Clinical Nurse Specialist Career and Degree Guide


What Can I Earn as a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

A clinical nurse specialist’s range of responsibilities puts this advanced nursing job’s salary above average in the nursing field.

nurse talking with specialists at table
nurse talking with specialists at table

Working as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) requires leadership skills, nursing skills, and advanced clinical knowledge in a specialty area. Because of these job duties, CNSs are well compensated for the demands of their job.

Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies CNSs under the category of registered nurses, who earn an average annual salary of $77,460. However, RNs like CNSs who are healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners can earn a higher salary—an average of $82,380—according to the BLS.

As advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with graduate degrees and increased responsibilities, most CNSs earn salaries that fall within the high-earning ranges. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience, and a variety of other factors.

What’s My Earning Potential?

Clinical nurse specialists have a unique role in that they can work as primary care providers while still serving as leaders of nursing teams, best-practices consultants, researchers, teachers, and facilitators of policy change. Since the need for nurses is high, you’re more apt to find job security in this field. Plus, the responsibility of being in a leadership role can translate into a better-paying job.

A clinical nurse specialist’s earning potential can vary based on their employer, education, and area of specialty, but generally, the salary range is at the high end in the nursing industry. Your earnings might increase if you’re open to relocating, says Kenny Kadar, president of Coast Medical Services, a nurse staffing agency based in Los Angeles.

“Opportunities are especially lucrative and exciting for CNSs willing to travel across the country and go where their skills are needed,” says Kadar.

How Do CNS Salaries Compare?

CNS salaries are above the average for all nurses, and comparable to several other advanced nursing roles.

Advanced Nursing Role

Average Salary


Registered Nurses

$77,460

Nurse Educators

$83,160

Nurse Midwives

$108,810

Nurse Practitioners

$111,840

Nurse Anesthetists

$181,040

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Is There Demand for this Career?

Clinical nurse specialists, like all nursing careers, are in high demand. Because they are one of the advanced nurse practices, they are particularly sought-after. Like nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists can work as primary care providers but at a lesser cost to patients than a physician. This benefit is crucial in geographic areas with limited access to healthcare such as rural communities.

Clinical nurse specialists often work as primary care providers.

As the topic of health care costs remains part of the national conversation, clinical nurse specialists will also be looked upon to help. Because part of their job is to improve healthcare quality while reducing costs, CNSs will be in demand for their expertise. Their role as mentor and coach is also necessary as new nurses enter the field. Businesses may look to CNSs as a resource for promoting wellness initiatives and preventive measures among employees.

“If you’re considering a career in the nursing field or pondering building on your existing nursing skills, now is an optimal time to begin your journey,” says Kadar. “The niche expertise and graduate-level knowledge of certified clinical nurse specialists make them an invaluable asset to any healthcare setting.”

What’s the Job Growth for the Field?

The demand for clinical nursing specialties is expected to keep growing. As healthcare continues to expand and change, the need for educated nurses in advanced roles, such as CNSs, will grow along with it. 

“If you look at the nursing population, we have baby boomers who are going to retire,” says Manjulata Evatt, DNP, RN, CMSRN, an assistant professor and program coordinator at Duquesne School of Nursing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “and new leaders won’t generate overnight. It takes time. So if people don’t start now, who will become the leaders in the next five years?”

What Degree Do I Need to Become a CNS?

A CNS is an advanced nursing role, so you’ll need an advanced degree. You’ll need at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) before you can work as a CNS. You’ll learn advanced clinical skills in your master’s program, and you’ll study nursing theory and research. Your degree will help you get the skills you need to take on this important leadership role. You’ll also need to earn certification. The certification you need will depend on your specialty and state.

How Do I Advance in My CNS Career?

The best way to advance your career is through education. While you’ll need to hold a master’s degree to practice, there is the option to advance further and earn a doctorate. This advanced degree can help you expand your leadership role and your salary.

It’s also becoming increasingly common. In fact, the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) has recommended a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) as the standard entry-level degree for the field by 2030. So if you can, earning a DNP is a great career move. It can help you advance your career now and will prepare you for changes to the field in the future.

The industry is leaning toward requiring that CNSs hold a doctorate—not just a master’s degree—by 2030.

You can also help advance your career by completing continuing education courses or getting published in peer-reviewed books or journals. In addition to strengthening your resume, these are both considered acceptable certification renewal criteria by the American Nurses Association Credentialing Center (ANCC). Certification renewal is required of CNSs every five years.

Where do CNSs Work?

Clinical nurse specialists hold a unique set of skills and knowledge, which makes them integral to a variety of health care settings. Your work as a CNS might take you well beyond the bedside into settings throughout your community. Where you work is also dependent on your specialty. Some of the places you might find a CNS job include:

  • Hospitals
  • Private practice
  • Clinics
  • Home health care facilities
  • Health centers
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Public health centers
  • Police departments
  • Insurance companies

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 of Coast Medical Service


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