Question: What is an NP certificate? Learn more about Post-Master’s Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate Programs
Updated: July 29, 2022
Answer: A nurse practitioner (NP) certificate is a post-graduate certificate program that is offered at an accredited institution of higher education, and which trains nurses in a specialty that is different from the one in which they earned their Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and/or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). NP certificates are generally a highly efficient way for registered nurses with a master’s degree and advanced practice registered nurses (including NPs) to expand their training and credentials by adding a new NP specialty.
Nurse practitioner (NP) certificate programs, otherwise known as graduate certificate, post-master’s certificate, or post-MSN certificate programs, are designed for APRNs and other nursing professionals who have already earned a master’s and/or doctorate in a particular nursing specialty (e.g., nurse administrator, nurse educator, clinical nurse leader (CNL), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), or nurse practitioner) and who wish to gain training and credentialing in another specialty without having to enroll in a second MSN program. NP certificates typically consist mainly of clinical and specialty coursework, as well as clinical practicum hours, that prepare registered nurses for careers in a new specialty area.
In general, NP certificates take between one and two years of full-time study to complete, depending on the program, the desired specialty in question, students’ previous coursework, and whether the student enrolls full-time or part-time. Unlike MSN programs, which can require 32-62 course credits (and take two or more years of full-time study to complete), NP certificate programs are generally comprised of 12-32 course credits and can be completed in as few as 12-18 months of full-time study. There are even NP certificate programs that can be completed in as few as eight months.
Students who are interested in NP certificate programs should take several factors into account. Firstly, NP certificate programs have varying admission requirements, depending on whether they are designed for any RN who holds an MSN or DNP, practicing NPs of any specialty, or NPs in a particular specialty. In addition, as there are numerous NP and APRN credentialing bodies, each with their own specific requirements for candidates to receive certification, students who are interested in a particular NP specialty should research these requirements carefully to ensure they choose a program that will provide the training and clinical hours to meet the requirements. Finally, depending on their past graduate nursing education and desired future specialty, prospective students should consult with their programs of interest in order to determine if any of the credits they earned as part of their MSN or DNP program can transfer towards an NP certificate, if they are admitted.
These and other core considerations, such as curriculum structure and content for these programs, are outlined in greater detail below.
Classifying Nurse Practitioner Certificate Programs
NP certificate programs can be classified into three different categories based on their admission requirements. While the three categories are discussed in more detail in the sections below, they can be summarized as follows:
- NP certificate programs that accept licensed registered nurses (RNs) regardless of their MSN specialty.
- NP certificate programs that require applicants to be licensed RNs and practicing nurse practitioners in any specialty.
- NP certificate programs that require applicants to be licensed RNs and practicing nurse practitioners in a specific specialty (e.g., a family nurse practitioner or a pediatric primary care nurse practitioner).
It is important to note that these three categories are not mutually exclusive, which means that many registered nurses may be eligible for admission to more than one type of program. For example, registered nurses who are already practicing NPs are eligible for admission to both programs that require an NP license for admission and ones that do not. However, registered nurses who are not practicing NPs should look for programs that accept students regardless of the specialization of their MSN degree.
Finally, most NP certificate programs will conduct a gap analysis of a student’s transcripts in order to determine if any of their previous coursework or clinical hours can be applied towards the certificate program. Therefore, practicing NPs do not need to specifically look for programs that require an NP license for admission.
Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate Programs for MSN Graduates Regardless of Their MSN Specialty
These programs allow MSN trained nurses to apply regardless of their MSN specialty. Examples of such candidates include nurse administrators, Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs), Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNLs), and Nurse Educators who would like to become NPs, and licensed NPs who would like to add a new specialty. NP certificates vary in terms of the required coursework and time to completion, as most of these programs conduct a gap analysis wherein they assess the previous coursework and clinical hours students completed as part of their MSN program to determine the coursework and clinical hours needed to meet the requirements for licensure in the NP specialty they are pursuing.
For example, if an applicant has already completed MSN-level courses in advanced physiology and pathophysiology, pharmacology, and physical/health assessment, they are typically not required to retake these courses as part of an NP certificate program. Students who did not complete these courses during their MSN program would be required to take them as part of an NP certificate program. These programs can usually be completed in 12 to 24 months, depending on whether a student enrolls full-time or part-time and which courses they need to take after the gap analysis.
Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate Programs that Require an NP Certification/License for Admission
These programs require applicants to already be licensed and practicing NPs in order to be eligible for admission. Typically, these programs will, however, accept applications from NPs regardless of their current specialization. What distinguishes these programs from NP certificate programs that accept students regardless of their MSN specialization often relates to the availability of core MSN courses. For example, online NP graduate certificate programs that do not offer core courses online, may require applicants to already be practicing NPs so that they can sure students have already completed those courses during their MSN program.
In general, licensed NPs can complete an NP certificate program in 12 months of full-time study. There are also accelerated programs that can be completed in as few as 8 months (two semesters) and part-time programs that can be completed in 18 to 24 months.
Note: As noted in the section above, practicing NPs are not limited to programs that require an NP license for admission. They can also explore programs that accept applications from registered nurses regardless of the specialty of the MSN degree.
Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate Programs that Require a Specific NP Certification/License for Admission
Relative to the other two types of NP graduate certificate programs, these programs are not nearly as common, but since they do exist, they are worth mentioning in case students come across them as they are researching programs. These programs are designed for NPs in a specific specialty–in other words, they only admit applicants who are practicing NPs in a specific specialty area. An example of such a program would be an NP certificate designed for family nurse practitioners or pediatric primary or acute care nurse practitioners who want to expand their practice into neonatal advanced practice nursing. For this example, licensed women’s health nurse practitioners, adult-gerontology primary care or acute care nurse practitioners, and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners would not be eligible for admission.
In general, these programs are designed for NPs who want to add a new NP specialty that is related to their current practice. However, as noted in the two sections above, practicing NPs can often apply for admission to any of the three types of programs described above, and they do not need to specifically look for programs that require their specialty area for admission.
Nurse Practitioner Certificates: Curriculum Structure and Common Specializations
There are a wide range of APRN specialties, and as a result, there are a correspondingly wide variety of NP certificate programs. The curriculum content and structure for these programs tends to vary depending on students’ chosen area of practice and their educational background. However, in general, the curricular components for NP certificates include a set of core courses, a set of specialty-specific courses, and practicum courses that require students to complete clinical hours in their chosen specialty area. Below is an example of a curriculum structure for an adult-gerontology acute care NP certificate program:
|Core Courses*||Specialty Courses||Practicum Experience|
|Advanced Health Assessments||Diagnosis of Acute Conditions in Adult Populations||Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Practicum I|
|Advanced Human Physiology and Pathophysiology||Management of Patients in Acute and Critical Care and Surgical Settings||Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Practicum II|
|Advanced Pharmacology||Medical Management and Care for Patients with Chronic Conditions|
|Geriatric Health Theory and Practice|
|* Students who are already licensed/certified and practicing nurse practitioners are often able to waive core courses they already completed as part of their MSN program.|
While the majority of programs follow the above curriculum structure, the specific courses that students take depends on their desired patient population. Below is a description of several common NP certificate program specialties and the course content they might include:
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AG-PCNP) Graduate Certificate Programs prepare nurses to provide primary care services to adults across the lifespan, from young adulthood to geriatric age. Students in these programs complete coursework in health assessments for adults, differential diagnoses for adult patient populations, advanced physiology and pathophysiology, nursing theory and practice for geriatric health, mental health for aging populations, and preventative care for aging populations. Students also complete a practicum in an adult and gerontological primary health care setting.
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AG-ACNP) Graduate Certificate Programs offer nurses with targeted training in working with adults and aging patients who are experiencing acute health problems. Students of these programs take courses in the diagnosis and management of acute health problems for critically ill adults and gerontological patients; caring for traumatic injury, emergent illnesses, and patients in critical care settings; and pharmacology in acute care contexts. All students must fulfill a practicum in an adult-gerontology acute care setting.
- Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) Graduate Certificate Programs prepare nurses to provide primary care for children and adults across the lifespan and within the context of the family unit. These programs include courses in advanced physiology and pathophysiology, women’s health and wellness, advanced health assessments, pediatric pathophysiology and pharmacotherapeutics, and primary care for older adults. All FNP graduate certificate programs also require a family nursing practicum.
- Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP) Graduate Certificate Programs are for nurses who wish to focus specifically on caring for neonates in critical care, as well as infants up to two years of age who are at high risk for health complications. Students take courses in neonatal health assessments, diagnosis and management of neonatal health conditions, the neonatal disease process, and theories and clinical practice of neonatal nursing care. Students complete a practicum in a neonatal care setting, which is generally in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
- Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PACNP) Graduate Certificate Programs train nurses in providing medical care to children who are experiencing acute health problems. Students take courses in advanced health assessment, pharmacology, and critical care diagnostic reasoning, acute and chronic condition management amongst children and adolescents, pediatric pharmacology for serious health conditions, and the management of medically fragile children. All students must complete a practicum in a relevant pediatric critical care setting.
- Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP) Graduate Certificate Programs prepare nurses to provide primary and preventative care to children ranging in age from infancy to adolescence. Classes in these programs generally cover pediatric pharmacology, advanced health assessments and diagnostic reasoning for pediatric patient populations, primary care for children with special health needs, preventative care for children, management of chronic health issues for children, and adolescent preventative care and education. Students fulfill a practicum in which they work specifically with pediatric patients in a primary care setting.
- Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) Graduate Certificate Programs train registered nurses to assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral health disorders in a wide variety of patients across the lifespan. Students in these programs take courses in the neurobiology of mental disorders, advanced psychiatric mental health assessments, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychotherapeutic modalities and frameworks, and differential diagnoses of mental health disorders. Students also complete a clinical practicum in a mental, behavioral, and/or psychiatric health care setting.
- Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) Graduate Certificate Programs are designed for nurses who want to expand their scope of practice into primary care for women and providing well-women services such as reproductive health counseling, preventative screenings, contraception, and diagnosis and treatment of women’s health issues. Students take courses in clinical assessments and diagnostic reasoning, health assessments, management and care for gynecological health issues, care for low-risk obstetrical and post-partum conditions, pharmacology for women’s health, and preventative women’s health care and education. Students complete a practicum in a primary care setting wherein they work closely with women across the lifespan from adolescence/young adult to older age.
- Emergency Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate Programs prepare nurses to provide emergency specialty medical care to patients across the lifespan, from infancy through geriatric age. Students in this program take courses on the principles of advanced emergency nursing care, advanced physiology and pathophysiology, and critical care methods for pediatric, adult, and geriatric patients. Students also complete an emergency nursing practicum in a critical or intensive care setting.
Prospective students should note that the program descriptions and curriculum structure provided above are intended as examples only, and are not representative of all of the NP graduate certificate programs that are offered at nursing schools throughout the U.S.
Nurse Practitioner Certifications
The goal of most nurses who pursue an NP certificate is to earn credentials that allow them to practice in a particular NP specialty. As a result, it is important for prospective students to understand which APRN credentialing bodies provide certifications for their desired profession. Currently, there are five APRN credentialing organizations that provide certifications to nurse practitioners:
- American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB)
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)
- National Certification Corporation (NCC)
- Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
While some NP credentialing organizations, such as the ANCC, offer certifications for a variety of NP specialties, others may only provide one or two specific NP certifications. To assist prospective NP certificate students in identifying the organizations that provide the credentials in their desired area of practice, the table below outlines which certifications each organization offers.
Nurse Practitioner Credentialing Organizations
|Credentialing Organization||NP Certifications This Organization Offers|
When determining which NP certification to apply for, and also which NP certificate program to enroll in as preparation, students should determine two things:
- Which NP certification in their desired specialty is preferred in their state or region of practice. In general, all five APRN credentialing organizations listed above are accepted and highly regarded nationwide. (Note: Not all states require applicants to be certified by one of the organizations listed above in order to be licensed as a nurse practitioner.)
- Which NP graduate certificate programs fulfill the necessary coursework and clinical practicum requirements for them to sit for their desired certification examination.
Ultimately, prospective students should thoroughly research and consult their state board of nursing, the aforementioned credentialing organizations, and the admissions offices of their programs of interest to determine which NP graduate certificate program are best suited to meet their goal of becoming a nurse practitioner or adding a second specialty area to their current scope of practice.