Clinical Nurse Specialist Career and Degree Guide

What You’ll Do as a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS Job Description)

A clinical nurse specialist wears many hats—from caregiver and teacher to policy maker and manager. Is this diverse and rewarding job for you?

medical staff meeting at round table discussing charts

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

Type of Work | Career Paths | Degrees | Salary

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 Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do?

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:

  • Optimizing patient care by working with nursing staff. This includes evaluating current practices, reviewing alternatives, consulting with patient care managers, and educating staff.
  • Developing specialized treatment plans after patient examinations
  • Educating patients and families on how to best manage their conditions
  • Incorporating practices to promote staff teamwork
  • Analyzing patient data and outcomes
  • Participating with colleagues on new research

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:

  • 7 am:  Review admissions and discharges from overnight
  • 7:30 am: Meet with the administration team to go over recent patient care outcomes data
  • 8:30 am: Lead a new staff orientation and training
  • 10:00 am: Meet with charge nurses about patient care goals for the week
  • 11 am: Make rounds with new nurses and provide feedback and mentoring
  • 12 pm: Review purchase orders and make sure supplies are stocked
  • 1 pm: See patients with complex medical issues and oversee care planning
  • 2 pm: Work on a new policy proposal to improve a patient safety metric. Include research and data from previous policies.

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 Schooling 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?

Average Annual Salary for Registered Nurses like CNSs

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 $106,230, according to the BLS.

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

Dr. Manjulata Evatt, DNP, RN, CMSRN

Assistant Professor/RN-BSN Program Coordinator, Duquesne School of Nursing

Kenny Kadar

President, Coast Medical Service