Clinical Nurse Specialist Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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A clinical nurse specialist's median annual salary is around $97,000. Is it worth the education and certification requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a clinical nurse specialist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Clinical Nurse Specialist Careers

In addition to providing advanced diagnosis and treatment of patients, a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) might assess a facility's nursing practice and make recommendations to improve the quality and efficiency of its patient care. To decide if becoming a clinical nurse specialist is the right career move, check out the pros and cons listed below.

Pros of CNS careers
Faster-than-average growth (16% increase in jobs expected for all RNs from 2014-2024)*
Higher-than-average wages (median wage of around $97,000 in 2016)**
Numerous specialties available (adult-gerontology, mental health, home health, etc.)*
Work available in several settings (hospitals, physician's offices, home health services, etc.)*

Cons of CNS Careers
Extensive preparation requirements (master's degree, licensure and certification)*
Possibility of long, round-the-clock work schedules (nights, weekends, holidays)*
Work injuries possible due to lifting, stretching and prolonged standing*
May be challenging to treat injured and ill patients*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **Salary.com

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Clinical nurse specialists provide patients with direct and indirect care. This might include monitoring and evaluating conditions, assessing patients' needs and administering medication. They also set up and follow through on treatment plans for patients within a certain specialty, such as neurology, oncology, neonatal care or obstetrics.

As a clinical nurse specialist, you also might assess, coordinate and implement educational plans for nurses, including developing curricula and coordinating learning plans. Additionally, you might be responsible for coordinating orientation programs and promoting safe nursing practices.

Salary Info and Career Prospects

According to PayScale.com, the salary for clinical nurse specialists ranged from approximately $61,000-$112,000 per year in 2016. Additionally, Salary.com noted that clinical nurse specialists earned a median wage of about $97,000 in 2016.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment growth for registered nurses should be strong, with a 16% increase in jobs from 2014-2024. Patients with longer life spans, as well as an increase in the use of technology to treat health problems, could be factors behind this growth. The best job opportunities are likely to arise in inner cities and rural areas, which typically are medically underserved locations. As with all RNs, clinical nurse specialists primarily work in hospitals; 61% worked in state, local and private hospitals as of 2014. Home health care, nursing care and doctor's office locations also hire clinical nurse specialists.

Education Requirements

Clinical nurse specialists must first become registered nurses. To become a registered nurse, candidates must complete an undergraduate training program. The BLS notes that this is commonly achieved through an associate degree in nursing (ADN) program.

However, if you aspire to work as a clinical nurse specialist, you'll need to complete a minimum of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. MSN programs specifically for aspiring clinical nurse specialists are available, as are postgraduate certificate programs in CNS specialty areas, such as pediatrics, adult health or gerontology. Students should receive training from a program that's been accredited by a commission such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission. In addition to having sufficient education, prospective clinical nurse specialists must be compassionate, detail-oriented and emotionally stable.

Certification/Licensure Information

All aspiring RNs must complete the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which is offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Successfully passing the NCLEX-RN and meeting any additional state licensing requirements can get you into the field as an RN; it also might make you eligible to enter a CNS program.

Clinical nurse specialists need to obtain certification in order to practice, according to the BLS. Certification is available through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), which offers certification exams for multiple CNS nursing specialties, such as adult health and pediatrics. Students must have completed an advanced degree program and supervised clinical practice and earned a valid nursing license. Graduate courses in advanced physical assessment, pharmacology and pathophysiology are also required.

What Employers Are Looking For

When it comes to entering the workforce as a clinical nurse specialist, employers tend to prefer an MSN holder with 5-10 years of experience, including a certain amount of work experience in your desired specialty. Below are some examples of real job postings from May 2012:

  • A hospital in Illinois was looking for a CNS to work in its intensive care units. In addition to providing patient care, duties included teaching and mentoring staff and developing community programming. Candidates needed an MSN, 4-10 years' experience in critical care or ICU and state licensure as an RN and an acute care CNS.
  • A Vermont hospital was seeking a clinical nurse specialist to work in the perioperative services department. To qualify, candidates needed a master's degree and 5 years of experience, as well as a valid nursing license and certification as an operating room nurse.
  • A hospital in St. Louis was seeking a CNS to manage its orientation and training. Candidates needed 7-10 years of experience, an MSN and licensure.

How to Stand Out in the Job Market

Continuing education likely will be required to maintain your certification as a clinical nurse specialist. You also might go on to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in Clinical Nurse Specialist. These programs often are available in an MSN-to-DNP format, allowing you to earn your doctorate in as little as 4-5 semesters.

Additionally, holding professional membership in an organization such as the American Nurses Association can help certified nurse specialists stand out in a crowded industry. Professional affiliations can offer access to continuing education, career enrichment and job search services for those looking to enter the field. In addition, becoming an active member can provide access to other professionals, and networking can lead to better job opportunities or knowledge of availabilities that you might not otherwise have known about.

Alternative Career Paths

Certified Nurse Anesthetist

If you're interested in pursuing a higher paying position as an advanced practice nurse, consider becoming a certified nurse anesthetist (CNA). These professionals administer anesthesia to obstetrical, surgical and trauma patients, sometimes working under the supervision of an anesthesiologist and other times working autonomously. Education and certification requirements for CNAs are equivalent to those of certified nurse specialists; however, CNAs earn significantly more. According to Salary.com, certified nurse anesthetists earned a median annual salary of approximately $157,000 as of June 2012.

Physician Assistant

If you'd like an advanced career with more direct patient contact, you could consider becoming a physician assistant (PA). With a master's degree and licensure, PAs can provide treatment to patients under the supervision of a physician. The field was expected to see much faster-than-average growth of 30% from 2010-2020, and the average wage was similar to that of clinical nurse specialists at approximately $89,000 as of 2011, according to the BLS.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Purdue University Global

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      • Master of Science - DNP Executive Leader
      • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
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      • Accelerated BSN to MSN
      • MS in Nursing - Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
      • MS in Nursing
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    Bachelor's
      • Bachelors of Science in Nursing - RN to BSN (RN License Required)
      • Bachelor: Health Science
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    Certificate
      • Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certificate
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  • Online Programs Available
    2. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
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      • MS in Nursing: Health Care Informatics (Bridge)
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      • BS in Nursing (Registered Nurse - R.N. to BSN)
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    3. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • RN to BSN
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      • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Independence University

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    Master's
      • Nursing Administration (MS)
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      • Nursing (RN completion to BS) (RN req.)
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    5. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • HS Diploma
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    6. Fortis College

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    Associate's
      • Associate Degree in Nursing
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      • Practical Nursing
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  • Online Programs Available
    7. Regent University

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    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
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      • M.S. in Nursing (MSN) - Nurse Leadership & Management
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    8. Herzing University

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    Master's
      • MSN - Family Nurse Practitioner
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    9. Northcentral University

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    Doctorate
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  • Nashville, TN

    Vanderbilt University

Featured Schools

Purdue University Global

  • Master of Science - DNP Executive Leader
  • Accelerated BSN to MSN
  • Bachelors of Science in Nursing - RN to BSN (RN License Required)
  • Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certificate

Which subject are you interested in?

Grand Canyon University

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • MS in Nursing: Health Care Informatics (Bridge)
  • BS in Nursing (Registered Nurse - R.N. to BSN)

What is your highest level of education?

Keiser University

  • RN to BSN
  • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant

What is your highest level of education?

Independence University

  • Nursing Administration (MS)
  • Health Administration (MS)
  • Nursing (RN completion to BS) (RN req.)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Penn Foster High School

  • HS Diploma

What is your age?

Fortis College

  • Associate Degree in Nursing
  • Practical Nursing
  • Vocational Nursing

Year of High School Graduation or GED completion:

Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
  • M.S. in Nursing (MSN) - Nurse Leadership & Management
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Herzing University

  • MSN - Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Associate of Science - Medical Assisting Services
  • Diploma: Medical Assisting

What is your highest level of education?