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How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

An in-depth look at the duties, responsibilities, schooling, requirements, certifications, job outlook, and salary expectations for today’s Clinical Nurse Specialists

Nurse in scrubs looking forward

Clinical Nurse Specialists are Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who combine extensive patient skills with strong leadership abilities to fill a vital role in managed care.

Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS) are experts in evidenced-based care in one of the many different specialty areas of nursing. They integrate their advanced knowledge to assess, diagnose, and treat illnesses, in addition to several other responsibilities.

Clinical Nurse Specialists also provide safe and cost-effective quality care within their specialty, while continuously striving to improve various processes within the healthcare system. Their role is unique. They strive to enhance the lives of their patients while also improving the overall system and delivery of care within their respective departments. As leaders, they must support and manage other nurses, so those nurses can also provide the best evidence-based care in the safest, most efficient manner possible.

Finally, the job of a CNS is rewarding in more ways than one. In addition to belonging to a noble and well-respected field, Clinical Nurse Specialist are amongst the highest paid nurses in the country.

(Click here to see our full list of the highest paying nursing jobs in the U.S.).

Continue reading to learn more about this specialized category of nursing. Our career guide will cover how to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist as well as the specific duties, responsibilities, and salary* expectations for this vital profession.

Clinical Nurse Specialist: Definition

What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

Clinical Nurse Specialists are Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who focus on the advancement of nursing care and patient satisfaction within their specific clinical environment—such as pediatrics, emergency medicine, or oncology. They also teach nurses new patient-care techniques, based on the latest information and evidence-based research for their respective medical specialization. Furthermore, CNS nurses will analyze patient results and combine that information with their knowledge to provide feedback or develop new policies within their department.

Clinical Nurse Specialists also work closely with other medical professionals to assess and improve upon their standards of care. In fact, they can work alongside doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff, to gather feedback, as well as provide management and direction.

Clinical Nurse Specialists do all this while providing direct clinical services to their own patients, by performing medical assessments and all other forms of traditional nursing care. They typically work fulltime schedules with frequent overtime needs. For example, their schedules may include night and weekend shifts when necessary.

Clinical Nurse Specialist: Job Description

What Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do?

On any given day, a Clinical Nurse Specialist may plan, direct, and coordinate the daily patient care activities in a clinical practice. They ensure adherence to established clinical policies, protocols, regulations, and standards, while collaborating with other healthcare professionals and service providers to ensure optimal patient care.

Clinical Nurse Specialists are usually experts in a specific area of healthcare (pediatrics, emergency medicine, oncology, etc.). In addition to providing direct patient care and consultation, a CNS is typically involved in education, research, and faculty administration.

They may treat a wide variety of patients and perform everything from basic wellness assessments to mental health exams—and just about everything in-between. They provide consultation for patients and families while serving in a supervisory capacity over other nurses. They may also be directly involved in the management and administration of a healthcare facility.

Clinical Nurse Specialist: Job Responsibilities

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Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Clinical Nurse Specialist can include any of the following tasks:

  • Consulting with other health care providers over issues, including patient discharge, patient care, and clinical procedures.
  • Assisting others in the development of care and treatment plans.
  • Developing and maintaining departmental policies, procedures, objectives, and patient care standards, using evidence-based practice guidelines and expert opinions.
  • Reading literature, talking with colleagues, and participating in professional organizations to keep up with current developments in nursing.
  • Evaluating the quality and effectiveness of nursing practice and organizational systems.
  • Developing, implementing, and evaluating standards of nursing practice in their specialty area.

Where Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Work?

Clinical Nurse Specialists usually do not work a regular 9-to-5 schedule. They can work all hours of the day (or night) in a wide variety of clinical environments, including hospitals, schools, physicians’ offices, nursing homes, and urgent-care facilities.

Their job can be both mentally and physically demanding, requiring lots of walking, bending, stretching, and standing for long periods of time. Clinical Nurse Specialists may also face hazards from exposure to chemicals and infectious diseases, which is why they must do their best to protect themselves and always follow strict safety protocols and precautions.

Clinical Nurse Specialist School & Certification

What Training Is Required to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

In addition to taking on all the responsibilities of a Registered Nurse (RN), Clinical Nurse Specialists require a talent for management and organization.

Because of the depth and breadth of their job requirements, the path to becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist requires comprehensive education and work experience.

First, to become a licensed Registered Nurses, prospects must complete a Bachelor’s Degree and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Then to become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), you must earn either your master’s or doctoral degree in nursing.

Steps to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Here is a closer look at the necessary steps to becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist:

1. Earn a BSN Degree

Earning an accredited nursing degree is the first step. Your BSN degree combines the fundamentals of nursing theory with actual hands-on clinical practice to develop your knowledge of different medical procedures.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Certification Examination

Upon earning your bachelor’s degree, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN exam) to qualify as a licensed Registered Nurse.

(Click here to read our NCLEX-RN Exam Study Guide).

3. Earn an MSN Degree

Upon earning your RN credentials, you must then pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. 500 faculty-supervised hours in areas related to the clinical nurse specialist role are also required.

4. CNS Nursing Certification

Once you’ve completed your master’s degree, you can apply for the ANCC exam that is relevant to your chosen specialty. This certification exam is designed to test your clinical knowledge and skills. You may also be required to complete a state CNS certification in the state where you intend to practice. This certification must be renewed every five years—which may also require additional continuing education hours.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Salaries

How Much Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Make?

According to, Clinical Nurse Specialists make an average salary* of about $91,000 per year (or $44.00 per hour).

Top salaries, however, can reach an average of $120,000 per year.

The top five highest paying cities for Clinical Nurse Specialists are Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Seattle, WA; San Diego, CA; and Atlanta, GA.

Job Outlook for Clinical Nurse Specialists

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Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report the specific job outlook projections for CNS Nurses, they do report that overall employment for nurse practitioners is projected to increase by 45% through 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (4%).

Clinical Nurse Specialist Career

Are you ready to start your career as a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

Clinical Nurse Specialists must perform a vast range of tasks, that include several patient-care , administrative, and managerial  responsibilities. If you’re someone who feels confident while juggling multiple responsibilities, then you may have what it takes to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist.

If you’re ready to pursue you dream career as a CNS, you can start by earning your BSN degree at Eagle Gate College.