Clinical Nurse Specialists


Education and Training Requirements

High School

If you are interested in a nursing career, it is a good idea to take college-preparatory course work that includes biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. If a course on human anatomy and physiology is offered as a follow-up to basic biology that would be a good elective. English and speech classes that emphasize communication skills (both written and oral) are also important. Taking a foreign languagage, such as Spanish, will help you to communicate more effectively with colleagues and patients who may not be fluent in English. 

Postsecondary Training

If you want to become a clinical nurse specialist, you will first need to complete the high school and undergraduate education necessary to become a registered nurse. There are three ways to become an RN: a two-year associate's degree (ADN) program at a junior or community college, a two- or three-year diploma program at a hospital, or a bachelor's degree (BSN) program at a college or university. All the programs include supervised hands-on training in a hospital setting. Since a clinical nurse specialist needs a master's degree (MSN), the BSN is the most appropriate educational route to choose. People who are already practicing nursing with an ADN or diploma and decide to upgrade their qualifications generally need to do additional course work to receive a bachelor's degree before they can enter an MSN program.

CNSs must earn a master's or higher degree after completing their studies to become a registered nurse. Many CNSs go on to earn their doctoral degrees. The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists reports that more than 13 percent of CNSs have a doctoral degree. CNSs can specialize by focusing their studies in a specific area, such as community health, home health, gerontology, or medical-surgical.

The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists provides a list of educational programs at its Web site,

Other Education or Training

The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists offers webinars and other continuing education opportunities. Recent webinars included Pain Management Conversions, Pneumonia Prevention, and Professional Communication. The association also provides CE opportunities at its annual conference.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

National certification exams are offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) in various clinical specialties, although not all states require these examinations or recognize clinical nurse specialist status. The ANCC offers specialty examinations in adult health, adult-gerontology, adult psychiatric–mental health, child/adolescent psychiatric–mental health, gerontological, home health, pediatric, and public/community health.

Additional certifications are available from the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation, Orthopaedic Nurses Certification Board, Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, and the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists reports that 67 percent of CNSs are nationally certified. 

To become a clinical nurse specialist, you must first become a licensed RN by passing a national examination after graduating from an approved nursing program. All states require RN licensing before a nurse is allowed to practice.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Nursing students should gain experience by completing several nursing internships, or clinical rotations, as part of their postsecondary training.

Anyone going into nursing needs to have a caring attitude and a strong commitment to helping people. Emotional maturity, a well-balanced personality, and excellent communication skills are vital.

In addition to possessing the qualities shared by all good nurses, clinical nurse specialists need to develop the leadership skills and expert competence necessary for advanced practice nursing. Because the clinical nurse specialist role is still not understood by some doctors and nurses, he or she must have the professional self-confidence to educate colleagues as well as patients and families. Physicians may be reluctant to recognize the qualifications of the clinical nurse specialist, and staff nurses may be resistant to what they perceive as criticism or interference with their work. A clinical nurse specialist also needs to have the academic interest and ability to do graduate study. A master's degree is required, and a doctorate is becoming increasingly necessary for top-level positions involving research, teaching, and policy making.