Choose the Best Online Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Program for You in 2021

Nurses serve a valuable role in the medical world. If you’re a natural caregiver, a nurturing person, passionate about healing, or otherwise interested in the clinical practice of nursing, then enrolling in a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) program may be life-changing for you. A number of highly accredited online programs are at your fingertips—and can often be completed in under two years. 

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) may help prepare you for a career as a clinical nurse specialist and help you acquire the knowledge and skills to be a leader in the health field.

Accredited Online Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Programs

Some of the universities below may require on-campus visits. Be sure to check with your preferred online CNS program for more information.

University Location Length Clinical hours Specialization Enrollment Options
California State University, Dominguez Hills Carson, CA 43 Credits 500 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatric
Full-Time or Part-Time
DeSales University Center Valley, PA 45 Credits 525 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care
Full-Time or Part-Time
East Carolina University Greenville, NC 43 Credits 540 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Neonatal
Full-Time or Part-Time
Indiana University-IUPUI Indianapolis, IN 42 Credits 525 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Pediatric
Full-Time or Part-Time
Kent State University Kent, OH 35-42 Credits 500-700 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
Full-Time or Part-Time
Loyola University Chicago Maywood, IL 38 Credits 505 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care
Full-Time or Part-Time
Michigan State University East Lansing, MI 54 Credits 585 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
Full-Time or Part-Time
Old Dominion University Virginia Beach, VA 47-52 Credits 504 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology Administrator or Educator
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatric
Full-Time or Part-Time
University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Aurora, CO 47 Credits 540 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
Full-Time
University of Detroit Detroit, MI 41 Credits 500 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
Full-Time or Part-Time
University of Missouri-Columbia, MU Sinclair Columbia, MO 46 Credits 660-780 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Pediatric
Full-Time or Part-Time
University of South Alabama Mobile, AL 38 Credit Hours 540 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
Full-Time or Part-Time
University of Southern Indiana Evansville, IN 42 Credit Hours 545 Hours
  • Adult-Gerontology
Part-Time

Choosing an Online School for Your CNS Program

Choosing an online CNS program that fits your schedule, interests, learning style, and educational background doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The flexibility and variety of available programs means you may be able to find a CNS program tailored to you: part-time, full-time, dual, accelerated, asynchronous, or synchronous. If these terms are unfamiliar to you, breathe easy. Here are some things to consider when searching for an online school for your CNS program:

Your Goals

Are you looking for the fastest track to your new nursing profession? For those who feel well positioned to manage the rigor and pace of a condensed program, accelerated and dual-degree nursing programs may be viable options. 

An accelerated degree program is specifically designed for students who have received their bachelor’s degree (or higher) in another field and are looking to transition into nursing. Dual degree programs enable students to enroll in two undergraduate or graduate programs at the same time so they can widen their expertise. 

Schedule 

Life can easily get in the way of studies—but with asynchronous and synchronous nursing programs, it doesn’t have to stop you from taking the next step in your career or educational journey. Both types of online degree programs may come with similar benefits of in-person schooling: regular communication with faculty and networking with fellow classmates. 

With asynchronous programs, you don’t have to worry about rearranging your work schedule and other commitments to make it on time for a pre-scheduled class. Asynchronous classes allow you to complete work when convenient, and schedule group work to accommodate the schedules of all involved. If you thrive in an environment with a set agenda of classes and enjoy participating in real-time discussions, then consider synchronous online classes. 

Program Length

You may choose to pursue a CNS program on a full-time or part-time basis. When weighing the pros and cons of each program, it’s important to be aware of the differences in commitment, time, and money. Full-time degree programs generally have a higher credit minimum per semester. Alternatively, for students looking for a smaller number of credit requirements per semester spread out over a longer length of time (often allowing them to work to attend to other responsibilities), part-time may be the better fit.

Admission Requirements

Ready to earn your degree and start improving the health and well-being of your patients? Before you apply to a CNS program, there are a few items that you’ll likely have to prepare to submit: transcripts from an accredited institution, letters of recommendation, your resume, a personal statement, and possibly GRE scores. 

For some master’s degree programs, you may need a current registered nursing (RN) license. Each state and college or university will have slightly different certification, application material, standardized testing scores, and GPA minimum requirements. That’s why it’s important to review all admission specifications before deciding on a program. And most importantly, make sure to check for any application deadlines. 

Curriculum 

To complete your MSN degree, you may need to take courses such as care management, advanced pathophysiology, health care information systems, and global health and diversity. Specific CNS curriculum depends on the program, but students can expect to learn general advanced practices, as well as the skills needed to provide direct diagnostic and treatment care to patients.

With your nursing degree and license in hand, you’ll be able to assist with basic primary care, family planning, pain management, and prescription administration, among other duties and tasks. While some soft skills such as patience and compassion may help on the job, an online CNS program will teach you best practices for the field—like how to work independently with patients or collaboratively with a surgical team. They’ll also likely teach you about the latest technology and lab systems. 

Clinical Hours Experience

Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) programs, including CNS programs, have a hands-on learning portion through clinical placements. These practice-based courses or internships expose students to a clinical setting before graduation, showing them the full scope of the role for which they are preparing for. As part of their internship or immersion in operating clinics, students will be able to apply their knowledge, fine-tune their nursing skills, and gain real-life experience. 

Potential Salary and Jobs

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, an aging population and shortage of primary care doctors has led to a demand for advanced practice registered nurses. There are a range of nursing roles available to you once you’ve obtained an advanced nursing degree, like an MSN or DNP with a CNS track. Learn about some of those roles and nursing salaries below:

  • Registered Nurse: RNs typically record patient health, treat and medicate patients, and instruct patients and families on how to care for illnesses, although their responsibilities vary depending on the patient populations they work with. The median annual salary for RNs in 2019 was $73,300, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The highest 10 percent however, earned more than $111,220. Employment of RNs is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist: Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) care for patients in a specific population (like older adults) and work with other nurses to improve the way care is delivered. They may also educate other nurses and lead research and advocacy efforts. Earning potential varies by employer, location, and a host of other factors. The BLS does not have a profile for CNSs but does add a job description under the registered nurse profile.
  • Medical and Health Services Manager: An advanced degree in nursing may allow you to pursue leadership roles such as that of a nurse executive or what the BLS calls a medical and health services manager. This type of health care professional is responsible for managing a health care facility or a specific clinical department. While salary varies by industry, on average, medical and health services managers earn $100,980 per year. Between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects that employment of medical and health services managers will grow 32 percent.
  • Nursing Instructor: A nursing instructor or a nurse educator is responsible for training the next generation of nursing professionals. They may combine their teaching duties with research projects. Nurse educators can be found in general medical and surgical hospitals, as well as colleges and universities. Where a nursing educator works, may likely impact their pay. The 2019 median annual salary for nursing instructors was $74,600, according to the BLS.  

Certifications and Licenses 

In the medical world, practitioners make a commitment to uphold ethical standards and “do no harm.” As such, in becoming a CNS, getting your license or certification to practice can be of importance. 

To become a CNS, certain states require that you become certified within a specific patient population. Offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), these certifications include: 

  • Adult-Gerontology: CNSs can become certified in adult-gerontology through the ANCC, allowing them to focus on care for adults and the elderly. 
  • Acute Care Adult-Gerontology: This acute care certification is offered by the AACN, and demonstrates a nurse’s expertise in care for young-adult to elderly patients. 
  • Acute Care Pediatrics: Also offered by the AACN, the acute care pediatrics certification is designed for CNSs interested in working with children. 
  • Acute Care Neonatal: CNSs who specialize in the neonatal population can demonstrate their knowledge with the acute care neonatal certification, offered by the AACN. 

Note that there are generally fees associated with these certifications—and they must be renewed after a certain number of years. While each state has its own requirements, you may be able to transfer certificates between jurisdictions through a process of endorsement. Each state has their own requirements for practicing nursing, so it’s best to check your state’s CNS qualifications before completing a certification. 

Program Accreditation 

Accreditation demonstrates the strength of a program’s qualifications. Simply put, it’s a stamp of approval from an independent agency, certifying that the program has met a predetermined standard of quality and rigor. 

Both the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) accredit nursing programs. Before enrolling in a program, verify that it’s accredited by one of these organizations. This provides both you and your prospective employers with assurance that your training is up to par and has thoroughly prepared you for your future role. 

Additional Programs

There are a plethora of online nursing programs available for those interested in becoming a CNS, an advanced practice registered nurse, or otherwise. Learn about some options below: 

Accelerated Program: Accelerated nursing programs or bridge programs build on your prior training and experience, allowing you to accelerate your nursing education in less time. For instance, if you’re a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and would like to become a registered nurse (RN), there are two possible paths: LPN to Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) programs and LPN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs. If you’re an RN without a BSN but want to complete a master’s degree, you may be able to enroll in an RN to MSN bridge program


Post-Master’s Certificate:  A post-graduate or post-master’s certificate enables nurse professionals to advance their careers with additional board certifications. Through a post-master’s CNS online certificate, CNSs can attain certification for working with a specific patient population, like neonatal, pediatric, and adult gerontology patients—after completing a master’s-level nursing program. Nurses with this certification may broaden their clinical abilities and help to improve patient outcomes in their communities. Depending on the specialization, nurses can manage primary care, serve older patients facing complex challenges, provide labor and birth care, and primary care to women across their lifespan. 


Doctor of Nursing Practice: A Doctor of Nurse Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree in nursing, which makes it the highest educational and practice-based degree possible in this field. Earning this degree may open doors to advanced clinical nursing roles, as well as executive-level positions in patient care and hospital management. Nurse professionals who enroll in DNP programs execute advanced hands-on care and are driven to ensure the best patient outcomes in the health care landscape. 

A DNP program can take two to five years (with either full- or part-time enrollment). If you’re interested in becoming a CNS, you may consider a DNP CNS program. 

Scholarships for CNS and Nursing Students

If you’re considering enrolling in an accredited CNS program but are concerned about the cost of tuition, there may be scholarship opportunities to help make this educational path affordable. You can research scholarships, grants, flexible repayment programs, and fellowships, of which there are a number available for varying education levels and enrollment types (full time vs. part time).

Eligibility requirements vary by scholarship, so be sure to check directly with the awarding organization. Nonprofits may provide nursing scholarships, as well as schools. 

FAQs

How do online clinical nurse specialist (CNS) programs work?

Expect the same rigor as an in-person course, as well as access faculty members. You can also anticipate the latest materials, core curriculum, and competence for post-graduation practice—but with the added ability to complete your studies from the comfort of your home or office. 

Depending on the program, classes can be attended in real-time via live stream or are recorded to enable students to access the content at any time. You can also complete any hands-on experience requirement at a local clinic.  

How is course content delivered in an online CNS program?

Maintaining personal and professional commitments while pursuing your advanced degree in nursing is possible with an online CNS program. Many programs offer either a 100% online option or hybrid delivery method with both online and on-site classes. With sophisticated streaming and recording technology, immediate test feedback, and online forums for discussion, online students receive the same core curriculum as in-person students. Synchronous and asynchronous formats enable students to choose between attending “live” or accessing archived lectures when is most convenient for them.

Should I enroll in an online CNS program?

Online and in-person programs are generally comparable in terms of access to resources and faculty, educational outcome, and job opportunities. With an online CNS program, students may be able to balance study with work, life, and family. Consider your personal circumstances and goals when selecting a program.

Will an online CNS program help me get a job?

Employers may often regard online degrees with a comparable level of respect as their in-person counterparts. That’s because the two are typically designed to thoroughly prepare aspiring nursing professionals for practice through a rigorous curriculum and field experience. Making sure your program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) is important. These accreditations indicate that the corresponding programs have been carefully vetted.

Can I complete an online CNS program without a nursing degree?

With all the different paths, requirements, and programs, it may be possible to complete an online CNS program with a non-nursing degree. There are a variety of bridge or direct entry programs available, from LPN to RN, LPN to ADN, LPN to BSN, RN to BSN, and BSN to DNP. If you’re not yet familiar with these acronyms, be sure to conduct your research to learn more about your options and which of these programs you may qualify for.

What is the difference between CNS with an MSN vs DNP?  

MSN programs are graduate programs that allow nurses to build on their foundations in preventative care and care delivery through courses like advanced pharmacology and pathophysiology. After completing an MSN, graduates can pursue ANCC or AACN certifications for clinical nurse specialists. 

Meanwhile, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the highest possible degree you can earn in the nursing discipline. Some DNP programs offer tracks geared specifically for CNSs, with courses ranging from health finance to health information systems. In addition to preparing CNSs for clinical care, a DNP degree provides nurses with the qualifications to teach others, lead a health care team, work as case managers, researchers, and consultants, and positively impact patient outcomes. 

Information on this page was retrieved in October 2020.