Nurse Practitioner vs. Registered Nurse: What’s the difference?

Written by Kate Lopaze

You’ve probably heard that nursing jobs are hot right now. And it’s true. But even within the general nursing world there are tons of specialties, so it’s important to know who does what before you commit to the career path. There are emergency nurses, pediatric nurses, travel nurses, nursing assistants, etc. You name the health care specialty, there’s probably a specific type of nurse attached.

But what about nursing jobs that aren’t as clear? If you’re not yet super-familiar with different kinds of nurses, you may hear “registered nurse” and “nurse practitioner” and think that the terms are interchangeable. After all, both types of nurses work with patients to monitor their health and provide direct medical care. Let’s walk through how to tell the difference between these two important nursing careers.

Prescribing medicine

Nurse practitioners have greater flexibility when it comes to prescribing medicine and performing duties normally handled by physicians. Licensed nurse practitioners are legally able to prescribe medications and have greater flexibility in diagnosing and treating illnesses. Registered nurses cannot prescribe medications and often work under the direction of a physician when it comes to determining patient care and follow-up.

Work environment

Nurse practitioners often work in more private practice-style settings like community clinics, government agencies, nonprofits, or educational settings. A nurse practitioner may take on more of a physician-style in a clinical setting. Registered nurses typically work in hospitals or surgical clinics. Because of the nature of private clinics vs. the realities of working in a hospital, nurse practitioners often have more standard hours, while registered nurses work a greater variety of shifts.

Level of education

Registered nurses usually need a bachelor’s degree in nursing to get started in the field, but nurse practitioners typically hold a master’s degree or higher. This makes nurse practitioner a logical next step for nurses who’ve been in the field for a while and want to take on more of an independent leadership role. But it can also mean additional investment of time and resources in an additional degree, so it’s important to consider whether becoming a nurse practitioner is truly what you want to do.


Because of the additional education and training for nurse practitioners, salaries tend to be higher for nurse practitioners than registered nurses on average. Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses make a median annual salary of $68,450 per year, while nurse practitioners take home a median annual salary of $100,910.

If you’re thinking about a career in nursing, both nurse practitioner and registered nurse have the potential to be great, fulfilling career options. And if you’re not sure yet which one would better suit your career goals, we have a quiz for you to help figure out your next steps. Good luck!

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.