CNS Certification & Degree Programs

Clinical Nurse Specialists, also known as CNSs, fill an important role in our healthcare systems. A CNS is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who has completed additional coursework in order to earn a an advanced nursing degree with a Clinical Nurse Specialist specialization. This CNS degree may be either Master’s or Doctorate level.

Clinical Nurse Specialists are unique in the nursing world because their practice is focused on improving health services across three distinct spheres of influence: at the patient level, the nurse personnel level, and at the broader level of the healthcare system as a whole.

Clinical Nurse Specialists may choose from a number of different specializations, which include those that focus on specific populations, specific settings, and even specific types of diseases and medical issues, such as oncology.

All CNSs must be registered with the Board of Nursing in the state where they practice. Because most CNS programs require entering students to have worked as Registered Nurses for at least one year prior to applying to the program, this requirement should already be fulfilled for most CNS students.

Upon completion of their education, graduates are eligible for CNS certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The ANCC offers CNS credentials in seven different subspecialties. Accredited CNS programs prepare their students to take and pass these examinations.

Unlike a nurse’s Board of Nursing registration, ANCC credentials are valid in every state. A typical CNS program will be sure to prepare its graduates for their credentialing exam, although there is no guarantee of passage.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Prerequisites & Specializations

When choosing a Clinical Nursing Specialist program, it is important to keep in mind that the requirements and prerequisites for any one school may differ from those of another.

Generally, CNS programs are only open to Registered Nurses who have completed at least a Bachelor’s of Science degree in nursing (BSN). However, some programs allow those with degrees in other subjects to apply. If accepted, these students must begin the program with more basic nursing prerequisites and become a registered nurse (RN) in good standing with the local Board of Nursing before proceeding to the CNS-specific courses.

While there are no specific experience requirements for entering a CNS program, nurses who have some hands-on experience in their specialty of choice will have an easier time with the program. Further, there are clinical requirements for becoming an RN, so the fact that entering students are usually Registered Nurses already means that there is a de facto experience prerequisite.

The ANCC offers credentials for eight separate specializations under the umbrella of Clinical Nurse Specialist. These include:

  • Adult Health: care of acute and chronic conditions in the adult population
  • Adult-Gerontology: care of acute and chronic conditions in adults as well as the aging population
  • Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health: care and treatment of acute and chronic mental health conditions in the adult population
  • Child/Adolescent Psychiatric-Mental Health: care and treatment of acute and chronic mental health conditions in the pediatric population
  • Gerontological: focus on the specific needs in long-term care of older adults, including treatment of both acute and chronic conditions
  • Home Health: care for chronically ill persons of all ages in the home health setting
  • Pediatric: care for infants and children with acute and chronic conditions as well as their families and caregivers
  • Public/Community Health: care within vulnerable populations and communities

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Clinical Nurse Specialist Courses & Curriculum

Every Clinical Nurse Specialist program will vary from school to school, with different classes and requirements. However, there are core offerings that are found in virtually every CNS curriculum. Some of these basic courses include:

  • Statistics for nurses
  • Nursing ethics
  • Research methods and theories
  • Health promotion and disease prevention
  • Pharmacology

Some CNS programs also have the option to take elective courses. Generally, students will choose these courses to align with the specialty or population they aim to serve upon graduation.

In addition to these course offerings, there is always a clinical component of CNS training. Most students will need to complete hands-on, practicum work in at least one healthcare setting. Over the course of the program, CNS trainees are likely to work in a variety of settings with many types of patients and clinicians.

It is also important to note that a nurse who aims to earn her credentials in any of the available CNS specializations will likely need to take more courses in that particular area of specialization. For instance, an Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist will be expected to take more courses on psychiatric care and work in mental health settings in order to qualify for his or her certification in that area.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Program Accreditation

Choosing a Clinical Nurse Specialist program that has been accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting body is a safe way to ensure the validity of your degree and the rigor of the program’s academics. Many CNS programs should have accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The CCNE offers accreditation for baccalaureate, graduate, and residency programs in the nursing profession. In order to receive accreditation, a program must subject itself to a self-assessment as well as site visits from the commission.

Despite its similar name, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) is a separate entity that also offers accreditation to nursing programs. The ACEN provides assessment and accreditation for undergraduate degrees, including Associate’s Degrees in nursing, as well as baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral level programs. As with the CCNE, the ACEN requires both a self-assessment and a site visit, along with application materials and an accreditation application fee in order to receive accreditation.

Finding a program with accreditation from the CCNE or the ACEN is no guarantee of the performance of that program’s students. However, without at least one of these accreditations, it is impossible to know the status of the program’s faculty, facilities, and overall curriculum from the expert perspective.

Barry Franklin

Barry Franklin


Barry is the Editor in Chief of NPS, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures, which he co-owns. When not managing content, Barry sits on the board of a K-8 school, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, children, and dogs.

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