Nurse with stethoscope

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

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

Nurse with stethoscope

This career guide offers a deeper look into one of the highest-paid nursing jobs in the United States, the Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS).

(Click here to see our complete list of highest paying nursing jobs).

Clinical Nurse Specialists hold advanced clinical skills in a niche area of healthcare, and their job is to diagnose and treat several specific health conditions. By specializing in one particular illness or disease, Clinical Nurses can achieve expertise for that ailment.

The path of a CNS can be incredibly rewarding for aspiring nurses. Continue reading our comprehensive career guide to learn more about the requirements, responsibilities, training, and average salaries of Clinical Nurse Specialists.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Definition

What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

The role of a Clinical Nurse Specialist can be defined as a graduate-level Registered Nurse (RN) who is certified in a niche specialty or healthcare concentration.

This niche certification demonstrates their advanced knowledge and clinical skills in their chosen field of expertise. A Clinical Nurse’s career path typically leads to a job working in a specialized unit of a hospital or other clinical setting.

It’s important to remember that there are differences between a CNS and a Nurse Practitioner (NP). Even though both are Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), they fill different roles on the healthcare team.

See one of our previous installments to learn more about General Nurse Practitioners.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Requirements

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

As with many nursing specialties, the educational path to becoming a CNS may vary.

All roads, however, must lead to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree. A master’s degree is required to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist.

Albeit not a requirement, some Clinical Nurses also hold a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Job Requirements

As Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), all Clinical Nurse Specialists must meet the following requirements:

  1. A master’s degree from an accredited program
  2. A Registered Nursing (RN) license in their state of employment
  3. National certification in their chosen CNS specialty
  4. State APRN licensing

Traits for Success

Becoming a Clinical Nurse may be a great career fit for you if…

  • You value evidence-based medical science
  • You are interested in education and research
  • You enjoy working as part of a team
  • You have great interpersonal and leadership skills
  • You can be flexible in most situations
  • You are willing to facilitate and accept change

Clinical Nurse Specialist Duties & Responsibilities

What Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do?

The duties of a Clinical Nurse Specialist can vary from state to state. However, they typically include the following responsibilities:

  • Ordering medical exams for patients
  • Examining patients and diagnosing illnesses
  • Providing clinical expertise in various clinical areas
  • Treating diseases unique to their specialty
  • Conducting research in their area of expertise
  • Supporting and contributing to policies, procedures, and standards of care using evidence-based research
  • Collaborating with an interdisciplinary healthcare team to create, review, and revise treatment plans
  • Managing, educating, and mentoring nurses and other staff

Where Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Work?

While Clinical Nurse Specialists usually work in direct patient care, some may pursue administrative, consulting, research, or supervisory positions.

Clinical Nurses can work in several different environments, including the following healthcare settings:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient settings (i.e., clinics)
  • Physician offices
  • Student health centers
  • Community health centers
  • Home health agencies
  • Mental health facilities

Clinical Nurses can also choose to work in a variety of healthcare specialties, including the following focus areas:

  • Pediatrics
  • Adult health
  • Neonatal
  • Women’s health
  • Geriatrics
  • Psychiatry
  • Public health
  • Rehabilitation

They can also focus their research and expertise in various diseases or subspecialties, including the following:

  • Diabetes
  • Oncology
  • Infectious disease
  • Orthopedics
  • Neurology

Clinical Nurse Specialist Hours

Most Clinical Nurse Specialists work regular business hours. At times, however, they may be required to work the occasional weekend, evening, or holiday shift. Those who work in hospitals may need to work alternate shifts as well.

The Clinical Nurse Specialist Uniform

The work uniform of a Clinical Nurse largely depends on their workplace environment.

In hospitals, for instance, Clinical Nurses may be required to wear professional attire and lab coats while on duty. When providing direct patient care, however, they will typically wear scrubs instead.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Education

What Training Is Required to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

To become a Clinical Nurse Specialist, you must earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree and have an RN license.

Some Clinical Nurses may choose to further their formal education by enrolling in a doctoral nursing program (DNP), but that option is often reserved for those who wish to focus more on research or teaching.

For aspiring Clinical Nurses who have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree but would like to earn the MSN, some schools offer a Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN), allowing them direct entry into a Master’s program.

Steps to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Step 1: Earn an associate or BSN degree in nursing.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN certification exam to become a licensed Registered Nurse (RN).

Step 3: Earn your graduate degree in nursing.

Step 4: Pass a national certification exam and choose a patient population focus of choice.

Step 5: Obtain your state’s advanced practice nursing license.

Step 6: Maintain national CNS certification and state licensure.


Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

Female graduate

To understand the core curriculum of a Clinical Nursing program, you should look at courses that fall under the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, as this is the requisite education you must receive to become a CNS.

An MSN degree builds on theories and skills learned during your undergraduate studies, so applicants are typically required to fulfill some prerequisite requirements.

To be accepted into an MSN program, candidates are typically required to submit several standard application materials, such as academic transcripts, GRE scores, personal essays, and letters of recommendation.

Some schools may offer a Clinical Nursing track in adult health, adult gerontology, acute care, pediatrics, psychiatric/mental health, women’s health, or community health.

General advanced-practice courses can include the following topics:

  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced health assessment
  • Pharmacology for advanced practice nurses

The core curriculum for a Clinical Nursing track will typically feature the following subjects:

  • Theory and ethics
  • Application of research to practice
  • Context of health care for advanced-practice nursing
  • Statistics in nursing research

Clinical Nursing School Cost

As previously mentioned, you must earn a master’s degree to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist.

Tuition costs for MSN programs are usually listed on a per-credit-hour basis, ranging anywhere from $500 to $1,000 (or more) per credit.

The following considerations should be taken into account before you enroll in an MSN program:

  • Tuition costs do not always include expenses like books, program fees, or other mandatory fees
  • Most schools offer some form of financial aid
  • While you will likely accumulate student debt, the average Clinical Nurse Specialist earns an average salary of $106,218 per year (

Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification

Upon earning your MSN degree, you can seek certification in your desired nursing specialty.

Many CNS certification exams are patient-focused and may include the following patient groups:

  • Adult health
  • Adult-gerontology
  • Adult psychiatric-mental health
  • Child/adolescent psychiatric mental health
  • Pediatrics

The basic requirements for Clinical Nurse Specialist certification include the following:

  1. Current RN license
  2. MSN, Postgraduate, or Doctoral degree
  3. The graduate program must include three separate courses:
    • Advanced physical/health assessment
    • Advanced pharmacology
    • Advanced pathophysiology
  1. A minimum of 500 supervised clinical hours in the CNS role

There may also be additional requirements based on your chosen specialty.

Most certifications require you to pass an exam, and many of them can remain valid for five years. To learn more about CNS certification, you should check the requirements outlined by your state board of Registered Nursing.

For more information on CNS certification, please contact The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Association of Critical Care Nurses Certification Corporation.

You can also find other helpful organizations and societies below:

How Long Does It Take to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

Depending on your level of education and prior nursing experience, the time it takes to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist can range anywhere from four to seven years.

For example, your BSN degree could take about three to four years to complete; however, current RNs who don’t hold a bachelor’s degree can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program, which can take as little as 12 months to complete.

The time it takes to earn your master’s degree from an accredited program also depends on your starting point. If you already have your bachelor’s degree (be it a nursing or a non-nursing concentration), you can earn your Master of Science in Nursing degree in about two years.

In most states, you must also obtain certification based on a population area (i.e., patient group). For example, certification examinations based on population may include adult/gerontology, pediatrics, and neonatal.

Clinical Nurse Specialist’s Salary

How Much Does a Nurse Specialist Make?

The average salary of a Clinical Nurse Specialist is $106,218 per year (or $51.07 per hour). –

Clinical Nurse Specialists in the lowest 10% percentile can earn up to $86,000 per year, while the average pay for Clinical Nurses in the 90th percentile can reach up to $125,000 or more.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Job Outlook

Clinical Nursing Jobs in the Years Ahead

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide specific job projections for Clinical Nurse Specialists, they do predict the overall growth for both Registered Nurses and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses.

According to the BLS, the employment of APRNs is expected to increase by 26 percent by 2028, and the employment of RNs is projected to increase by 12 percent by 2028.

The BLS has identified various factors for this projected increase, including an increased emphasis on preventive care. In addition, some states are changing their laws regarding APRN practice authority. This will allow certain APRNs to perform more services and act as a source of primary healthcare.

Why Pursue a Career as a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Healthcare team

As with the other specializations in our list of top nursing careers, Clinical Nurse Specialists fill a unique role in healthcare. They are leaders in the field of nursing and act as mentors, educators, and advocates.

Clinical Nurses provide a critical service in their area of medical expertise, and they continually research and implement higher standards of care in order to achieve the best outcomes for their patients.

If you’re an aspiring nurse but don’t know where to begin, you can start by earning your BSN degree or enrolling in one of several nursing programs at Unitek College.

You have the power to make a positive difference in our healthcare system. Don’t let anything get in the way of your dreams.