Clinical Nurse Specialist Career and Degree Guide
What You’ll Do as a Clinical Nurse Specialist
A clinical nurse specialist wears many hats—from caregiver and teacher to policy maker and manager. Is this diverse and rewarding job for you?
A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is a veritable one-person show with five major responsibilities on their shoulders: clinical practice, research, teaching, consulting, and management. Health care doesn’t operate with one set of guidelines, so a clinical nurse specialist role is vital to the managed care movement.
Because they also serve as a patient advocate, it’s a CNS’s job to coordinate money-saving services and resources while still providing optimal health outcomes.
In This Article
If you thrive in environments where you can care for others, have a knack for complex problem solving, and can take on a leadership role, the clinical nurse specialist position could be right up your alley. One of the best parts of being a CNS is the ability to work in a specialized area of healthcare, like acute care nursing or geriatric nursing.
“As leaders, educators, and innovators of evidence-based nursing practices, being a CNS is a rewarding career for anyone who desires to not only help individuals but to positively impact the nursing profession as a whole,” says Kenny Kadar, president of Coast Medical Service, a nurse staffing agency based on Los Angeles.
What Work Will I Do as a CNS?
The variety of work you could do as a CNS is wide-ranging. Your workplace, specialty, and other factors will deeply affect the work you’ll do. No matter where you work, you’ll take on advanced duties, both in your clinical nursing role and in your nursing leadership role.
On the job, clinical nurse specialist roles can vary depending on their specialty, but general tasks include:
Manjulata Evatt, DNP, RN, CMSRN, an assistant professor and program coordinator at Duquesne School of Nursing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, describes an interesting—and impactful—policy that a graduate-level CNS and colleague is working to implement in her community. As a nurse with the local coroner’s department, the colleague is working with the police department and law enforcement to require that the names of next of kin be listed on drivers’ licenses so it’s faster and more streamlined for families to be notified when a loved one has died.
Clinical nurse specialists often have a hand in creating meaningful policies for their workplaces and communities.
That’s a long way from bedside nursing, and it’s just one example of the types of far-reaching and impactful changes you can make in your healthcare facility or community as a CNS.
What Career Paths Can I Take as a CNS?
Because they’re trained as experts in the nursing field, clinical nurse specialists work in a variety of settings. Your career path will also depend on your specialty. Specialties like geriatric nursing might land you in a nursing home or long-term care facility, whereas a women’s health specialty could help you find a job in a clinic or hospital maternity ward.
CNS programs will train students to be educators among their other duties, so it’s possible you could choose a path where mentoring is a large part of your job. CNSs are also well-versed in evidence-based nursing, so research jobs are also a possibility. Check out some common roles below.
Job: Gerontology clinical nurse specialist
Where you’ll work: Hospitals, skilled care facilities, private practices
Type of work you’ll do: Assess and treat geriatric patients, work to minimize hospitalizations, create policies to improve patient outcomes and patient safety
Job: Adult clinical nurse specialist
Where you’ll work: Hospitals, healthcare systems, private practices
Type of work you’ll do: Assess patients, create treatment plans, oversee patient care, mentor new nurses, implement new patient care programs
Job: Neonatal clinical nurse specialist
Where you’ll work: Hospitals
Type of work you’ll do: Assess and treat newborns who need neonatal care, educate parents and families, work to improve care outcomes in your unit, act as a mentor to other nurses
Job: Public health clinical nurse specialist
Where you’ll work: Hospitals, community health centers
Type of work you’ll do: Create policies to improve community health, create education programs and initiatives, oversee health clinics and health resource fairs, research ways to improve health in your community
Job: Psychiatric clinical nurse specialist
Where you’ll work: Specialty hospitals, mental health facilities, private practices
Type of work you’ll do: Assess and treat patients with mental health conditions, oversee patient care, create care plans, mentor other nurses, help create policies to improve patient outcomes
A Day in the Life of a
Clinical Nurse Specialist
Your daily routine as a CNS will depend on everything from where you work to the specialty you’ve chosen. However, to get an idea of what a workday might look like, check out this example schedule:
Keep in mind this day is hypothetical. There might be days you spend all day doing research, while other times you may spend your whole day in meetings. You might have some days that are devoted to patient care, while others are spent entirely working with new nurses to help them improve their skills. No matter what, you’ll be busy and in demand.
What Degree Do I Need to Become a CNS?
As one of the four advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) jobs, a clinical nurse specialist requires a post-graduate degree. You should plan on earning at least a Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN). Because nursing is such a varied field, you’ll also choose a specialty to focus on.
While an MSN will get you in the door, it’s a good idea to consider going even further. Many CNSs are earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Down the road, it might be a requirement. The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) has issued a statement backing the DNP as the standard entry-level degree for CNSs by 2030.
No matter what degree you earn, you’ll need to be certified. As a CNS, your certification will depend on your specialty and the regulations in your state. Currently, certifications for CNSs are offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses Certification Corporation (AACN).
What Can I Earn as a CNS?
Working as a CNS is an advanced nursing role, and your salary will likely reflect the extra work you do and extra education you need. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track salaries for CNSs. However, it does classify them under the category of registered nurses.
RNs can increase their salary by advancing to leadership roles and earning higher degrees, two essential parts of a CNS role. According to the BLS, RNs who are healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners—like CNSs—can earn an average of $100,300, according to the BLS.
With professional insight from:
Dr. Manjulata Evatt, DNP, RN, CMSRN
Assistant Professor/RN-BSN Program Coordinator, Duquesne School of Nursing