Clinical Nurse Specialist Career and Degree Guide

Here’s What You’ll Study in a CNS Degree Program

Clinical nurse specialists are leaders in the nursing field. Read on to find out which credentials you’ll need.

What degree levels are available?

If your ultimate goal is to become a leader in the health care industry and work as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS), you should plan on earning at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree.

No matter where you are in your education path today, let’s explore the ways to help you get to the finish line as a clinical nurse specialist.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Nursing is one career field with a handful of bachelor’s degree options, which can be completed either online or at a traditional school. The end result is always a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, but you’ll have to choose a path based on your personal situation.

Five types of Bachelor’s Degrees in Nursing:

  • BSN: 4-year degree and the prerequisite for applying to graduate nursing school. The first two years cover core requirements and the latter two years focus primarily on nursing. This degree is a good start for aspiring clinical nurse specialists who will eventually decide on a specialty.
  • LPN-to-BSN: Within four semesters, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) can earn a BSN.
  • RN-to-BSNThis unique path gives RNs with an associate’s degree or diploma the chance to further their career while working.
  • Second-degree BSN: Intended for someone who already has a 4-year degree in another field and is interested in changing careers. This program can often be completed in two years or less because credit is given for the liberal arts education from the original degree.
  • Accelerated Degree BSN: As the name implies, students can finish their degree in a shorter period of time (usually 12 to 20 months).

As an example of a course load, an online BSN program typically offers the following core classes:

  • Health promotion and disease prevention
  • Physical examination and health assessment
  • Communication and collaboration
  • Critical thinking
  • Genetics and Genomics
  • Information management

Graduates can sit for the NCLEX-RN exam upon earning a BSN to become a licensed registered nurse. The NCLEX exam covers four “categories of needs,” according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing:

  • Safe, effective care environment: Management care and safety and infection control
  • Psychosocial integrity: Coping and adaptation and psychosocial adaptation
  • Health promotion and maintenance: Growth and development through the life span and prevention and early detection of disease
  • Physiology integrity: Basic care and comfort, pharmacological and parenteral therapies, reduction of risk potential and physiological adaptation

Master’s Degree Programs

MSN programs are generally a two-year commitment and many can be done using a flexible online format or at a traditional campus. While you’ll be earning your graduate degree, you’ll also be trained in a specialty of your choosing.

To get a better understanding of what MSN coursework will entail, one of Regis University’s MSN programs, which focuses on leadership and management, offers the following classes:

Ethics for Nurse Leaders: An overview of ethical dilemmas, faith-based and philosophical foundations and how ethical and moral reasoning plays a role in advanced nursing. Students are taught how to assess issues ethical using theory, moral argument and case studies.

Informatics: Covers health care information systems and how nurse leaders can use them to enhance patient care. A number of applications are examined including clinical and evidence-based practice informatics. The topics of designing and implementing information systems are also covered.

Health Care Policy/Issues in Practice: Public health policy and its relation to advanced nursing is examined. History, trends, legislation and other topics are discussed.

Advanced management principles and practice: Health care management, legal and economic requirements and practices for evidence-based and collaborative nursing are among the issues reviewed.

Generally, MSN programs include a clinical practicum, where students treat patients for a certain amount of hours (this requirement varies by state). Programs will often use a tiered approach to teach students in their particular specialty. In-depth training comes after theory and practice classes. Part of a CNSs job is teaching or mentoring, so classes will also cover curriculum development and implementation and instructional design, theory and delivery.

Doctoral Degree Programs

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree isn’t required in order to practice as a clinical nurse specialist, but it’s a fantastic way to advance further in your career. It also cements your place as an expert in a particular specialization.

DNP programs typically cover topics like leadership and health care policy and while it’s certainly an investment of time and money, it can help you stand out in the crowd as more nurses earn higher-level degrees. DNP programs are available both online and on campus.

As an example, Johns Hopkins University’s DNP program is built for nurse leaders who are interested in evidence-based research and a higher level of leadership skills. Coursework includes health economics and finance, advanced nursing health policy and clinical data management.

What certification do I need?

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers a nationally-recognized certification for clinical nurse specialists.

ANCC offers 10 CNS certifications:

  • Adult Health CNS
  • Adult Gerontology CNS
  • Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health CNS
  • Child/Adolescent Psychiatric-Mental Health CNS
  • Gerontological CNS
  • Home Health CNS
  • Pediatric CNS
  • Public/Community Health CNS
  • CNS Core
  • Diabetes Management-Advanced

Aspiring CNSs should research ANCC’s eligibility criteria for their exact specialization, but typical requirements to take an exam include:

  • Having a current RN license
  • A master’s degree, post-graduate or doctoral degree from a CCNE- or ACEN-accredited school
  • At least 500 faculty-supervised clinical hours
  • Graduate courses in pathophysiology, advanced health assessment and advanced pharmacology

What will I learn in my courses?

Core science and general nursing topics are taught in undergraduate programs, but students will notice a much narrower focus in graduate school when they determine the specialization that interests them. Courses will be designed around a variety of specialties and you’ll notice many of them fall in line with ANCC’s certification options.

Major specialties include:

  • Acute care nursing
  • Adult nursing
  • Home health nursing
  • Infectious disease nursing
  • Cardiovascular nursing
  • Occupational health nursing
  • Perinatal nursing
  • Rehabilitation nursing
  • Neonatal nursing
  • Oncology nursing
  • Public health nursing
  • School health nursing
  • Parent-child nursing
  • Women’s health nursing

Students should be prepared to delve into topics like ethics in health care, health assessment, nursing theory and philosophy, research methods, pharmacology, physiology, pathophysiology and health care systems management.

Additionally, students are required to finish 500 clinical hours in order to graduate.

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a nursing degree can take the following time to complete:

  • A bachelor’s degree program takes four years
  • Accelerated BSN programs range from 12 to 20 months
  • Second-degree BSN generally takes two years or less
  • Master’s programs  generally require two years
  • Doctoral degrees range between two and three years in length

Attending part-time is usually an option at most schools, but some may have time limits on when you must finish the program.

Are online programs available?

Nursing is a very hands-on profession so you might assume online programs don’t exist, but they do. Students can earn BSNs and MSNs online at a range of schools with some offering part-time curriculums as well.

Online programs may offer live web-based teaching and when it’s time to complete clinical hours, online programs typically set students up at a site the school has partnered with.

How much will my education cost?

The cost* of earning a bachelor’s degree will vary depending on several factors, such as whether there’s in-state residency tuition. As an example, Seton Hall’s 2016-2017 undergraduate nursing program costs approximately $1,171 per credit.

A MSN costs approximately $36,000 for the entire program.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

Are there prerequisites?

As part of the advanced practice nurse community, clinical nurse specialists must have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree with a specialty in a particular area, like acute care or school health. Because MSN programs use undergraduate courses as their building blocks, certain prerequisites apply. For those holding a BSN, graduate school prerequisites might look similar to this:

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing school
  • Active registered nurse (RN) license
  • Completion of statistics course with satisfactory grade
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal statement explaining the reasons you want to become a CNS
  • Satisfactory score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

If this doesn’t describe your background, there are still plenty of options depending on your timetable and how soon you want to get to work as a clinical nurse specialist. The first option is to enroll in an undergraduate program and follow the traditional path to earning an MSN.  If you aren’t a nurse, but have a 4-year degree in another field, consider an accelerated program which allows students to earn their BSN and MSN simultaneously.

Associate’s degrees and nursing diplomas can also help get you to the first step of nursing, especially if you’re trying to enter the field quickly and are a recent high school graduate or someone looking for a career change.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Attending an accredited nursing school opens many doors for students since it’s often a gateway for students to study in federally-funded and state entitlement programs. Secondly, one degree from an accredited school allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools. Employers will also look at your educational background and a degree from an accredited school will often give you an advantage.

Two organizations accredit clinical nurse specialist schools. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which is recognized as a national accreditation agency by the U.S. Secretary of Education, accredits master’s and bachelor’s programs.

Programs can also be accredited by the nationally-recognized Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), which gives their seal of approval for master’s, bachelor’s, associate’s and diploma programs. Continuing education nursing programs—which will come later in a CNS’s career—should also be accredited by the ACEN Accreditation Program.

Non-accredited schools: If you’re thinking of attending a non-accredited, but state board-approved school, there can be drawbacks.

While you can still take the NCLEX, your nursing profession may stall out if you’re seeking additional education. Generally, education from a non-accredited school doesn’t qualify students to attend an accredited school. If you’re thinking about a career as a clinical nurse specialist where an MSN is necessary, attending a non-accredited undergraduate school can limit your options in the future.

Sources: American Nurses Credentialing Center; ACEN; CCNE

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