Nursing Career Knowledge: What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

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What is a clinical nurse specialist? An advanced practice registered nurse who has gained the education and certifications necessary to enter a variety of specialty practice areas. Marquette University's Direct Entry Master of Science in Nursing programs can provide the foundation to begin a career as a CNS.

nurses in hospital looking at computer display

The nursing field offers various career paths, each with unique responsibilities and areas of expertise. One such career path is Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS). Understanding what a CNS is and the pivotal role they play in health care is crucial for anyone considering a career in nursing or looking to advance within the field.

But what is a clinical nurse specialist, exactly? As the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists helps us explain, a CNS is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who has earned a Master of Science in Nursing degree or higher, gained experience as an RN and met the requirements to achieve certification in a specialty practice area. These individuals have clinical specialty expertise for a population, typically have a minimum of 5 years of nursing experience within a specific practice area and can be involved in direct patient care, nursing practice or organizational roles. These professionals play a vital role in our health care system and help countless individuals access personalized, high-quality medical care.

What roles do they fill, how are they pushing the industry forward, and what is the process to become a CNS? We will explore answers to these questions below. We’ll also share how Marquette University’s Direct Entry MSN can lay the foundation for more education and a future CNS career by helping prospective students earn their master’s degree in five or eight semesters.

Why Are Clinical Nurse Specialists So Important in Health Care?

Clinical nurse specialists hold a vital position within the health care system as APRNs who have gained experience as RNs and fulfilled the requirements necessary to achieve certification within a particular specialty area of nursing practice, such as:

  • Pediatrics
  • Adult/Gerontology
  • Oncology
  • Critical Care
  • Mental Health
Marquette nursing student putting on gloves

The importance of CNSs in health care stems from their ability to improve patient outcomes, enhance the efficiency of care delivery and contribute significantly to the overall delivery and improvement of health care services.

CNSs are experts in evidence-based practice, using their extensive nursing knowledge within a specialized role to assess, analyze and deliver patient care. This subset of roles is crucial for ensuring health care practices are up-to-date and effective. By implementing the latest evidence-based practices, a CNS can enhance the quality of patient care and improve outcomes. Their leadership and care are helping to evolve a shifting health care industry, as well as the perception and roles of nurses.

What Is the Clinical Nurse Specialist Role?

The roles of clinical nurse specialists are diverse and multifaceted. They may serve as direct care providers, educators, consultants or researchers within their specialization. As a direct care provider, a CNS assesses, diagnoses and treats patients, often managing complex and chronic health conditions. They also play a significant role in developing care plans and coordinating with other health care team members to meet patient needs.

As educators, CNSs are responsible for teaching and mentoring nursing students or staff. They provide training and guidance to improve clinical skills and promote best practices. This educational role is vital for maintaining high standards of care and ensuring the nursing staff is competent and confident in their abilities.

Additionally, CNSs can act as consultants, offering their expertise to other health care professionals and departments. They may be involved in policy development, quality improvement initiatives and health care planning. This leadership and consulting role allows CNSs to impact patient care beyond direct patient interactions.

The effect of CNSs can also be felt in Magnet Hospitals, which have high educational standards for nurses and nursing leaders. These organizations are associated with better career opportunities, higher retention and improved patient outcomes. From personal career ambitions to better cared-for patients, a career as a CNS could be the right option for many prospective nursing professionals.

doctor with nurses around a patient on bed with monitors

If you’re deliberating about which nursing specialty to pursue, see which might be the right fit.

How a CNS Can Provide Health Care Leadership

Clinical nurse specialists are not only health care providers but also leaders in the nursing field. Their advanced education and specialized knowledge position them to lead change and innovation in health care. CNSs often lead care teams in implementing new policies, procedures and practices. They can sometimes be found in managerial roles, including in Magnet organizations.

Their leadership extends to advocating for patients and the nursing profession. CNSs work to ensure that patient care is patient-centered, safe and effective. Marquette University supports this outlook with a strong patient-centered mindset rooted in the Jesuit traditions of justice and holistic care.

How to Become a CNS: 3 Steps

nursing students over manikin

Becoming a clinical nurse specialist requires advanced academic preparation and professional training. This process can be accelerated through Marquette’s curricula, which can be completed in five or eight semesters (depending on program modality).

1. Obtain an Advanced Nursing Degree

The first step in becoming a CNS is to obtain an advanced nursing degree. This education provides the necessary nursing knowledge and skills to practice as a nurse and meets the qualifications for various specialty certification programs. An aspiring CNS must pursue a graduate-level education, typically a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

These advanced programs offer specialized coursework in the chosen area of nursing practice, research methodologies and leadership skills. In most cases, you would need to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) before enrolling in an advanced nursing degree program. But with Marquette, you can complete prerequisites and enroll in the DE-MSN program with a previous non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Following graduation, you would seek a post-master’s certificate in a CNS specialty.

See everything you can achieve with a Master of Science in Nursing degree.

nurse smiling and shaking hands with coworkers

2. Accrue Professional Experience

In addition to academic preparation, which includes a minimum of 500 faculty-supervised clinical training hours, becoming a CNS requires practical experience working within a specific practice area. Clinical experience is critical to CNS training, where nurses apply their education in real-world settings.

3. Earn Certification in Specialty Area

After completing their education and training, nurses can earn their CNS credential by meeting requirements in their specialty area, including passing a comprehensive exam. Marquette offers several post-Master’s certificates and programs, helping students earn certificates in practice areas, including:

  • Acute care nurse practitioner (adult or pediatric)
  • Primary care nurse practitioner (adult or pediatric)
  • Nurse midwife
  • Health systems leadership
  • Nurse educator
nursing student studying

Take the First Step Toward Becoming a CNS with Marquette

Armed with the knowledge to answer the question “What is a CNS?”, if this career path appeals to you, pursuing an MSN degree through Marquette could be one of the best ways to achieve your goals.

With our Direct Entry MSN and Extended Option programs, you could go from a non-nursing bachelor’s degree to an MSN in five or eight semesters. Take the next step and contact us today to begin the conversation with an admissions adviser.