How to Choose a PMHNP Program
October 24, 2022
Choosing a PMHNP program can be difficult. Much depends on your previous education and experience, not to mention cost and location. Luckily, there are many degree paths worth pursuing.
If you want to help alleviate the nation's current mental health crisis and earn a good living but don't want to attend medical school, consider a career as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). These advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) can conduct mental health assessments and treat patients struggling with mental illnesses through a combination of psychotherapy and medication in much the same way psychiatrists do. As nurse leaders, PMHNPs may also manage other clinicians.
PMHNPs work in inpatient and outpatient settings that include hospitals, substance abuse clinics, schools, correctional facilities, and private practices (including their own). In a country where over 150 million people lack access to mental health care, PMHNPs offer much-needed care.
For their efforts, these professionals are typically well-compensated. Nurse practitioners (NP) earn over $100,000 per year on average, with specialized professionals earning more. According to Indeed, the average PMHNP earns over $140,000 per year. Location impacts income; rural areas typically pay less than major metropolitan areas, for example.
Before they start helping patients and making money, PMHNPs complete rigorous education and training. This article offers guidance on how to choose a PMHNP program. It covers:
- Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner education requirements
- How to choose a PMHNP program
- Which PMHNP program is right for me?
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner education requirements
Traditionally, PMHNP program applicants are registered nurses (RNs). You can qualify for registered nursing by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). You can also complete a hospital-based program, Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or direct-entry Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.
Students can complete their BSNs through a traditional four-year degree program or as an accelerated program (for those who have already earned a bachelor's degree in a different subject). Individual hospitals that offer educational programs usually prioratize clinical experience. It's also possible to earn a BSN in a hospital-based program. Direct-entry MSN programs help those with a bachelor's degree in another field. Associate degrees take less time to complete but are not as widely accepted by employers; additionally, ADN students must complete substantial additional coursework before they can pursue an MSN.
Whichever undergraduate pathway you pursue, you'll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) as well as state-specific licensure requirements to earn your registered nursing license.
An RN's undergraduate pathway matters during the graduate admissions process. BSN-holders can typically jump straight into a master's degree program. This pathway usually takes two years of full-time study to complete (often longer for part-time students).
Professionals with an ADN may earn their BSN and master's degree simultaneously through an RN-to-MSN program. Direct-entry MSNs offer a similar opportunity for those with non-nursing bachelor's degrees.
Though most PMHNPs have an MSN degree, some choose a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). These nursing degrees typically take longer to complete and cover more advanced coursework than MSN programs. There's a push within the field to make all NPs earn a doctoral degree. However, as of this article being published, no official change has occurred, nor does one appear imminent. For now, both degrees lead to many similarly excellent positions.
After finishing your education you'll sit for the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC) exam from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Those who pass can pursue state licensure.
How to choose a PMHNP program
When choosing a PMHNP program, you'll need to consider several factors. Is a traditional or online program better? How much should you spend? How rigorous is the curriculum? Many of these choices come down to personal preference. One thing not up for debate is your chosen program's accreditation status. If you do not complete a Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredited nursing program, you may not be eligible to earn your credential.
This section offers guidance on selecting an MSN-PMHNP program.
Traditional or online?
Online programs have become more popular in recent years. According to the most recent American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA) workforce survey, a quarter of all APRNs in their twenties completed their didactic courses online. Top schools, such as Yale University, have dedicated resources to establish viable distance learning programs. Yale's will launch in the summer of 2023.
Coursework typically doesn't differ between online and in-person psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner programs at schools that offer both options. Clinical hour requirements remain nearly the same; clinical placements in online programs occur near the student's home rather than near the school campus.
The choice between traditional and distance education often comes down to personal preference. Online learning may be best if you are a self-starter with a busy work or family life who wants to save travel time. It's worth noting that working nurses have succeeded in both traditional and distance learning environments.
PMHNP programs divide credit hours between core nurse practitioner (NP) and specialization-specific coursework. All graduate nursing students can expect to complete classes in areas like health assessment, pharmacology, patient-centered care, and pathophysiology.
Psychiatry is just one possible NP specialization pathway. Other options include adult gerontology, neonatal nursing, pediatric nursing, women's health, emergency care, and primary care. Each pathway has unique subject requirements. Psychiatry-specific coursework covers topics that include working with families, advanced pathophysiology, health promotion, psychopharmacology, and therapy modalities.
Clinical placement opportunities
The ANCC requires at least 500 hours of clinical practice in a psychiatric setting. Many programs require students to find a clinical preceptor, but not always. Check the type of clinical placement opportunities your school offers before applying or committing to attend.
All accredited programs can lead to nursing jobs, but individual employers may prefer applicants from top schools, especially for leadership positions. US News & World Report has listed schools with top NP programs. They include:
- Duke University
- University of California - San Francisco
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Vanderbilt University
- And Yale University
Those who don't live in an area with a "top-ranked" program may want to research the best programs in their state.
Cost and convenience
Cost and convenience are two significant factors, especially if your current employer helps pay your tuition. Sponsoring employers may require students to complete a less expensive program with closer proximity (to accommodate work).
Cost and convenience are also critical factors for anyone paying their own tuition, of course. You may find that the quality difference between options in your area is negligible, even when the top school is often much more expensive and further away than the second-best school. In this instance, the cheaper and closer option may be the better choice.
Can you get in?
Admission to most MSN programs is quite competitive. Schools do not limit the number of times you can apply but they may only offer one application cycle per year. Like other graduate schools, nursing programs typically have an extensive admissions checklist. Standard application requirements include letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and undergraduate transcripts (along with transcripts from any previous graduate programs).
Top schools usually have the strictest admissions requirements. Many require two or more years of professional experience and an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0. It's possible to make up for deficiencies in one area of an application with strong performance in another.
Which PMHNP program is right for me?
Ultimately, choosing the right program is a personal choice. Ask yourself questions about cost, distance, curriculum, specialty area, ranking, and career goals. Attending a top school may help you earn a leadership position, but it's not a guarantee. Graduates from all kinds of programs can have fulfilling and high-paying careers.
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