How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist

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In this guide, readers can review how to become a clinical nurse specialist, including what clinical nurse specialists are, what they do, where they work, and how much they make. Individuals can also explore projected field growth, clinical nurse specialist requirements, licensing and certification information, and helpful resources for professionals in the field.

Read on to learn how to become a clinical nurse specialist.

What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

An advanced practice nurse, a clinical nurse specialist provides patient consultation and care across a variety of healthcare areas. Professionals in the occupation practice medicine, manage staff, and conduct research within a certain patient population. These specialists focus on specialties, such as cardiovascular health, gerontology, and public policy. Along with providing direct patient consultation and care, clinical nurse specialists are also involved in research, education, and facility administration.

What Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Do?

Clinical nurse specialists provide clinical care in specialized clinics or units. These specialists are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who focus on improving and managing nursing care and patient satisfaction, emphasizing a specific clinical department, such as emergency medicine, oncology, or pediatrics. Clinical nurse specialists teach nurses under their supervision new techniques for patient care.

Working closely with other medical professionals, clinical nurse specialists develop policies and assess current standards for patient care to provide direct clinical service to patients. These nurses analyze medical outcomes and satisfaction.

Where Do Clinical Nurse Specialists Work?

Typically working a full-time schedule, clinical nurse specialists frequently take advantage of overtime. Additionally, these specialists can work non-standard schedules, including nights and weekends. Clinical nurse specialists collaborate with a variety of medical professionals, including other nurses, doctors, support staff, and technicians.

Clinical nurse specialists can work in a variety of settings, including outpatient care facilities, hospitals, laboratories, and emergency rooms.

Steps to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist

When researching how to become a clinical nurse specialist, professionals can refer to the steps below.

  1. Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree Earning a BSN serves as a stepping stone into some of the key requirements to become a clinical nurse specialist. Holding a BSN is a preliminary requirement of obtaining registered nurse (RN) licensure — a requirement in the clinical nurse specialist licensing process. Professionals must hold a BSN before they can enroll in a master’s program, which is also a primary requirement during the clinical nurse specialist licensing process.

  2. Obtain RN Licensure Once individuals earn a BSN, or in many states, an associate degree in nursing, they can pursue RN licensure. Requirements to obtain RN licensure vary by state, but typically require candidates to submit an application, complete educational requirements, and pass the NCLEX-RN exam.

  3. Pursue Specializations While Working as an RN After obtaining RN licensure, professionals can begin working in their chosen specialization. Clinical nurse specialists can consider a variety of specialization opportunities. After choosing a specialization and obtaining RN licensure, professionals can begin entry-level roles.

  4. Gain Admission to an Accredited Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program With a Clinical Nurse Specialist Track Once individuals successfully complete a BSN, obtain RN licensure, and gain experience in their chosen specialty, they can pursue an accredited MSN or DNP program, focusing on the clinical nurse specialist track. Admission requirements vary by school, although similarities exist across institutions. Master’s programs require applicants to hold a BSN from an accredited school along with a current, active RN license. Doctoral programs require applicants to hold an MSN.

  5. Earn an MSN or DNP To pursue licensure as a clinical nurse specialist, professionals need an MSN or DNP. Students pursuing an MSN build upon the skills and knowledge they cultivated during their bachelor’s program. Full-time learners typically earn their master’s degree within two years. At the doctoral level, degree-seekers explore the field’s most complex, specialized concepts. Students who enroll in their DNP program full time typically earn their degree in 3-4 years.

  6. Obtain Certification From the National Certification Corporation Before obtaining state licensure, professionals must earn certification from the National Certification Corporation. Professionals focusing on clinical nurse specialist opportunities can consider a variety of certification options, including the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification, which requires candidates to complete a competency-based exam. The credential remains active for five years. Acute care clinical nurse specialist certifications include the Adult-Gerontology (ACCNS-AG) option, an entry-level advanced practice board certification designed for clinical nurse specialists. Additional certifications in acute care include Pediatric (ACCNS-P) and Neonatal (ACCNS-N). Both require candidates to hold an active, current RN license. Individuals must also have completed an advanced practice degree in nursing.

  7. Obtain Clinical Nurse Specialist State Licensure Before professionals can search for jobs, they must obtain their state licensure as clinical nurse specialists. State licensing varies by state, but typically entails educational, experience, and exam components.

  8. Find Employment Upon earning a BSN, MSN, optional DNP, and national certification, and completing state licensing requirements, professionals can seek employment opportunities.

Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist FAQs

  • How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Be a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

    To become a clinical nurse specialist, professionals need a BSN and MSN. Some individuals also pursue a DNP. Bachelor’s programs usually take four years to complete, while master’s degrees take two years. Doctoral programs usually require 3-4 years.

  • What Happens if I Don't Renew My APRN License?

    Part of holding an APRN license is maintaining the license by meeting the renewal requirements. Professionals who do not renew their license on time may not practice as clinical nurse specialists. Individuals who lose their license eligibility can explore opportunities for reinstatement directly through their state’s nursing licensing board.

  • How Many Hours a Week Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Work?

    Professionals typically work more than 40 hours a week. The occupation highlights a variety of specialization opportunities, each leading professionals to focus their work on different workplace settings. Professionals in the field can anticipate differing demands in terms of the hours they work.

  • Can I Get Licensed if My Degree Is From an Unaccredited Program?

    To obtain licensure as a clinical nurse specialist, individuals must pursue a BSN from a regionally accredited college or university. Additionally, students should complete their advanced degrees at regionally accredited institutions. Nursing programs at the master’s and doctoral levels should feature specialized or programmatic accreditation.

  • What Is a Clinical Nurse Consultant?

    Clinical nurse consultants ensure that healthcare facilities provide effective treatment for patients and provide the highest quality of care. These consultants should communicate effectively and compassionately advocate for patients’ best interests. Clinical nurse consultants often work within a specific medical specialty.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Credentials

Clinical nurse specialists must complete specific credentials before they can practice professionally. In the sections below, professionals can learn more about licensing for clinical nurse specialists, including RN and APRN licensing requirements.

Additionally, readers can review the different certification opportunities for clinical nurse specialists, including education, licensing, and experience requirements for each certification. Professionals should research their state’s licensing and certification requirements to ensure they follow processes accordingly.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Licensing

Before professionals can pursue careers as clinical nurse specialists, they must meet specific requirements to obtain licensure. Nurses first need RN licensure. While RN license requirements vary by state, all 50 states use the same licensing exam: the NCLEX-RN. All states also feature the same passing standards since the NCLEX-RN is pass-fail and computer adapted. In many states, RN candidates must submit their applications before they graduate from their bachelor’s program.

Once professionals complete their RN licensure, satisfy clinical experience requirements, and earn an MSN degree, they can pursue APRN licensure. APRN licensure features specific specialization areas, including certified NPs, certified nurse anesthetists, certified nurse midwives, and clinical nurse specialists.

While holding a master’s degree in nursing is the minimum requirement for licensure, professionals can also consider earning a DNP. The American Nurses Credentialing Center awards certification for clinical nurse specialists while other specialties pursue licensure through other agencies.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification

Clinical nurse specialists can explore a variety of certification opportunities. The Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification requires candidates to complete a competency-based examination, allowing applicants to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. The credential remains valid for five years.

The field also features acute care certification opportunities, requiring candidates to hold active, current RN licenses and complete graduate-level advanced practice education programs. The Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist Adult-Gerontology is an entry-level advanced practice board certification for clinical nurse specialists at the graduate level. The Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist Pediatric credential is an entry-level advanced practice board certification focusing on the needs of pediatric patients. The Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist Neonatal credential is a board certification focusing on the needs of the neonatal patient population.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Resources

  • National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists NACNS is a membership organization dedicated to advancing skills and knowledge in clinical nurse specialists. The association focuses on evidence-based and patient-focused care.
  • American Nurses Association A professional organization committed to protecting and advancing the nursing profession, ANA provides members with a variety of resources, networking, and professional development opportunities.
  • Nurse.com Job Search Clinical nurse specialists can access Nurse.com to explore job opportunities in their particular specialty. Job seekers can input distance parameters to locate job openings in a desired location.
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center A subsidiary of the American Nurses Association, ANCC is a certification body for nursing board certification. The group is the largest certification body for advanced practice nurses across specialties.
  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing Functioning as the national voice for academic nursing, AACN promotes nurses and their ability to transform healthcare to improve health.

Learn More About Clinical Nurse Specialists and Related Careers

Professionals exploring careers as clinical nurse specialists can review the resources below to learn more about the profession, including how to become a clinical nurse specialist. Individuals can also browse these resources to explore related careers.

Related Programs

Certified RN Anesthetist
Certified RN anesthetists provide care for patients before surgery and during procedures. They monitor and maintain anesthesia levels during surgery and help patients during the recovery process after surgery.

Clinical Nurse Specialist
Clinical nurse specialists work as APRNs who focus on improving healthcare services across the patient level, healthcare system, and the nurse personnel level.

Related FAQs

Why Pursue a DNP?

DNP programs give students the most specialized, advanced level of skills and knowledge in the field, allowing graduates to pursue the highest-paying and widest variety of career opportunities.

How Do NPs Become Certified?

To become a certified NP, professionals must adhere to the specific certification requirements of their chosen patient population focus, including pediatrics, geriatrics, family care, and psychiatric-mental health.

What are the Most Common NP Sub-Specializations?

All NPs focus their practice on a particular area of medicine with specializations that include psychiatric-mental health, family, and women’s health.

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