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How to Become a Medical Clinical Specialist: Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a medical clinical specialist. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in healthcare. View article »

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Become a Medical Clinical Specialist

Medical clinical specialist is not a commonly used job title. However, one type of medical clinical specialist is a clinical nurse specialist (CNS). A clinical nurse specialist is a type of advanced practice nurse who focuses on a clinical area such as critical care, geriatrics, pediatrics, psychiatric care, or in specific health problems or medical specialties. Duties of a CNS include general nursing tasks involving patient care as well as treating and diagnosing injuries, diseases, or disabilities within the CNS's specialty. Other tasks may include guiding and teaching nursing staff, improving workplace efficiency, and working as part of the nursing management or administration team.

Most registered nurses (RNs), including clinical nurse specialists, work full-time. Shifts may be irregular, such as 12-hour shifts, and be scheduled evening, night, or weekend hours. All medical personnel are at risk of exposure to infectious diseases. This career can be highly rewarding but comes with a lot of stress as well. Nurses must be strong enough to help move patients and spend long hours on their feet. Clinical nurse specialists, because of their more advanced education and skill base, often earn more money than general RNs. The following table contains the main qualifications for becoming a clinical nurse specialist:

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree is required; some employers may prefer candidates with a doctorate
Degree Field Nursing
Licensure and Certification State licensure is required; earning voluntary advanced practice certification or certification within a specialty is preferred by many employers
Experience Varies from employer to employer; generally 2-7 years
Key Skills Critical thinking skills, leadership capabilities, excellent verbal and written communications, ability to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks, emotional stability, compassion, attention to detail, and patience
Salary (2015) $67,490 (median annual wage for registered nurses)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Let's look at the steps required to become a nurse.

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Medical Clinical Specialist Steps

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing

Aspiring RNs must complete an accredited diploma, associate's degree, or bachelor's degree program in nursing to be eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and work as a nurse. In order to gain entry to a master's degree program, however, nurses typically need to have a bachelor's degree in nursing. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program typically takes 4 years to complete and includes classes in nursing, behavioral sciences, nutrition, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, chemistry, and biology. Degree programs also include clinical components that give students hands-on experience in the field.

Nurses with a diploma or an associate's degree can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program, a shorter degree program that builds on the nurse's existing knowledge. RN-to-BSN degree programs can usually be completed full- or part-time, allowing nurses to work while earning the degree.

Step 2: Become Licensed

Every state in the U.S. requires RNs to have a state-issued nursing license in order to practice in that state. Although requirements vary from state to state, aspiring RNs generally need to graduate from a state nursing board-approved nursing program and pass the NCLEX-RN. Most states require nurses to renew the license every few years after completing a number of continuing education hours.

Success Tip:

Become certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation or basic life support (BLS) techniques. Most employers prefer hiring nurses who are already certified in one of these areas. Other employers may offer certification programs as part of their training.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Having work experience isn't a requirement for most master's degree programs. However, many master's programs are tailored to allow nurses to work while earning a degree, helping them gain critical hands-on nursing experience. Since a medical clinical specialist such as a CNS provides guidance to other nurses in a medical practice, it is necessary for the CNS to have a strong foundation in nursing policies and procedures and a firm grasp of critical care techniques, nursing technology and patient care issues. One way to gain these skills is to gain experience in the field.

After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, the RN is eligible for entry-level employment. The duties of an RN generally include recording patient medical histories, administering treatments and medications, observing patients, monitoring medical equipment, consulting with other members of the health care team, and offering instruction on how to manage the illness or injury. Some employers may offer tuition assistance.

Step 4: Earn a Master's Degree

Aspiring clinical nurse specialists have several options for earning a master's degree, including enrolling in a clinical nurse specialist master's program, enrolling in an accelerated combined BSN and master's degree program, or enrolling in a master's degree program in nursing and choosing a specialty. Master's degree programs usually allow students to choose a specialty such as adult/geriatric critical care, pediatric critical care, adult/geriatric health or pediatric health. Master's degree programs give students the clinical expertise necessary for a career as an advanced practice nurse. They also help prepare students for the Clinical Nurse Specialist Exam offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Step 5: Consider Becoming Certified

While certification is not a requirement to work as a clinical nurse specialist, some employers may prefer hiring candidates who are certified in a specialty. Additionally, gaining certification may offer increased job opportunities to the clinical nurse specialist since it provides concrete validation of the nurse's experience, skills, and professional expertise. The ANCC offers a variety of certifications for clinical nurse specialists, including Adult-Gerontology CNS, Child/Adolescent Psychiatric-Mental Health CNS, Home Health CNS and Gerontological CNS. Another option is the Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist (CCNS) certification offered by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Eligibility requirements and the process for becoming certified vary, but they usually include completing an application and taking a certification examination.

Success Tip:

Know what's needed to maintain certification. Although the requirements vary depending on the organization issuing the credential, maintaining certification generally includes completing renewal paperwork, paying a fee, and completing continuing education and/or professional development activities.

When becoming a medical clinical specialist or certified nurse specialist, you must first be licensed and gain experience, but you should also consider getting a master's degree and becoming certified.

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