What is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

Everyone is familiar with registered nurses (RNs) and the important role they play in the healthcare industry, but many are unfamiliar with clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) despite the fact that clinical nurse specialists have been around for more than 60 years. Clinical nurse specialists are RNs who have been highly trained to work in many capacities within the healthcare industry. Anyone interested in learning more about CNSs, including how to become one, career outlook and what the job entails, will get all the information they need here.

What is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

A clinical nurse specialist is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) with advanced education and training in one or more specialized areas of nursing. In addition to having a license to work as an RN, they also have a graduate degree in nursing and certifications in specialized nursing areas. They may work in clinics, hospitals or as independent healthcare providers in areas in need or medical professionals. CNSs can also be found working in emergency rooms or critical care units.

Clinical nurse specialists often specialize in certain areas of nursing or in certain populations. Their ability to diagnose, treat and provide ongoing medical care to patients make them a valuable commodity to doctors. CNSs may assist doctors in seeing patients or may see them in the capacity of a doctor. CNSs are required to work under the supervision of doctors in some states while other states allow them to work on their own according to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists.

How to Become One

To become a clinical nurse specialist requires extensive education, training and work experience. The most common path towards becoming a CNS include:

  • Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing
  • Pass NCLEX-RN to obtain a nursing license
  • Gain clinical experience for 1 to 2 years
  • Earn a Master of Science in Nursing
  • Obtain board certification and licensure as a CNS
  • Earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice

Aspiring CNSs usually choose their areas of specialization while earning the master’s degree. The candidate has the opportunity to demonstrate his or her knowledge and skill as a CNS while earning the DNP.


Most of the states require CNSs to obtain certification in their specialized nursing areas. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and the American Nurses Credentialing Center both offer certification to aspiring CNSs. In some areas, the CNS must obtain certification based on population. Pediatrics, neonatal and adult/gerontology are three areas that fall into this category. To be eligible for certification, the clinical nurse specialist must have a nursing degree and must have completed at least 500 supervised hours of clinical work and relevant training experience.

Related Resource: 10 Great Deals: MSN Degree Programs Online

Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that RNs should see job growth of 15 percent during the 2016-2026 decade, which bodes very well for CNSs because of their additional training and credentials. Clinical nurse specialists earned annual wages ranging from $93,502 to $113,280 according to a December 2018 report by Salary.com.

With the demand for nursing professionals, such as registered nurses and clinical nurse specialists so high, many individuals find this a very attractive career choice. Working as a clinical nurse specialist can bring good wages, rewarding work and a field that offers excellent job growth.