Thinking it's time to give your career a boost? Feeling like you're ready to take on more responsibility in exchange for more autonomy? Would you like to have a more versatile selection of career options within nursing? Maybe you're aware of the primary care provider shortage and want to help fill the gap. If any of these resonate, an advanced practice nursing role may be for you.

When I was figuring out how to become a CNM (Certified Nurse Midwife), diploma and associates degree level nursing programs were easy to find, and master’s- and PhD-level prepared nurses – and the programs to reach that level of education- were scarce. Now, diploma programs, which started in the late 1800s, are heading towards extinction and there are more master’s- and doctorate-level prepared nurses than ever.

Navigating the choices of programs, degrees and specialties is ever more complex. There are increasingly higher standards for both registered nursing practice and advanced practice nursing. The minimum degree requirement for all advanced practice nursing specialties is currently a master’s degree, with rumblings of a push towards that being a doctorate. Columbia University School of Nursing, my alma mater, now requires a doctoral-level education for all advanced practice nursing specialties. The controversial degree- level debate I will save for another day; I’m getting ahead of myself.

I did not have many options in the early 1990s, when I was headed towards school. I had a BA in a non-nursing field, my heart set on becoming a midwife, and a desire to get through school as quickly as I could. There were four Entry-to-Practice programs (BSN completion into a master’s-level advanced practice nursing program) for midwifery in existence and distance learning was in its infancy (there was not yet widespread use of the internet). Living in New York State, not far from the southern border of the Adirondacks, I was going to have to uproot my life and relocate to attend any of the programs; I packed my bags and headed to the big city.

The internet has changed all of that. Today, there are 39 nurse midwifery programs in the United States accredited by the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM), over half of which offer either partial or full distance learning options. The American Association for Nurse Practitioners (AANP) has compiled a list of hundreds of Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) programs, also with a large percentage of them offering options for distance learning. From Pediatric Nurse Practitioner to Gerontological Nurse Practitioner, the AANP online search tool can help you find the educational program that best suits your needs.* You have opportunities even if there is no program in proximity to your home and job, but note that if you cannot find a local clinical placement, you may have to travel or temporarily relocate for that experience.

Once you’ve selected a program, get prepared. Check each educational program for its own specific prerequisites, but an application to most advanced nurse practitioner program typically requires:

  • BSN degree and RN license
  • Work experience as an RN
  • GRE scores (within five years)
  • A minimum GPA
  • A school-specific application and, often, an interview

Whether you attend a program that grants you an MSN, PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice), you’ll need to pass certification boards in your specialty and obtain your state’s APRN license before you can get a job. Any of the degree programs are appropriate for clinical practice, but for a career in nursing research, academics, policy or management, a PhD or DNP degree might be most useful for you.

*The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) lists CRNP (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist) programs.