How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

    July 22, 2021
    Nurse looking at patient notes

    Updated 7/22/2021

    A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is a type of Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) that's completed a graduate-level education and clinical training. Like nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists specialize in specific patient populations; however, unlike NPs, they focus more on educating nurses and improving patient outcomes.

    Earning the credentials to become a clinical nurse specialist is a fantastic career move when you consider the projected employment opportunities and the potential salary.

    You'll also provide a higher level of patient care and perhaps take on a supervisory role within a healthcare team. More and more, these nurses are playing an important part in an increasingly complex healthcare system. Find out what a Clinical Nurse Specialist does, how much they make, and how to become one and more in this guide!

    Part One What is a Clinical Nurse Specialist? 

    Clinical Nurse Specialists are advanced practice registered nurses who've obtained advanced degrees (a master's degree at minimum) and training in a specialized area of nursing practice. They can work in a variety of health care settings and work in highly specialized areas such as by population, setting, disease, type of care, or type of problem.

    According to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS), an estimated 69,017 RNs have the education and credentials to practice as a Clinical Nurse Specialist. And the majority of CNSs (71%) focus their practice in adult or gerontology care.

    Regardless of the specialty area, all clinical nurse specialists are experts at diagnosing and treating illnesses, and help guide their nursing staff in their practice.  

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    Part Two What Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do? 

    Clinical nurse specialists’ jobs vary by specialty and the type of facility in which one works. However, it’s fair to say that most CNSs split their day between caring for patients and working behind the scenes with other nurses and staff members.

    In fact, according to an NACNS survey, CNSs said they spent 25 percent of their day providing direct patient care, 20 percent consulting with nurses, 19 percent teaching nurses, and 14 percent leading evidence-based practice projects.

    In other words, CNSs wear several hats and are valued members of healthcare teams.

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    Part Three CNS Salary: How Much do Clinical Nurse Specialists Make?  

    The median salary for Clinical Nurse Specialists is $106,407, as of July 2021, according to ZipRecruiter. Clinical Nurse Specialists’ earnings can vary depending on the specialized unit and employer.

    Some Clinical Nurse Specialists may be highly sought after by hospitals and medical facilities that have a specific role to fill, and therefore, salaries might be more competitive.

    In fact, some institutions might even hire highly specialized travel nurses to meet their demand, offering Clinical Nurse Specialists an additional option. 

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    Part Four What is the Career Outlook for a CNS? 

    In general, the nursing profession will offer job security for many years to come as the population continues to age. There is also a nursing shortage expected since so many current nurses will be entering retirement age in the next few years. 

    Demand for Clinical Nurse Specialists

    What’s more, for those with advanced nursing skills, like Clinical Nurse Specialists, job openings are expected to increase even more. APRN jobs, which include Clinical Nurse Specialists, are expected to increase by 45 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Part Five How Do You Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist?  

    CNS Requirements

    Becoming an Advanced Practice Nurse happens after gaining experience as a Registered Nurse. To become an RN, you have to graduate from a program of study that is approved by your State Nursing Board, either a Bachelor’s degree or an Associates's degree program. Upon completion, you have to pass the NCLEX-RN. 

    CNS Education

    It’s necessary to go back to school to earn at least Master’s of Science in Nursing degree, focused on a clinical nurse specialist track. However, one in 10 CNSs also chooses to complete their doctorate degree, according to NACNS.

    CNS Certifications

    There are a number of CNS certifications you can pursue, depending on the field you want to work in. Each of them is administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. CNS certifications include Adult Health CNS, Pediatric CNS, Public Health CNS, and more. Certifications usually need to be renewed every few years. 

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    Part Six Where Can I Learn More About Clinical Nurse Specialists Jobs? 

    To learn more about what it takes to excel as a CNS, start with the professional organization that is dedicated to the subspecialty:

    National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists – NACNS is a professional organization that aims to advance the unique expertise and value the clinical nurse specialist contributes to health care.

    Part Seven Where Are the Highest Paying CNS Jobs?

    High-paying nursing opportunities abound. As an RN or NP, you are in control of your career. Check out the best jobs from coast to coast on our job board. Get the pay and career path you deserve. Click here to see today’s best nursing opportunities.

    Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist is a lot of work, but with that title comes a rewarding and lucrative career. If your goal is to take your RN career to the next level, look into becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist.

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    Part Eight Clinical Nurse Specialist FAQs

    • What is the role of a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

      • CNSs wear a number of hats but the majority of their time is spent either caring for patients or working behind the scenes with other nurses and staff members.
    • Are Clinical Nurse Specialists in demand?

      • Yes! Clinical Nurse Specialists are a type of APRN. APRN jobs are expected to increase by 26% from 2018 to 2028.
    • How many years does it take to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

      • It takes approximately 4 years to earn a BSN, then another 2-3 years for an MSN. Though many nurses take time in between degrees to earn experience. 
    • How much money does a Clinical Nurse Specialist make?

      • The median salary for Clinical Nurse Specialists is $106,407
    • What's the difference between a Registered Nurse and Clinical Nurse Specialist?

      • A Clinical Nurse Specialist is a type of Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, meaning they are Registered Nurses that have completed additional education (a minimum of a Master's degree) and training. 

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