Clinical Nurse Specialist Archive

Clinical Nurse Specialist

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice nurse who works with a specific patient population. This is a nursing career offering significant responsibility, very attractive salaries, and excellent long-term employment prospects. But before I show you how to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist and what are the respective education requirements, let me first reveal to you what a CNS career entails?


Career Overview

A clinical nurse specialist may focus on a specific demographic (pediatrics, adult, or geriatric) or certain types of diseases (cardiovascular nursing, pediatric nursing, acute care nursing, nephrology nursing, or diabetes). Clinical nurse specialists work in a variety of healthcare settings to include emergency rooms, surgery wards, intensive care units (ICUs) and critical care units (CCUs).

The role of clinical nurse specialist is an excellent career choice for those who wish to be involved in direct patient care as well as participate in systems improvement foster quality of care and enhance patient outcomes. There are five main responsibilities of the clinical nurse specialist: clinical patient care, teaching/training, consulting, management and supervision, and nursing research.

The clinical skills of a CNS are more focused than is the case with general nurse practitioners arising from the fact that the CNS works with a specific patient population or disease. As a result, clinical nurse specialists are able to offer a greater degree of expertise in their area of focus than even senior staff nurses who must divide their attention among patients falling into a variety of several sub-specialties. The responsibilities of clinical nurse specialists include:

  • Work with physicians and other nursing care to ensure the highest quality of patient care. This may involve evaluating current treatment protocols, discussing alternatives, and educating nursing staff on new treatment methods.
  • Fostering teamwork among the clinical care team and training new staff.
  • Deciding how to develop staffing patterns and allocate financial resources within a specific healthcare environment.
  • Examining patients to determine their medical condition and creating treatment plans based on this assessment.
  • Clinical nurse specialists assume the role of case manager so they may coordinate and organize all aspects of patient care.
  • Engaging in patient and family education to discuss disease management strategies and develop coping skills.
  • Tracking patient progress and recording findings.
  • Facilitating or collaborating on new research in their specialty practice area.
  • Training of nursing staff, non-nursing members of the treatment team, community education, and teaching in undergraduate and graduate nursing programs.

Career Outlook

Employment prospects for nurses in all areas are excellent. As per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the anticipated growth rate for nurses in general is 23 percent through the year 2018 which represents a much faster rate than is the case for most other occupations. The outlook is especially bright for those nurses with advanced training able to take on leadership roles and manage complex healthcare systems.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Education Requirements

Clinical nurse specialist education prepares nurses with advanced knowledge and skills in their area of focus, enabling them to assume positions of leaderships and teaching within a variety of heath care environments. Clinical nurse specialists must hold a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree in the area they wish to focus.

With so many areas from which to choose, a clinical nurse specialist is sure to find a specialization that matches his or her interests. Many nursing schools offer training in traditional classroom settings as well as through distance learning programs.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Course Prerequisites

The prerequisite classes you will need to take depend on whether you are entering the master’s program with a bachelor of nursing BSN) degree, an associate in nursing degree (ASN), or with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing area. Entrance requirements for those with a BSN include:

  • A BSN degree obtained from a state-approved nursing school.
  • A current, unrestricted nursing license in the state you wish to practice.
  • Satisfactory scores on the Graduate record Examination (GRE)
  • Satisfactory completion of at least one statistics course (typically a B grade)
  • Letters of recommendation from professors or work supervisors.
  • A personal statement outlining your reasons for wanting to become a clinical nurse specialist.

Many clinical nurse graduate programs offer a RN-to-MSN bridge program for those nurses holding an associate degree and/or “accelerated programs for students with a bachelor’s degree in non-nursing areas. Entry requirements differ from those entering with a BSN degree.

Most commonly, if you enter a master’s program as an RN you won’t need to have the BSN degree or take the GRE.  If you enter the master’s program with a bachelor’s in another degree area, you won’t need to have a nursing license but you may need to satisfy certain prerequisite courses before you may begin graduate study (e.g. anatomy and physiology, microbiology, microbiology, chemistry, psychology, etc.)

Clinical Nurse Specialist Curriculum

Most clinical nurse specialist programs include most, or all, of the following core courses:

  • Theory and practice of nursing
  • Health evaluation
  • Health care systems management
  • Medical ethics (e.g. patient confidentiality)
  • Clinical Pharmacology
  • Anatomy and Physiology/Pathophysiology
  • Research and statistical methods
  • 500 hours of on-site clinical training (even if enrolled in online programs you will still need to complete the clinical component on-site at a local healthcare facility.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Practice Areas

As the word ‘”specialist” in the job title implies, CNS students must choose one area in which to focus their graduate study.  Most your graduate coursework will then be targeted toward this specialty. Options for specializations include:

  • Acute Care Nursing
  • Adult Nursing
  • Cancer (Oncology) Nursing
  • Cardiovascular Nursing
  • Geriatric Nursing (caring for the elderly)
  • Home Health Nursing
  • Neonatal Nursing (caring for premature babies and infants)
  • Occupational Health Nursing
  • Public Health Nursing
  • Psychiatric Nursing
  • Rehabilitation Nursing
  • Reproductive and women’s health
  • School Health Nursing

Time frame for program completion

Most full time master’s degree programs can be completed within 18 months though program length does vary between schools. Those in accelerated programs may also complete the program in this time frame provided they have met course prerequisites. Students attending on a part time basis can expect to complete the master’s program in about three years, although it is permissible to attend for longer periods if you are balancing other responsibilities in addition to study. However, most master’s programs will place a time limit of five or six years to complete all requirements for the degree.

Accreditation of Clinical Nurse Specialist Schools

It is in your best interests to attend a school that has obtained national accreditation as this will allow you to qualify for federal financial aid and provide an advantage when seeking employment.  There are two national organizations that accredit nursing education programs. The National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) accredits diploma, associate’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredits bachelor’s and master’s level study only.  

Median Clinical Nurse Specialist salary ranges in select regional areas.

Los Angeles, CA $96,359
Boulder, CO $90,216
Boca Raton, FL $86,267
Atlanta, GA $87,935
New York, NY $104,170
Dallas, TX $87,496

Figures are from salary.com