APRN Graduate Nursing Programs: Making the Right Choice

By JoAnne Konick-McMahan, MSN, RN, PCCN Oct 28, 2020

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In my roles as critical care APRN and evidence-based practice facilitator, I am a champion of nurse-led change and quality improvement.

Congratulations, you’ve decided to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). You now have another important decision to make: choosing the right graduate nursing program for your desired career path.

All APRNs practice within a role and population defined by their education, among other factors. Selecting the best graduate program for your preferred APRN role involves lots of shopping around to ensure your program choice aligns with licensing requirements for the work you want to do after graduation.

To help you with this process, I’ve put together some important information, questions and ideas gathered from my work with APRN students and graduates looking for certification prior to their state licensure.

Factoring in the Consensus Model

For nurses considering an APRN graduate program, familiarity with the Consensus Model for APRN Regulation Licensure, Accreditation, Certification and Education (“Consensus Model”) is a good place to begin. I suggest reviewing the model overview including all the defined roles and populations.

The goal of the Consensus Model is to ensure patient safety. The Consensus Model provides a consistent process of education and licensure for four direct-care APRN roles. We’ll focus on two of those roles, clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and certified nurse practitioner (CNP).

Another way the Consensus Model may impact your program choice is by specifying a particular patient care population. There are six distinct groups, adult-gerontology, pediatric and neonatal among them. Additionally, NP roles involve selecting either acute care or primary care as an area of focus.

Selecting Your Role: CNP or CNS?

Many nurses interested in pursuing an advanced practice career are still deciding between the CNP and CNS roles. If this is your situation, you will want to consider the differences.

Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)

  • Provides direct care to individual patients
  • Practices based on patient acuity, not patient setting
  • May provide care to multiple populations
  • Possesses prescribing authority
  • Holds license in acute or primary care (which determines where they will practice)

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

  • Provides direct patient care as one part of the role
  • Delivers care across the patient spectrum from wellness to acute care
  • May practice within a specific population
  • Sometimes possesses prescribing authority, depending on the state
  • Functions as a systems thinker and change agent in healthcare facilities

You may want to visit the national association websites for CNPs (American Association of Nurse Practitioners) and CNSs (National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists) to learn more. Then ask yourself these two questions:

  • Do I want to work with individual patients (CNP) or groups/populations of patients and providers (CNS)?
  • Are there jobs available for the APRN role and population in the location where I want to work?
    • Investigate job search websites for available opportunities in the location you would like to work after graduation.

Evaluating CNP and CNS Programs

Next, consider these questions as you select a CNP or CNS educational program.

  • Do my time, money and family obligations allow for pursuing a doctoral program (DNP or PhD)? Or should I complete a master’s program now with plans to return for the doctorate?
    • APRN organizations are supporting the move to doctoral-level preparation for APRNs in the future.
  • Does my state board of nursing allow clinical hours for distance/online programs?
    • Some state boards of nursing (SBON) have policies that limit clinical hours for distance/online nursing programs. Check your SBON website to confirm.
  • If I choose a distance/online program, will I be able to find clinical preceptors?
    • You will need clinical preceptors in the same role and population for the majority of your clinical experiences.
  • What financial aid is available to me from the nursing school and/or my employer?
    • Contact the school’s financial aid officer and also explore any employer tuition assistance programs.

As you narrow your graduate program choices, consider these four additional items related to requirements of the Consensus Model.

  1. Check the state regulations for APRN licensure where you want to practice. Is there a list of approved programs on the SBON website?
  2. Verify a program’s accreditation. Accreditation status should appear on the school’s website but if not, ask, “What nursing organization accredits this graduate program?” If the program is not accredited, you may not be able to take a certification exam and become licensed as an APRN.
  3. Ask, “What certification exams will I be eligible to take when I graduate? What is the program’s pass rate on those exams?” Remember that the certification exam must match both the education and the APRN license for your practice. AACN Certification Corporation and the American Nurses Credentialing Center provide certification exams for CNPs and CNSs.