How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Submitted by Jay Borenstein on Thu, 12/07/2023 - 16:18
A clinical nurse specialist taking the blood pressure of a young patient

If you are looking to transition your current career into nursing but aren’t sure where to begin, this blog is for you. Nursing is a caregiving profession with plenty of room for advancement. 

Many registered nurses (RNs) desire leadership roles with greater autonomy and choose to specialize in a particular practice area or clinical focus. Progression into a role as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) is often a logical next step to attain this goal. 

Read on to learn how to become a clinical nurse specialist with advanced clinical expertise. 


What is a Clinical Nurse Specialist? 

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Those who hold the CNS license are first trained as RNs before continuing their education. Within the realm of advanced practice nursing, there are three other roles in addition to the CNS:

  • Nurse practitioner
  • Nurse midwife
  • Nurse anesthetist

The focus of a CNS is practice-based with influence on clinical outcomes and quality health care delivery in a specialty area of clinical practice. The CNS is seen as a practice leader or expert and therefore the role requires a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing. 


CNS Specialties and Work Areas

One of the most interesting aspects of a nursing career is the potential to work in clinical or non-clinical roles with a variety of workplace and scheduling options. The role of a CNS is diverse and can also be fulfilling in this way. 


Examples of CNS specialties and work areas include:

  • Critical care (hospitals)
  • Psychiatric care and rehabilitation
  • Wound care
  • Disease-specific subspecialties 
  • Academics (colleges and universities)

Adult-gerontology, acute care (adult-gerontology) pediatric, and neonatal specialty certifications for the CNS are also offered by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses Certification Corporation. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers an adult-gerontology clinical nurse specialist certification


CNS Roles and Responsibilities 

Working as a clinical nurse specialist includes advanced roles and responsibilities. State rules and regulations govern the scope of practice for the CNS role. 

A CNS may serve in a consulting role to improve care coordination and interdisciplinary communication for quality improvement. Education in advanced pathophysiology, pharmacology, and physical assessment prepares the CNS for advanced practice in their chosen specialty area. Like other APRN positions, CNS responsibilities include:

  • Diagnose illness
  • Manage disease processes
  • Prescribe medications (in most states)
  • Bill for services 

Reducing health care costs while improving patient safety and improving patient health outcomes are just a few of the meaningful ways the CNS role influences the health care system. 


CNS Career Outlook

The career outlook for the CNS is favorable and just one reason why now is a great time to become a CNS. The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists provides a CNS Census report every two years that shows real-world information on the CNS role. 

In 2020, more than 80% of CNS positions were full-time roles. The majority of those holding a CNS position made between $100,000 and $125,000 annually from the CNS job alone. Approximately 6% of survey respondents made over $150,000 working as a CNS.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for APRNs is expected to grow at a rate of 40% between 2021 and 2031, much faster than average. The median pay for APRNs in 2021 was approximately $123,780 per year. 

Next, let’s look at the specific steps to become a CNS. 


Steps to Become a CNS

Becoming a registered nurse is the first step to a future in advanced practice nursing. The next step to becoming a CNS is the completion of graduate education. To enroll in a CNS program, you will need to be a BSN-prepared, licensed RN. 

With a current bachelor’s degree in any field, you can enroll in an accelerated BSN program and receive the prerequisite education for a CNS program in a little over a year. You may be wondering if an accelerated BSN (ABSN) program is right for you. Some important differences between an ABSN program and a traditional BSN may influence your decision. 

Perhaps the biggest difference is that traditional BSN programs typically last four years whereas an ABSN program is much shorter, often completed in 12 to 16 months. When considering a potential future CNS career, the shortened timeframe of achieving that first step through an ABSN program can be extremely beneficial. Both traditional and ABSN programs focus on evidence-based nursing practice and prepare you for safe, effective nursing practice.


Online ABSN Program Benefits

You can become an licensed RN without the completion of a BSN program, but the BSN is required to move forward into an advanced practice nursing role. It is also the preferred level of education for most employers seeking to hire RNs. 

Traditional BSN programs often include in-person, didactic coursework in addition to the required clinical experiences that are part of both traditional and ABSN programs. Benefits of online education include coursework that can be completed asynchronously, allowing greater flexibility in your studies.


Additional benefits of online ABSN programs include:

  • Immersive curriculum with hands-on experience
  • Professional networking opportunities with local and remote colleagues 
  • Prepares you for the nurse licensure examination (NCLEX)
  • Complimentary clinical placement services

Clinical placement is an essential part of nursing school, and finding a high-quality clinical placement in your local area that will allow you to meet the program objectives is necessary. Online ABSN programs are created with student support and complementary clinical placement services to ensure you can maintain focus on your studies and transition into the clinical environment seamlessly.

Many online programs also include a short, on-campus immersion experience to grow your confidence in foundational clinical skills before your precepted clinical placement experiences. Faculty are knowledgeable and accessible through the online learning platforms to facilitate a sense of community during your program.


Step Into Your Future as a CNS

If you are ready to move forward into your future as a CNS, a bachelor’s degree in any non-nursing subject is the starting place for enrollment in an online ABSN program. 

Take the first step toward becoming a clinical nurse specialist today. To help you find your perfect fit, we’ve compiled a list of high-quality, accredited online ABSN programs. Simply enter your Zip code below to find which program(s) are available in your area.