Senior nurse speaking with patients

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Duties, Responsibilities, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Senior nurse speaking with patients

Registered Nurses (RNs) are at the front line of patient care, improving the lives of millions of people around the world every day.

(Click here to learn how to become a Registered Nurse (RN))

RNs can become specialized in several different areas of healthcare which can further their career in nursing. These specializations vary in job responsibility, work environment, and patient group. However, every specialization comes with its own educational and certification requirements.

One of these specialties is made up of an elite group of nurses who are considered by many to be leaders in their field, Clinical Nurse Specialists or CNSs. 

Clinical Nurse Specialists are nursing professionals with extensive education and training in a specialty practice area. The CNS role is the starting point for nurses who wish to become specialized in a particular area of health care.

(Click here to see our full list of the highest paid nursing jobs)

If you’re looking to further your education in nursing and advance your clinical skills, this guide will show you how to take this pivotal step in your career.

Continue reading to better understand the role of a clinical nurse specialist, their job responsibilities, salary*, and educational requirements.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Definition

What is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

A Clinical Nurse Specialist is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who has earned a graduate degree in nursing. Once they’ve earned their graduate degree, they can become certified in a specialty of their choice.

These specialties can vary depending on population, type of care, type of disease, and work setting. Each CNS specialization may have its own certification and eligibility requirements, many of which include real-world experience in the Clinical Nurse Specialist’s chosen field.

Clinical Nurse Specialist: Job Description

What Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do?

Due to the broad nature of the position, Clinical Nurse Specialists are involved in several facets of healthcare and patient outcomes. Before becoming a CNS, you might want to gain exposure to multiple aspects of nursing in order to determine which specialty fits you best. Once you’re certified in that specialization, your role as a CNS becomes much more well-defined.

Clinical Nurse Specialist: Day-to-Day Responsibilities

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of Clinical Nurse Specialists include:

  • Diagnosing and treating chronic and acute illnesses
  • Administering and sometimes prescribing medications
  • Assisting physicians and other healthcare professionals
  • Conducting research and reporting the results
  • Educating patients and their families
  • Acting as a supervisor or manager to nursing faculty

Clinical Nurse Specialist Jobs

Where Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Work?

Clinical nurse specialists can work in any healthcare setting before determining their chosen specialty. The most common places clinical nurse specialists work include:

  • Hospitals
  • Physician offices, and
  • Outpatient settings

BSN sign on a stack of books with a stethoscope

Clinical Nurse Specialist Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

What Degree Do You Need to be a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

In order to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist, you will typically need to devote 6 to 8 years to nursing education and training.

Whether you’re just beginning or have already earned a nursing degree, you must receive a Master’s degree in nursing before earning the title of CNS.

Once you’ve completed your education, you’ll have to gain real-world experience working as a CNS before earning a certification in the specialization of your choice.

Nonetheless, all of this hard work will eventually pay off, as clinical nurse specialists rank amongst the highest paying nursing jobs.

Here are the steps required to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist:

1. Earn Your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree

The first step to becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist is earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree (BSN). If you’re just starting, a BSN program will take you about three to four years to complete. However, if you’ve already earned your associate’s degree in nursing, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program. These bridge programs are very convenient and can be completed in as little as 20 months.

Accelerated nursing programs are also available to Licensed Vocational Nurses with an associate’s degree in vocational nursing (AVSN). These LVN-to-BSN courses allow you to skip the first three semesters of the BSN program.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Certification Exam

Upon earning your BSN degree, you’ll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to earn your nursing license. With the NCLEX, you’ll be certified to enter the workforce as a Registered Nurse (RN).

(Click here to read our test-prep guide for passing the NCLEX-RN exam)

3. Earn a Master of Science in Nursing Degree

The minimum degree required to be a CNS is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. MSN programs take about 18 to 24 months to complete.

At this point in your journey of becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist, you’ll want to have an idea of a practice area or specialty you wish to explore. This can help you tailor your education and work experience around your desired specialty before graduation.

4. Choose a Specialty and Gain Real-World Experience Working as a CNS

With your MSN degree, you can now enter the workforce as a Clinical Nurse Specialist!

You’ll need to gain experience in your chosen specialty. No matter what specialty you choose, you’ll have to work a minimum of 500 supervised clinical hours before taking a certification exam.

Different specialties may have additional requirements, so do your research before selecting your CNS area of practice.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Salary

How Much Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Make?

According to, the average salary* of a Clinical Nurse Specialist is about $112,000 per year or about $57 per hour.

Clinical nursing salaries in the bottom 10 percent can be lower than $91,000. CNS salaries in the top 10 percent can reach as high as $133,000 or more.

What Is the Job Outlook for Clinical Nurse Specialists?

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report any specific data regarding the job outlook of Clinical Nurse Specialists, they do report that the overall employment of Registered Nurses will grow by 9% by 2030. Since the demand for nurses, in general, is expected to grow significantly by 2030, Clinical Nurse Specialists will have a leg up on other nursing pathways due to their higher level of education and training.

Healthcare professional taking vital signs

Clinical Nurse Specialist Career

Are you ready to start your career as a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist is the best way for Registered Nurses to take their careers to the next level. By devoting the time to earn your MSN, you’ll set yourself up for a more personalized career in nursing than simply working as an RN.

Having the ability to choose your specialty in nursing is powerful, and the salary* and job outlook of a CNS are much greater than that of an RN.

If you’re prepared to begin the journey of becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist, you can start by earning your BSN degree at Provo College.

Click here to learn more about our BSN program.