Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

A clinical nurse specialist is one of the four major advanced practice roles for nurses. Although requirements for becoming a clinical nurse specialist vary by state, they are generally registered nurses who hold both a master’s degree in nursing and certification as a clinical nurse specialist from an approved national certifying body, such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).

Each national certifying body has its own requirements, which generally include a master’s degree, a certain level of experience and a certification examination. Individuals should check with their state boards of nursing to determine which certifications are accepted.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Role

Clinical nurse specialists are responsible for applying expert knowledge and experience to a specific patient population, such as adult acute and critical care, in a clinical setting. In contrast with nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists often function as educators and consultants to the nursing staff and as experts on ensuring evidence-based practice and quality patient outcomes. The AACN has designated the following as core competencies for clinical nurse specialists: direct care, consultation, system leadership, collaboration, coaching of staff, research, and interpretation of evidence.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Scope of Practice

Clinical nurse specialists work within a specialty area defined by various parameters. They may work with a specific population such as adults or children, a specific setting such as the emergency room, or a certain health specialty such as pain, cardiovascular, oncology and gynecology. Their expertise within their specialty area allows them to be good consultants and coaches to other staff members.

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

There are many steps to becoming a clinical nurse specialist. Prior education, certification and clinical practice are among the requirements for being accepted into a relevant graduate program, like an online MSN program. Here is a step-by-step path you can take to become a clinical nurse specialist.

  1. Become a registered nurse. In order to apply to a clinical nurse specialist program, you must have completed a degree in registered nursing and be certified as a registered nurse in a U.S. state or territory.
  2. Apply to programs accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. These programs must be master’s, postgraduate or doctoral programs.
  3. Complete 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours related to the clinical nurse specialist role and population, according to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists – Criteria for CNS Programs.
  4. Apply to take the exam relevant to your specialty administered by the ANCC to earn your CNS certification. The exam tests clinical knowledge and skills.
  5. Apply for state CNS certification in the state where you wish to practice.
  6. Once you have earned your clinical nurse specialist certification, it must be renewed every five years. In addition to renewing certification through the board, renewal through the state is also required and may require additional fulfillment of continuing education contact hours.

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Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

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1 U.S. News & World Report, 2022 Best Nursing Schools: Master’s. Ranked in 2021.

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Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Certifications

Types of Certification: ANCC – Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (AGCNS-BC)

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Active RN license
  • Master’s degree or higher from a clinical nurse specialist program
  • At least 500 clinical hours in adult-gerontology clinical nurse specialist role
  • Separate coursework in advanced physiology/ pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology
  • Other coursework in health promotion and/or maintenance and differential diagnosis and disease management

Fees:

  • American Nurses Association Member: $295
  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners Member: $340
  • Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association: $340
  • National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists: $340
  • Non-Member: $395

Renewal:
Certifications must be renewed every five years. Renewal applications are due at least three months before your certification expiration date. A total of 75 contact hours are required for renewal, of which 25 must be in pharmacotherapeutics.

Information for the ANCC – Adult-Gerontology CNS certification was retrieved as of December 2019. For the most up-to-date information, refer to the ANCC website above.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

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Earn a Master of Science in Nursing online from Simmons University.

  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 23 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

Earn an M.S. in Nursing online at the Wegmans School of Nursing

  • The Wegmans School of Nursing is ranked among the top 100 nursing schools nationally, and is No. 6 in New York state1
  • Part-time and accelerated tracks available
  • Four program options: PCFNP, PMHNP, AGACNP, AGPCNP

Earn your MSN online from USC’s Top-Ranked School of Social Work.

  • Prepares RNs to pursue board certification as family nurse practitioners
  • Earn a CCNE-accredited MSN in as few as 21 months
  • Choose from part-time and full-time study options

1 U.S. News & World Report, 2022 Best Nursing Schools: Master’s. Ranked in 2021.

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FAQs

What is a clinical nurse specialist (CNS)?

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who  provides assessments, diagnosis and treatment to patients. CNSs often act as leaders in healthcare, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What does a clinical nurse specialist do?

CNSs may specialize in many areas, just as other APRNs will. They may choose to focus on pediatrics, psychiatric, acute care or other specializations. A CNS’ specialization determines their responsibilities, but they will typically provide direct care to patients and work with other nurses to improve quality of care.

How long does it take to become a clinical nurse specialist?

Becoming a CNS typically requires a graduate degree in nursing with national certification and state licensure. Previous education and experience will determine the time it takes to become a CNS as well. If you don’t have a bachelor’s in nursing,  a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program may take more time to complete. Be sure to check with your preferred nursing program and to verify your state’s licensure requirements.

What is the difference between a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and a nurse practitioner (NP)?

A clinical nurse specialist and nurse practitioner are both types of advanced practice registered nurses that require a graduate degree in nursing for education requirements for licensure. While CNSs provide direct care to patients and may often work with other providers to improve the quality of care, nurse practitioners mainly focus on providing care to a variety of patients including education and wellness plans.