How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Becoming a clinical nurse specialist is a path with promising opportunities. Let’s explore the journey to becoming a clinical nurse and the steps to select the right CNS specialization for you.

Degree Required: MSN or DNP
How Long to Become: 6-8 years
Job Outlook: Anticipated 45% growth from 2020 to 2030 among all APRNs (Advanced Practice Registered Nurses) according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

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Clinical Nurse Specialists are Advanced Practice Nurses (APRNs) who focus on a specific area of practice or a particular group of patients, such as cardiology or pediatrics.

A clinical nurse specialist in a hospital hallway having a discussion with two younger nursing staff members.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Career Overview

Clinical nurses are in high demand, like all APRN nurses, and they typically earn above-average annual salaries. They have a wide array of specializations to choose from. This guide will help you understand the path to becoming a clinical nurse.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Overview

Clinical nursing specializations encompass various areas, including cardiology, diabetes, pediatrics, mental health, wound care, or emergency department care, to name a few. These professionals work in diverse settings, depending on their specialties, with hospitals being the most common. Similar to all APRNs, they enjoy greater professional autonomy compared to Registered Nurses (RNs) and can diagnose conditions and prescribe treatments.

Steps to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist

To embark on the journey of becoming a clinical nurse specialist, you must first become an APRN by obtaining an MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) from an accredited program and passing a certification examination in one of the general areas, such as adult/gerontology, pediatrics, or neonatal. After this, most employers will require additional certifications, depending on your area of practice.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

– This is the starting point, and you will need a BSN degree (or enroll in an RN to MSN bridge program if you have an ADN). Typically, this takes four years. Requirements may vary by school, but they often involve at least a 3.0 GPA and passing grades in biology and math.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam to Receive RN License

– After completing your nursing school program, you’ll need to pass the NCLEX-RN examination, which is a multi-hour multiple-choice test. You must also apply for an RN license in your state and undergo a background check. Note that certain criminal convictions may affect your eligibility for licensure, so be sure to check your state’s regulations.

3. Gain Experience as a Registered Nurse

– Most MSN programs require or strongly prefer at least two years of full-time experience (or the equivalent part-time) as an RN. This experience not only helps you identify your preferred specialization but also allows you to build a professional network and find mentors.

4. Earn a Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)

– The next step in becoming a clinical nurse specialist is to obtain an MSN or DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) from an accredited program. Typically, earning an MSN takes two years, while DNP programs require at least three years of full-time study. Most MSN programs require a 3.0 GPA, strong references, and prior RN experience.

5. Apply for CNS Certification in Your Desired Specialty

– To become a certified clinical nurse specialist, you’ll need to pass the CNS certification examination from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)’s Certification Corporation in either adult/gerontology, pediatric, or neonatal clinical nursing. Many employers may also require or prefer additional specialty certifications, each of which involves its own examination. For more information on certification, you can refer to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS).

Clinical Nurse Specialist Education

When considering programs, it’s essential to take various factors into account, such as cost and financial aid, location options (including online programs), admission requirements, board examination pass rates, and reviews and recommendations.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

For most clinical nurse specialists, obtaining a BSN is the first step in their education journey. Multiple online, hybrid, and on-campus programs offer BSN degrees. Online and hybrid programs are equivalent to on-campus ones. It’s crucial to choose an accredited school because most MSN programs accept students only from accredited programs, and employers typically seek graduates from accredited institutions.

– Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED
– Program Curriculum: It covers various subjects, including science, anatomy, disease and injury treatment and prevention, nursing practices, communications, public health, legal and ethical aspects.
– Time to Complete: Typically four years.
– Skills Learned: Administering medications, taking vital signs, conducting medical tests, performing procedures like wound cleansing, intubation, and using medical equipment.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

To become a clinical nurse specialist, you must have an MSN or DNP. If you don’t have a BSN but hold an ADN or a bachelor’s degree in another field, many schools offer bridge programs. These programs usually require less time and disruption compared to completing a BSN program. Once again, attending an accredited program is vital for your success.

– Admission Requirements: BSN or ADN, RN, at least a 3.0 GPA
– Program Curriculum: It includes advanced topics related to disease and injury treatment and prevention, pharmacology, and leadership.
– Time to Complete: Typically two years of full-time study.
– Skills Learned: Diagnosing and treating conditions, prescribing medications, leading healthcare teams.

Choosing a CNS Specialization

To become a clinical nurse, you must select a primary population specialization, which could be in adult/gerontology, pediatric, or neonatal nursing. You’ll also need to pass the certification examination for your chosen specialization. However, many hospitals or health systems, especially larger ones, may require or strongly prefer additional specialty certifications, such as cardiology nursing.

The choice of your population specialization depends on your interests and career goals. While adult/gerontology serves a broad range of patients, there’s a high demand for all three specialties.

– Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist: These CNS nurses provide care to adult patients, from older teenagers to seniors, across various settings. Both the ANCC and AACN offer certification in this specialization.

– Pediatric Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist: Nurses in this specialization care for young children, from infants to early teens. They primarily work in hospitals or private practices, and AACN certifies this specialty.

– Neonatal Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist: Neonatal CNS nurses offer care to newborn infants, typically in hospitals or birthing centers. This specialization is also certified by the AACN.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Licensure

To become a CNS nurse, you need to first obtain your RN license, pass your certification examination, and then secure CNS licensure. You’ll apply for these licenses through your state board of nursing, while the certification examinations are administered by private organizations.

RN Licensure

To obtain an RN license, you must graduate from a nursing school with either an ADN or an RN and pass the NCLEX-RN examination, which is a multi-hour multiple-choice test. To keep your license valid, you’ll need to participate in accredited continuing education, which can include attending conferences, classes, or webinars, or completing examinations on professional literature articles.

CNS Licensure

After completing your MSN program, you’ll need to apply for CNS licensure. Keep in mind that the scope of practice for a CNS can vary from state to state. Similar to other nursing credentials, you’ll need to engage in continuing education to maintain your license.

Working as a Clinical Nurse Specialist

Once you’ve acquired your license, you can begin your career as a clinical nurse specialist. Leverage your professional and alumni networks and explore job opportunities through professional association job boards to post your resume and find job openings.

Clinical nurses work in a range of settings, including hospitals, health systems, private practices, clinics, and government facilities. Their roles encompass precepting, which involves teaching and mentoring students, participating in evidence-based projects to enhance nursing practices, and delivering direct nursing care. The BLS predicts a 45% growth for all APRNs, and CNS nurse jobs are expected to grow at a similar rate. Like all APRNs, clinical nurses typically earn above-average salaries, though the exact figures can vary based on location and experience.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist

1. How long does it take to become a clinical nurse specialist?

– It typically takes a minimum of six years: four years for a BSN and two for an MSN. If you already have an ADN, you may be eligible for an RN to MSN program, which usually takes three years. If you choose to study part-time or pursue a DNP, your educational journey may take longer.

2. What qualifications do I need to be a clinical nurse specialist?

– To become a clinical nurse specialist, you’ll need an MSN or DNP from an accredited program. You must also pass the certification examination and obtain your state license. Most MSN programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA. Certain employers may demand or strongly prefer additional specialty certifications.

3. Can clinical nurse specialists prescribe medication?

– The specific rules for medication prescription vary from state to state. In states where CNS nurses have full practice authority, they can prescribe medication, although some states may require additional education for this. In states with reduced or restricted practice authority, CNS nurses might need supervision by a physician to prescribe medications or may not have the authority to do so.

4. What is the difference between CNS and NP?

– The distinction between a CNS and a Nurse Practitioner (NP) mainly lies in how they practice nursing and their typical responsibilities. Both are considered APRNs, but NPs often engage more in direct nursing care than clinical nurses and frequently serve as primary care providers. Clinical nurses dedicate more time to precepting students and enhancing evidence-based practices.

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