best practices and create healthcare policies to help improve patient outcomes.
- A nurse anesthetist provides anesthesia and pain management care to patients during surgery and medical procedures. They administer local, regional and general anesthesia and are responsible for monitoring patient vital signs, managing complications and ensuring patients recover safely following anesthesia administration.
APRNs are state-licensed and regulated, so the exact scope of practice depends on where you practice. Some states provide full autonomy to APRNs and NPs, while others limit the work they can do or require supervision.
Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities
NPs are the fourth type of advanced practice nurse. They deliver primary care to patients, much like physicians. NPs perform exams and order diagnostic tests to identify injuries and illnesses. They also take accountability for each patient, creating individual care plans to treat or manage conditions.
According to the Association of American Nurse Practitioners (AANP), NPs differ from APRNs and other healthcare providers in their whole-person approach to health. They counsel patients on disease prevention and healthy lifestyle choices to help improve overall well-being and reduce medical visits.
Nurse practitioners are certified in one of six primary patient populations:
- Family Practice
- Psychiatric/Mental Health
- Women’s Health
According to the AANP, 70% of NPs are family nurse practitioners. FNPs see patients of all ages, from children to older adults, whereas adult-gerontology NPs only see patients from adolescence to adulthood, including the elderly.
Professional Opportunities for APRNs and NPs
Highly trained APRNs help meet the ever-increasing needs within the healthcare system. Healthcare demands continue to rise due to an aging baby boomer population, increased focus on preventive care, continued physician shortage and growing numbers of Americans receiving access to health insurance. The long-term employment outlook is extremely bright for advanced practice nurses, including the employment forecast for nurse practitioners.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the U.S. will see about 30,200 new openings for nurse practitioners, midwives and anesthetists annually between 2021 and 2031. This demand represents an overall employment growth of 40% during this time.
Hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, clinics and other facilities hire advanced practice RNs on a permanent and travel basis. A staff position provides stability, a set salary and the opportunity to grow your career as part of a team with one organization. However, the high demand for nurses in these advanced roles encourages many skilled APRNs to take their skills on the road. Instead of remaining with a single facility, they care for patients wherever they’re needed most through temporary travel contracts.
Travel assignments typically last 13 weeks and are available at healthcare facilities nationwide. These jobs enable you to enjoy the adventure of travel without putting your career on hold. You can accept contracts based on where you want to work, whether you want to land a travel nurse anesthetist job at a prestigious hospital or a travel nurse midwife role in an enticing location, such as Alaska or Hawaii.
APRNs are well-compensated for their knowledge and expertise. While RNs earned an average of $37 per hour on November 29, 2022, salaries for nurse practitioners and nurse midwives averaged $54 per hour in staff positions, according to salary data from Vivian.
However, actual salaries vary based on your experience, location and the hiring facility. For example, permanent nurse practitioner jobs paid an average hourly rate of $56 in Nevada, $59 in New York, $61 in Washington and $67 in California, based on Vivian Health data from late November 2022. By comparison, travel nurse practitioner jobs paid an average of $3,398 per week or about $85 per hour in a 40-hour work week during this same period.
Travel APRNs usually earn a higher salary than permanent staff as healthcare facilities strive to fill specialty positions and provide continuity of care. The table below compares average permanent and travel salaries for APRN roles, including NPs, drawn from our job board data in late November 2022.
|Avg Perm Hourly Rate
|Max Perm Hourly Rate
|Avg Travel Weekly Rate
|Clinical Nurse Specialist
Education and Certification Requirements
Whether you’re preparing for an NP career or another APRN role, you must first become a registered nurse. APRN roles follow similar trajectories, which include:
- Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- Pass the National Council Licensure Exam to become an RN
- Obtain RN licensure in the state in which you wish to practice
- Enroll in a graduate program in your chosen APRN or NP specialty
- Meet the requirements of the certifying body
- Obtain the appropriate APRN licensure in the state in which you wish to practice
Choosing Between MSN and DNP Degrees
APRNs, including nurse practitioners, complete an MSN or DNP in their chosen specialty. You must have a BSN to enroll in one of these programs. If you have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), look for an ADN-to-MSN bridge program that lets you earn your graduate degree without completing a BSN first.
Pursuing an MSN can significantly expand career opportunities for nurses. Consider these factors when deciding between MSN and DNP degrees:
- Nurse practitioners may need a DNP to have full autonomy when practicing in certain states. Check the requirements in the state where you wish to work if you want more independence in your career.
- Nurse anesthetists graduating as of 2025 must hold a DNP.
- Some organizations, such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, favor requiring advanced practice RNs to hold DNPs because of the high level of preparation offered.
- Some hiring facilities give preference to candidates with a doctoral degree. Thus, a DNP may offer greater job opportunities down the road.
Earning Your Certification
Upon receiving your MSN or DNP, you must pass an exam with the appropriate certifying board based on the type of APRN role you pursue. These exams ensure you have the knowledge and competencies to carry out the responsibilities of the position.
Each APRN role has different certifying boards with unique requirements. Four certifying boards administer various certifications for nurse practitioners, depending on the specialty, while the American Midwifery Certification Board is the only organization that certifies nurse midwives. Once you have your credentials, you must apply to your state nursing board for a license to practice.
To work continuously as an advanced practice RN, you must meet the ongoing requirements of your professional board and state to renew your certification and state license. These requirements generally include completing continuing education courses to keep your skills and knowledge current.
Progressing from an RN to an APRN
Many RNs gain experience as nurses before deciding to further their education and grow their careers as an NP or other APRN. Regarding advanced education, NPs must have a minimum of 1 year of RN experience before enrolling in a graduate program. Conversely, nurse anesthetists may need 2 years of critical care experience, depending on the school.
Clinical experience provides valuable practical insight that can enrich your graduate studies. It also helps you choose the type of APRN or specialty you want to pursue. Travel RN jobs, for example, can give you exposure in various settings and with different patient populations more quickly than if you’re part of a permanent staff.
Once you’ve chosen a specialty, ensure you have the prerequisites for the graduate program. Check that it’s properly accredited and meets the requirements of the certifying board and state where you want to practice.