Medical team in an operating room

How to Become a Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Medical team in an operating room

The development of anesthesia is easily one of the most important breakthroughs in all of healthcare—it’s right up there with “doctors begin washing their hands” on the Mount Rushmore of medical advances. Preventing patients from experiencing significant pain has enabled major improvements in surgery and other treatments, often for conditions that once had no cure. Thanks to a combination of present-day pharmacology and highly trained specialists like nurse anesthetists, patients can now undergo surgeries without feeling a thing!

If you love the idea of keeping patients comfortable, safe, and pain-free as they undergo all types of medical procedures, becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) could be the nursing career for you. Nurse anesthetists have a great deal of independence and individual responsibility in the workplace, and their salaries reflect that. In fact, CRNAs recently claimed the top spot on our list of the highest-paid nursing jobs in 2021.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a certified nurse anesthetist, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career.

Not sure if becoming a nurse anesthetist is the right nursing specialty for you? Click here to see our full list of the highest paying nursing jobs.

Nurse Anesthetist Definition

What is a Nurse Anesthetist?

Nurse anesthetists are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with specialized training in administering anesthesia. They perform many of the same functions as anesthesiologists. In many states, they are even allowed to operate without the supervision of a physician due to the years of experience and education required of all CRNAs.

Nurse Anesthetist: Job Description

What Does a Nurse Anesthetist Do?

Nurse anesthetists manage just about every aspect of administering anesthesia to patients before and after surgery and other medical procedures. They frequently talk with patients about their medical histories and inform them of any potential side effects, in addition to formulating and carrying out anesthesia plans custom-tailored for each individual. While patients are under anesthesia, nurse anesthetists must also keep close watch over their vital signs and take quick action during rare emergencies or adverse reactions.  Some nurse anesthetists also work with chronic pain patients to help improve their daily functioning and quality of life.

Nurse Anesthetist Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of nurse anesthetists include:

  • Consulting with patients before their medical procedures
  • Developing an anesthesia plan of care for every patient
  • Educating patients on what to expect and any potential side effects
  • Administering local, general, or spinal anesthetics
  • Monitoring patients’ vital signs during anesthesia and managing their condition as necessary
  • Helping patients recover from being under anesthesia

Nurse in scrubs and a mask

Nurse Anesthetist Skills

Being a nurse anesthetist can be demanding, as you’ll need to stay locked in for long periods of time to make sure your patients stay safe during surgery. Attention to detail is also absolutely critical for CRNAs, as making an error when calculating or implementing your patients’ anesthesia plans could have serious consequences. The ability to stay calm under pressure is also important, as unforeseen emergencies can sometimes arise that demand quick thinking and action in potentially life-threatening situations.

Where Do Nurse Anesthetists Work?

Nurse anesthetists are employed anywhere you’ll find anesthesia being administered. You’ll frequently find them working in hospital operating rooms. However, CRNAs also commonly work in OB/GYN wards, outpatient surgery facilities, plastic surgery clinics, and even dentists’ offices or pain management clinics. While becoming a nurse anesthetist requires a very specific set of skills and knowledge, it’s a surprisingly flexible career when it comes to your daily work environment. Nurse anesthetists employed at 24-hour facilities like hospitals may need to work swing or night shifts, while CRNA jobs at outpatient clinics usually follow more standard business hours.

Nurse Anesthetist Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Anesthetist?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Nurse Anesthetist?

Safely administering anesthesia requires years of experience and specialized medical training, as nurse anesthetists perform such a critical role with so little room for error. Like any of the other top nursing jobs, you’ll need to start by earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited college or university. Traditionally, that requires spending a full four years in school, but with an accelerated degree program, you could earn your BSN in as little as 32 months! Nurse anesthetists will also need to complete a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) before they’re eligible to become a CRNA.

Any long-term goal seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps, and becoming a nurse anesthetist is no different.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a nurse anesthetist:

1. Enroll in a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) Program

The first step in your nurse anesthetist education is enrolling in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program from an accredited college or university. Graduating from nursing school will require plenty of hard work, sacrifice, and study time, but it’s a goal that’s achievable for just about anyone who’s willing to put in the effort. For example, to enroll in the BSN program at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, plus a passing score on the ATI-TEAS admission exam.

Laptop draped with a stethoscope

2. Earn Your BSN Degree

Before you can specialize as a nurse anesthetist, you’ll first need to earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Your BSN classes will include general-education requirements like math, literature, statistics, psychology, and communications—courses you’ll find in any bachelor’s degree program. While these classes may not have a direct connection to nursing or medicine, they’ll help you become a better problem-solver under pressure, which is essential for nurse anesthetists who must often act quickly to correct certain complications that can arise when a patient is under anesthesia.

Of course, the main focus of your BSN program will involve learning the various aspects of nursing. Many of your classes will cover assessing and caring for all types of patients and medical conditions. Other classes will teach you about pharmacology and all the different medicines and units of measure used in the medical field, including some of the fundamentals of anesthetic pharmacology. You’ll also cover health care law and ethics and take classes that focus on improving your evidence-based decision-making. These courses are where you’ll build the clinical fundamentals you’ll need to develop safe, effective anesthesia care plans, and where you’ll learn how to handle certain scenarios that may have moral or legal implications.

Alongside your nursing-specific coursework, you’ll also spend time studying related medical sciences like anatomy, microbiology, nutrition, and human development. Nurse anesthetists must have a versatile and nuanced understanding of the human body and its systems, as different methods of anesthesia work in very different ways, each with their own set of considerations and potential complications.

The final step of your BSN education requires completing a clinical capstone program, which will give you real-world experience working with actual patients. While your nursing education will involve plenty of hands-on training and virtual treatment scenarios, there’s no substitute for spending time in an environment where your patients depend on your skills and decision-making for their safety and well-being.

Wherever you choose to pursue your nursing degree, make sure it’s with a college that’s up-to-date on the latest training tools and one that’s committed to supporting their students as they transition from nursing school to a nursing career. Colleges that offer students extra services like job-placement programs can sometimes help you line up your first job as an RN before you’ve even put on your graduation cap!

3. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

Before you can become a nurse anesthetist, you’ll first need to get licensed as a registered nurse, which requires passing the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX is a computer-adaptive test, meaning the number of questions and the amount of time it takes will depend on how many questions you answer correctly. The highest number of questions is typically around 265 over a maximum of six hours—however, the test can also be over in as few as 75 questions if you get in the zone and answer everything correctly! Two optional breaks are scheduled at the 2-hour mark and the 3.5-hour mark. Practice exams are easy to find online and can be pretty helpful for familiarizing yourself with the test format and discovering any subjects you might need to review before test day.

Group of medical professionals in a hallway

4. Gain Experience as a Licensed Registered Nurse

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX, you’ll be eligible to receive a nursing license from the state in which you intend to practice. The NCLEX is nationally recognized, which means you’re able to start your nursing career just about anywhere you’d like. To prepare for your future career as a nurse anesthetist, you’ll want to seek out RN jobs within hospital emergency rooms or intensive-care units, as becoming a CRNA requires at least a year of experience in critical-care nursing.

Nursing license renewal requirements vary by state, but you’ll generally need to renew your license every two to three years. As long as you’ve been actively working as an RN or participating in continuing education programs (like an MSN degree program, for example), you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping your nursing license up to date.

5. Earn a Postsecondary Nursing Degree

Because nurse anesthetists have such a specialized skill set, they must complete a postgraduate nursing degree—almost always a master’s of science in nursing (MSN). Future CRNAs should look for MSN programs recognized by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Education Programs, which will build upon your BSN education as well as your experience working as a critical-care nurse.

You’ll find anesthesia-focused MSN programs at nursing schools across the country, including online programs that allow working full-time as a registered nurse while earning your master’s degree. Typically, earning your MSN degree takes at least two more years in school, though certain accelerated programs may be possible to complete in as little as 18 months.

6. Become a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Upon completing your nurse anesthetist education and amassing the necessary work experience, you’ll be eligible to take a certification exam from the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). You’ll need to complete various continuing education requirements within every four-year window to keep your CRNA certification current, and complete an in-depth assessment exam every eight years. These requirements may seem strict, but they’re essential to ensuring that nurse anesthetists stay on top of the latest advancements in their field—which ultimately means safer patients and safer medical procedures.

Nurse Anesthetist Salary

How Much Do Nurse Anesthetists Make?

Nurse anesthetists are entrusted with their patients’ long-term health every time they come to work, and their salaries reflect that responsibility. According to the BLS, the average annual salary* among all nurse anesthetists is over $189,000, which is equal to about $91 per hour. Nurse anesthetists among the top 10% of earners can expect to earn $223,000 per year or more, meaning CRNAs consistently have the highest salaries among all nursing specialties.

Nurse Anesthetist Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Nurse Anesthetists?

Surgery and other medical procedures have never been safer, which means more procedures than ever are being performed. Combine that with an aging population that’s poised to require more medical care than ever, and nurse anesthetists can expect to have an excellent job outlook for years to come. The BLS estimates the overall number of nurse anesthetists in the workforce will increase 45% by the year 2030. That’s over three times higher than the average 4% job-growth rate for all other careers!

Smiling healthcare professional

Ready to Start Your Career as a Nurse Anesthetist?

If you love the idea of an exciting, sometimes-demanding medical career with lots of autonomy, becoming a nurse anesthetist could be your calling in life. It’s a level of responsibility that’s not for everyone—but for those who thrive under pressure, a career as a CRNA can be incredibly rewarding. Not only will you play a critical role in keeping your patients safe and comfortable, but you’ll also have the opportunity to earn a fantastic living along the way.

Ready to start your journey toward a rewarding career as a nurse anesthetist? Click here to learn more about the BSN program at Brookline College, and take the first steps toward your new career in nursing today!