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How To Become A Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are advanced practice registered nurses who assume a wide range of responsibilities. They play a pivotal role in the healthcare system, work with a variety of patient populations, and are highly qualified and skilled individuals.

Clinical nurse specialist is one of the four advanced practice roles, with the others being nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners.

What Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Do?

As the name suggests, a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is a specialist who works within specifics areas in a clinical setting. They may work with varying patient populations (children, adults, seniors) and in areas such as oncology, pain management, and gynecology.

The role of a CNS differs depending on their specialty area. However, they typically assume the role of an advocate, consultant, coach, and leader, as well as care provider.

The ultimate goal of a CNS is to improve patient outcomes, and this means working with healthcare teams and ensuring evidence-based practice in a range of healthcare settings.

How Do You Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)?

There are a few steps and a lot of hard work involved with becoming a clinical nurse specialist. If you have the money and dedication, here's what you need to do:

Step One: Meet the Prerequisites

The first step is to complete a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which means you'll need to find a suitable nursing program.

Before you're accepted onto a nursing program, you must meet some specific requirements. These vary from school to school, but most will insist on a high school diploma with a high grade point average.

Keep these requirements in mind during your nursing school search. If you keep falling short, you may need to rethink your strategy.

Step Two: Complete a Bachelor's Degree

When you find a suitable school, it's time to apply for a BSN program. An associate degree is sufficient to apply for your nursing license, but if you want to become a clinical nurse specialist, you'll need a bachelor's degree.

Most employers look for applicants with at least a BSN, so it's always worth going the extra mile, even if you have no intention of becoming a clinical nurse specialist.

Step Three: Become a Registered Nurse

After graduating, you can apply for your registered nursing license. The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) contains anywhere from 75 to 256 questions and the total test time is capped at five hours.

You'll be tested on four major areas of patient care, including:

  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychosocial integrity
  • Physiological integrity
  • Safe and effective care management

You can take the test at your own pace and there are two optional breaks.

Step Four: Gain Some Practical Nursing Experience

Once you have your RN license, start thinking about work experience. As advanced practice registered nurses, clinical nurse specialists are required to be at the very top of their field and that means honing their skills with relevant practical experience.

This experience is distinct from the work you did during your clinicals and must be completed in a healthcare facility, including doctor's clinics and hospitals. It's a job and you will get paid, but you'll also gain invaluable experience to prepare you for the next step.

Step Five: Become Certified

Before advancing to your graduate degree, you should become certified.

The certification will depend on your specialty area. Some of the options include:

  • Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS) – Offered by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation
  • Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse (ACHPN) – Offered by the Hospice and Palliative Credentialing Center
  • Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification – Offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center

Step Six: Complete a Master's Degree

Your bachelor's degree and RN experience will qualify you for a master's of science in nursing (MSN) program.

These degrees prepare you for high-level nursing and cover everything from physical assessments and diagnostic reasoning to evidence-based practice.

The MSN degree is also where you switch to a specialty area, including pediatric care, gerontology, informatics, neonatal care, women's health, and other areas of the nursing profession. Choose the one that suits you, find an accredited program, and prepare for some challenging but enlightening coursework!

Step Seven: Consider a DNP Degree

A doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree is not necessary for becoming a clinical nurse specialist, but it will ensure that you're qualified to the highest possible level. The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists also recommends that all CNSs earn a doctoral degree.

It will take you between 2 and 4 years to complete a DNP program, but there are some fast-track programs available that could allow you to graduate in just 1 year.

Step Eight: Get a Job as a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Once you have completed all of the above steps, you're ready to hit the job market and see what's available.

It's been a long road, but it'll be worth it once you get your graduate degree and start working as a clinical nurse specialist.

How Much Does a CNS Earn?

Your salary as a clinical nurse specialist will largely depend on where you work, what your specialism is, who you work for, and how much experience you have. According to BLS data on registered nurses, you can expect upwards of $80,000 in most states and with some experience behind you.

The most experienced clinical nurse specialists earn in excess of $100,000.

Is A CNS An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse?

Yes, clinical nurse specialists are advanced practice registered nurses. They are more qualified than registered nurses as they must graduate with a master's degree.

Can Clinical Nurse Specialists Write Prescriptions?

Some clinical nurse specialists can prescribe medication, others cannot. It all comes down to state laws and to the level of responsibility that they give to a CNS.

According to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, roughly a quarter of CNSs can prescribe medications.

How Long Does It Take To Become A Clinical Nurse Specialist?

If you don't have an existing nursing degree or any experience in nursing practice, it could take 6 years or more to become a clinical nurse specialist. However, there are accelerated programs and ways to transfer credits, so it really all depends on your experience.

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