‘Become A Lifelong Learner’: Career Paths For Aspiring Family Nurse Practitioners

“We never stop learning how to better treat our patients and help our community,” says Cynthia Sanchez DNP, FNP-C, a clinical assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

An advanced nursing degree can open up a variety of career opportunities in the health care industry, especially for those who enroll in a family nurse practitioner (FNP) program. 

As an FNP student, you will be trained to address patient care across the lifespan — from infants and children to adults — in a diverse group of environments and specialties. Once you obtain your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), a whole host of workplace options emerge. 

Looking to find out how an MSN can elevate your nursing career? We spoke to professors at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Department of Nursing about the possibilities ahead for aspiring family nurse practitioners.

What to Expect in an MSN Program

First off, there are prerequisites to apply for an MSN. At the School of Social Work, for example, prospective students need to be a U.S.-licensed registered nurse (RN) with one year of clinical experience under their belts to be considered for the online MSN program

Once those and all other requirements are checked off the list, it’s on to the next question: What does the coursework entail? 

“You start off with the three Ps: physiology, physical assessment and pharmacology,” said Janett A. Hildebrand, PhD, FNP-BC, CDE, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work. “They’re the basics all students come in learning. You have to understand the disease process, what to examine and how to treat, in a nutshell.”

Students also receive clinical, hands-on experience while focusing on all types of patient care. 

“You learn how to diagnose across the lifespan: adult patients, childbearing and childrearing patients, pediatrics, geriatric patients, so students can see what it actually looks like to diagnose and treat these patients across the lifespan,” explained Michelle P. Zappas, DNP, FNP-BC, a clinical associate professor and interim clinical placement director at the School of Social Work. 

It’s not just about learning how to treat patients, however. Prospective students can expect a broad range of classes that focus on policy, history, research and social work so they can “learn how social determinants affect the health of communities, and to move into the role of nurse leaders,” said Cynthia Sanchez DNP, FNP-C, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work.

Once the diplomas are in hand, graduates have a wealth of options to consider when it comes to their nursing careers.

“The MSN FNP program sets students up to take care of the patient across the lifespan, from the womb to the tomb is what they say,” Zappas echoed. “You can do primary outpatient care, immunizations, health promotion, disease prevention and disease management. You’ll know how to treat everything from a respiratory infection to a urinary tract infection to complex disease management.”

And that’s not all: “There is also the opportunity to work in aesthetic clinics, providing Botox and laser work and such, and generally providing access to under or lower-resourced community clinics,” she listed off.

A Wealth of FNP Jobs

Sanchez — who started off as a RN in internal medicine, worked as an assistant nurse manager on the AIDS floor in the early ‘90s and later as a public health nurse — became a nurse practitioner in 2000 and has since worked in a gynecology clinic. 

Hildebrand, meanwhile, spent years working for a family planning mobile van program, bringing care to migrant farm workers. More recently, she has been working at a community clinic that primarily serves low-income, Latino patients. She also obtained her PHd in order to teach at a university level.

Hildebrand emphasized that rural communities are especially in need of nurses and that it can be an exceptionally rewarding experience to serve places that do not have access to quality medical care.

“One of my students in central California, he drives 50 miles to get to the clinic because the clinics are that far apart,” she said. 

Of course, Hildebrand noted there are job opportunities all over the country: in big cities and suburban towns alike. You can work in health departments, at elementary schools or at a variety of clinics, including child health, STI/HIV, family planning, refugee health and more. 

Hildebrand also pointed out a rather new kind of program that family nurse practitioners could consider: an outpatient medication-assisted treatment program commonly referred to as MAT. A multidisciplinary program designed to treat those who are impacted by drug use, MAT helps patients sustain recovery and prevent overdose with ongoing care and medications, and it is an excellent option for those with a family nurse practitioner MSN.

“Be open to becoming a lifelong learner. We never stop learning how to better treat our patients and help our community.”

Naturally, another option for those who enjoy passing along knowledge as much as they love learning is to eventually start teaching nursing themselves, as Hildebrand, Sanchez and Zappas have.

So, is getting a family nurse practitioner MSN the right move for an RN? 

“I just want to tell [prospective students] to go for it. A lot of times, students will say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I would do with it,’ or ‘I don’t want to leave this comfort zone.’ But if they have an inquisitive mind, if they’re wondering, ‘Why does this happen?’ for example, then go out and find out,” Hildebrand said.

Zappas recommended those interested in the program to seek out a mentor to guide them through the process. 

“It can be overwhelming without a mentor to help you get through those hard, difficult times,” she advised. 

She also added that students should keep an open mind: “For the most part, we are generalists by trade, so we have to know a little bit about a lot of things. Keep an open mind and see what interests you so you can determine if you want to remain in a general setting, or if you really tend to like pediatrics, or geriatrics, or dermatology, or cardiac health. They can really specialize in those fields in an outpatient setting.”

Sanchez summed up her advice for future FNPs succinctly: “Be open to becoming a lifelong learner. We never stop learning how to better treat our patients and help our community,” she concluded.

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Nursing program today.