How to Become a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

Each blog post is dated and contains accurate information as of that date. Certain information may have changed since the blog post publication date. If you would like to confirm the current accuracy of blog information, please visit our ABSN overview page or contact admissions at (866) 892-3819.

Wondering how to become a clinical nurse specialist? First, you’ll need to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, pass the NCLEX and obtain a few years of clinical experience. Then, you’ll need to earn a graduate-level CNS degree, like an MSN or DNP, and pass the CNS certification exam.

APRN speaks to patient

In many career fields, the paths to advancement are somewhat murky. Nursing is a great choice for people interested in switching careers because it offers boundless opportunities and the promise of transparent pathways as you work toward career advancement. For example, if you’d like to continue with a patient-facing, bedside role, you might consider becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

There are four main types of APRNs, including clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). What is a clinical nurse specialist? Explore this exciting career here and learn how to become a clinical nurse specialist even if you don’t yet have a nursing degree.

Northeastern University has a respected history of graduating skilled and compassionate registered nurses in all nursing specialties. Through the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program, career changers and college transfers can earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) faster than through a traditional BSN program, fast-tracking your plans to becoming a CNS or other APRN.

What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is a type of APRN who has undergone the advanced education and training necessary to care for patients, including specialty populations, from diagnosis to treatment and follow-up.

A CNS not only provides direct patient care but also seeks to advance the nursing field by serving as a nurse leader who optimizes healthcare delivery systems to improve patient outcomes and enhance operational efficiency.

A CNS can work in a wide range of nursing specialties and patient populations, including:

  • Women’s Health
  • Pediatrics
  • Rehabilitation services
  • Psychiatric care
  • Emergency medicine
  • Critical care
  • Oncology
  • Wound care
  • Geriatrics
nurse with patient in hospital bed

There are plenty of career options for nurses. Learn how to choose a nursing specialty here.

What Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do?

Before deciding whether you’d like to earn your CNS degree, it can be helpful to know the specific CNS responsibilities. Their day-to-day tasks can vary, but in general, a CNS may do any of the following:

  • Assess patients and order diagnostic tests
  • Diagnose patients and administer treatments
  • Develop and implement interventions
  • Prescribe medications (in some states)
  • Provide patient and family caregiver education
  • Serve as a source of expertise and guidance to a team of nurses
  • Assess the delivery of healthcare, develop and implement practice changes and ensure the organization is providing evidence-based care that contributes to better patient outcomes
  • Contribute to the creation of effective, meaningful healthcare policies within the organization or the larger community

A CNS may also be a nurse researcher, consultant or educator. This nursing subfield contains many options and opportunities for those interested in expanding their career options.

How to Become a CNS

Now that you know the answer to the question, “What does a clinical nurse specialist do?” you may wonder how you can pursue this path. Learn how to become a CNS below, starting with earning your first nursing degree and working your way to a CNS license.

Earn a BSN

Your first step toward becoming a clinical nurse specialist is earning a BSN. If you’ve never attended college, you must apply to a traditional four-year BSN program. However, if you’ve already earned a non-nursing college degree or a minimum number of non-nursing college credits, you may be eligible to apply to an ABSN program.

student in front of sign

An ABSN program leverages your past education so you can graduate fast. For example, at Northeastern University, our ABSN program allows you to graduate in as few as 16 months. Plus, there are three start dates each year so that you can begin quickly. Keep in mind that you may need to complete some prerequisites before beginning your nursing education.

Your nursing degree program will consist of a combination of nursing theory coursework, nursing skills labs, nursing simulation labs and clinical rotations. Northeastern’s ABSN program offers online nursing coursework paired with in-person experiential learning for greater convenience.

You’ll develop essential nursing skills, like performing physical assessments and providing wound care in nursing skills labs. In simulation labs, you will participate in patient care scenarios utilizing life-like medical manikins. Lastly, you’ll practice providing real-world patient care alongside clinical instructors and nursing preceptors in clinical rotations.

Pass the NCLEX

After earning a BSN, the next step is to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN®). The NCLEX is the national licensure exam that all aspiring registered nurses (RNs) need to pass.

The exam tests your nursing knowledge and ability to think critically and develop appropriate responses based on case information. This test is rigorous and extensive. It’s essential to begin preparing for it early, even as early as your first semester in nursing school.

nursing student taking notes

Gain Clinical Nursing Experience

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX and obtained your state nursing license, you need to gain at least a few years of clinical nursing experience before taking the next educational step in the process. Look for a job in your chosen nursing specialty, such as women’s health, pediatrics or emergency nursing.

Remember that although you've graduated and earned your nursing license, your nursing education never ends. You must constantly learn new things and refine your skills throughout your career. This is especially true during the first few years on the job when caring for and communicating with patients still feels new. Don't be afraid to actively solicit feedback from more seasoned nurses when they have the time.

Earn a Graduate-Level CNS Degree

After you’ve gained a few years of bedside experience, your next step is to earn a graduate degree to qualify for a CNS license. You could earn either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to become a CNS. It’s essential to choose a program accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Along with your degree program, you must complete 500 faculty-supervised clinical experience hours within your chosen CNS nursing specialty and patient population.

Obtain a CNS Certification

The final step in how to become a clinical nurse specialist is passing the certification exam. You can apply for the appropriate CNS certification exam for your nursing specialty from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Like the NCLEX, you should plan on spending plenty of time preparing for the exam.

nursing student working on whiteboard

Once you pass, you can apply for your CNS certification from the board of nursing in the state where you plan to work. Make a note of the renewal date, keeping in mind that renewal requires the completion of continuing education hours.

Skills & Qualities of a Successful Clinical Nurse Specialist

An effective clinical nurse specialist relies on a wide range of technical and soft skills. You’ll begin working toward acquiring these skills as an undergraduate student and will have opportunities to refine them throughout your career and graduate-level education.

Wondering how to make your first nursing resume stand out? Get some actionable tips here.

hiring rep reviews applicant's resume

Communication Skills

Communication skills are among the most vital soft skills for any nurse, but especially for a CNS. As an APRN, a CNS is the professional to whom other nurses turn for guidance and leadership. A CNS must be able to communicate with diverse coworkers from all walks of life. The same is true of working with patients and their families; good communication skills are the bedrock of patient education and good bedside manner.

Attention to Detail

As a CNS, you may work on complex patient cases involving multiple co-morbidities. Paying attention to every detail is vital, as your patients and their families are counting on you. In addition to paying close attention to patient information, you’ll be responsible for scrutinizing the organization and its delivery of care to identify gaps that can benefit from improvement initiatives.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ), or the ability to perceive and regulate emotions, contributes to the development of better interpersonal skills. An emotionally intelligent nurse inspires and motivates their team, serves as an effective servant leader and connects to patients on a meaningful level.

Northeastern nursing students posing and smiling

Patient Advocacy

Navigating the healthcare system — especially as a hospitalized patient — can be overwhelming. As a CNS, you must be an effective and tireless advocate for your patients to help them navigate some of the most difficult times in their lives.

Ready to Pursue a Career as a CNS?

No matter where your nursing career takes you, you can begin building a solid foundation for the future at Northeastern University. Our ABSN program, available in two locations (near Boston, MA, and in Charlotte, NC), offers small class sizes and a blended curriculum of online coursework paired with onsite experiential learning activities. Our small class sizes mean more personalized attention for each student.

Additionally, you could graduate in as few as 16 months. Throughout your nursing journey at Northeastern, you’ll have access to support and personalized guidance from our faculty. Ready to take the first step toward a rewarding career in nursing? Contact an admissions counselor today to learn about our eligibility requirements.

Get Your Free ABSN Program Guide

Our ABSN program guide includes everything you need to know about the accelerated path to nursing.

Northeastern University ABSN program guide