One of the many exciting aspects of a career in healthcare is the broad array of options available for professionals to pursue. Nursing offers many opportunities to specialize and to advance one’s career to the next level. Whether you’re an undergraduate student who is just beginning to plan their career or a working registered nurse (RN) thinking about career advancement, there are lots of choices to consider.
One prime example is the job of a family nurse practitioner (FNP). Are you curious about how to become a family nurse practitioner? Explore this in-depth career guide to get started.
What Is a Family Nurse Practitioner?
There are so many designations in the nursing field that it can be difficult to keep track of them all. A family nurse practitioner is a registered nurse, but not all RNs are FNPs. An FNP is a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).
APRNs are specialists who have acquired graduate-level education and hundreds of hours of supervised clinical experience in their specialty area. They have also passed a rigorous certification exam to verify that they possess advanced nursing knowledge in their specialty.
There are different types of APRNs, as defined by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The main categories are as follows:
- Certified nurse midwife (CNM)
- Certified nurse specialist (CNS)
- Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
- Certified nurse practitioner (NP)
An APRN can also specialize in a particular population, such as pediatrics, women’s health or family/individual across the lifespan. Specializing in a population is particularly common for NPs. For example, an NP can choose to become a family nurse practitioner.
A family nurse practitioner can care for patients across the lifespan, from infants to seniors. FNPs deliver primary care, which combines diagnostics, treatments and chronic disease management with preventive wellness, health promotion and patient education. An FNP is qualified to perform any of the following tasks:
- Conduct patient assessments and make diagnoses
- Perform physical examinations
- Recommend and implement treatment plans for injuries and illnesses
- Prescribe medications and various therapies
- Request and interpret medical tests
- Assist the physician in performing minor procedures
As you can see, FNPs are qualified to work both independently to deliver patient care, and to work as part of a team under the direction of a physician.
Steps To Become a Family Nurse Practitioner
If you’re still in high school, the process of how to become a family nurse practitioner can begin right now. You should talk to your guidance counselor about taking more science and math classes. Some high schools may even offer human anatomy courses, and you should also pursue internship opportunities.
An aspiring FNP should plan on earning a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited school. Your studies will prepare you to take the required exam to earn your RN license. Then, you’ll need to gain a few years of clinical experience as an RN.
After working in the field for a while, you can begin working toward your graduate FNP degree. A master’s degree in nursing may take up to three years to earn. Then, you’ll need to pass a certification exam to become a family nurse practitioner.
Earn Your Undergraduate FNP Degree
Following high school, the process of how to become an FNP begins with your college education. At the undergraduate level, there is no need to worry about choosing a degree with a specific specialty like family practice. Instead, you’ll enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program.
The BSN (pre-licensure) program requires four years of full-time study. Alternatively, if you already have an associate’s degree and an RN license, you may enroll in an accelerated RN to BSN degree program, which can be completed in as few as 12 months in some cases.1
Another option may be available to students who have previously earned a degree or a minimum number of college credits in a non-nursing field. Some schools offer an accelerated BSN, or ABSN, which might be completed in as few as 16 months.2 The ABSN program focuses on nursing education to get students who are new to the field up to speed and starting their nursing career as quickly as possible.
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Regardless of which type of degree program you choose, you should look for one that is accredited, and that aligns with national standards and best practices. If you are a pre-licensure student, you might also want to look into the program’s first-time pass rate for the NCLEX-RN to see how it compares to the national and state averages.
BSN programs instill a breadth of knowledge in nursing students in topic areas ranging from patient assessments to pharmacology to healthcare informatics. You should also study nursing research, healthcare policy and professional ethics, as well as population-specific areas like pediatrics and obstetrics.
Your nursing degree will combine classroom, laboratory and hands-on learning experiences. Some of the more modernized schools even feature nursing simulation labs that empower students to develop real world-ready critical thinking, clinical reasoning and decision-making skills. These also enable students to practice patient interactions.
Acquire Your RN License
If you don’t yet have your registered nurse license, you will need to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for registered nurses. The NCLEX-RN does not simply test your nursing knowledge; it also tests your ability to use critical thinking and clinical reasoning skills to apply your knowledge to real-world situations.
There are four main categories on the exam, as follows:
- Safe and effective care environment (e.g., management of care, safety and infection control)
- Health promotion and maintenance
- Psychosocial integrity
- Physiological integrity
It’s best to choose a test date that gives you some time to immerse yourself in study following graduation. However, you won’t want to wait too long to take the exam, because it’s best to have your coursework fresh in your mind. Once you successfully pass the exam and receive your state licensure, you’ll be able to practice as an RN.
Gain Clinical Experience in Healthcare Settings
In some nursing professions, it’s possible or even customary to pursue a master’s degree shortly after graduating with an undergraduate degree. However, hands-on clinical experience is crucial for a nurse’s education. That’s why aspiring FNPs and other APRNs must gain clinical experience before they are eligible to apply to a graduate program.
The specific requirements vary from one school to the next. Some nursing schools require as little as one year of full-time clinical experience, whereas others require two to three years. Even if you plan to apply to a school that requires only one year of experience, it can be to your advantage to gain at least a few years of experience so you’ll be better prepared to ace your studies.
Keep in mind that even though you’ll be out of academia while you’re working to earn clinical experience, all nurses are lifelong learners. Stay sharp by reading nursing journals in order to stay on top of the latest research and developments in the field. Of course, you will also need to meet the continuing education requirements for registered nurses in your state.
How To Become an FNP With a Master’s Degree
After you’ve acquired at least a few years of full-time clinical work experience, you can begin the next step in the process of how to become an FNP. You’ll need to apply to an accredited nursing program and earn a graduate degree. You can qualify to become an FNP with a master’s degree, although some APRNs hold a doctoral FNP degree.
You will need to choose a degree program that is specific to the specialty of family practice. For example, look for an accredited Master of Science in Nursing: Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) degree program. You may be able to take some classes online for your FNP degree, although you should expect to meet requirements of on-campus learning experiences and supervised clinical practice in the field.
An MSN for aspiring FNPs prepares RNs to adhere to a high standard of care and patient safety. While you’re working toward your FNP degree, you can expect to take an in-depth exploration of topics such as the following:
- Healthcare organizational science, leadership, policy and informatics, with a look at evolving models of care delivery, change management theories and patient information technologies
- Advanced principles of physiology and pathophysiology, exploring areas such as inflammatory changes, the cellular environment, genetics, hematology and immunology
- Advanced concepts in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, including the physiological variables and pathological conditions that can influence the pharmacological responses
- Advanced, head-to-toe patient assessments in diverse populations, including differential diagnoses and clinical decision-making
- The application of evidence-based research to preventive wellness, health promotion, screening and patient education
The average MSN program can take between 18 months and three years to complete, which can be a bit longer than non-nursing master’s degree programs. The option to take some classes online can help nurses fit their academic endeavors into their busy work schedules.
When you choose an MSN program, you should verify that it includes sufficient supervised clinical hours. You’ll need to pass an APRN certification exam, and one of its eligibility requirements involves having at least 500 hours of faculty-supervised clinical experience. Some MSN degree programs can include up to 675 supervised clinical hours; this emphasis on hands-on learning may help you become better prepared to tackle your certification exam.
Pass the Certification Exam To Become an APRN
After earning your graduate degree, the final step in the process of how to become a family nurse practitioner is to earn your advanced certification. There are two professional certification options to choose from.
The first is the FNP-BC (Family Nurse Practitioner - Board Certified) credential offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The second is the FNP-C (Family Nurse practitioner - Certified) credential offered by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB). Either of these credentials will qualify you to become an APRN, and neither is superior to the other; they are equally accepted.
The certification exam you should take depends on your particular career goals. The FNP-BC exam emphasizes healthcare policies, professional ethics, nursing theory and nursing research. This makes it ideal for nurses who would like to pursue leadership roles in their healthcare organizations, or to transition to academia.
In contrast, the content of the FNP-C exam is better suited to clinicians. It focuses on topics such as patient assessments, diagnostics, treatments and care management. Consider your career goals before deciding which certification exam to take.
Do You Need a Doctoral Degree to Become an FNP?
A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree. It represents the highest level of academic achievement for professionals. DNP-prepared nurses are able to deliver high quality care to patients, step into leadership roles in their organizations, contribute to the body of knowledge in the field and, in general, advance the nursing field.
Although a DNP degree is certainly desirable for nurses, it’s not a requirement for becoming an FNP. Currently, aspiring family nurse practitioners only need a master’s degree, along with the necessary certification.
It’s possible that the requirements may change at some point in the future and that a DNP will be required. In fact, there has been some demand in the field for a DNP requirement for APRNs. However, a DNP is not currently a requirement, and there is no established timetable for making this change.
Are Nurse Practitioners in Demand?
All types of nurses, including APRNs, are in high demand now as well as for the foreseeable future. The agency responsible for tracking employment data in America is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although the BLS doesn’t track data specifically for family nurse practitioners, it does offer statistics for the category of nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners to increase by about 45% from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average, accounting for an estimated increase of 121,400 jobs in the field.4
There is particularly strong demand for primary care practitioners, such as family nurse practitioners. The high demand for FNPs is fueled in part by the shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S. As a result, the scope of practice for FNPs has been expanded in recent years, and this is a trend that is expected to continue.5
You can take your nursing career to the next level and provide higher quality care to your patients by furthering your education at Grand Canyon University. The College of Nursing and Health Care Professions offers a broad range of undergraduate and graduate nursing degree options, including the Master of Science in Nursing: Family Nurse Practitioner program. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining our Christ-centered learning community.
1 Must transfer 90 approved semester credits toward the required 120 credits and double coursework twice during the 10 week courses in order to complete the program in 12 months.
2 Based on location, applicants must transfer a minimum of 60 of the required 123 credits, or have completed a baccalaureate degree, and complete 9 prerequisite courses/labs and 10 general education courses prior to starting the core nursing courses which can be completed in 16 months. An additional prerequisite course is required for students enrolled in Grand Canyon University’s ABSN program in Nevada. For more information on the accreditation of nursing programs and other university licensures, please visit our University Accreditation and Regulations page at gcu.edu/CONHCPAccreditation.
3 Cannot be used in conjunction with other GCU scholarships or awards.
4 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives and Nurse, Practitioners, retrieved on 06/02/2022.
5 Nurse Journal, 7 Future Job Trends For Nurse Practitioners in April 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.