Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

Dec 04, 2019

Essential Information

A CNS is an RN who holds either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a CNS concentration or a post-master's CNS certificate. A CNS specializes in a certain area of nursing practice, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, critical care, oncology or psychiatric care. Before enrolling in a CNS program, students need job experience, RN licensure and the appropriate prerequisite degree in nursing.

An online CNS program is a hybrid of off-campus and resident coursework. Most programs are designed to accommodate the schedules of working nurses, and the required clinical hours can usually be logged at the nurses' place of employment. In addition to the clinical requirements, a CNS program consists of courses in pathophysiology, health assessment and pharmacology.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center is the most common organization that grants CNS certifications. Nurses must graduate from an accredited program in their specialty area and pass a certification examination.

Master's Degree in Nursing: Specialization as Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical nurse specialists are tasked with providing patient assessment and advanced care, as well as seeing to the implementation of advanced healthcare delivery systems. This online master's degree program prepares prospective clinical nurse specialists to diagnose and treat diseases, injuries and disabilities, along with assisting patients and their families in the prevention, containment and amelioration of illness.

Prerequisites for admission to the master's program include a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). In addition to a mandatory current license as an RN, applicants are usually required to provide letters of recommendation and proof of at least 2,000 hours of experience as a registered nurse.

Program Information and Requirements

In many cases, students have the option of completing the master's program full-time or part-time. Depending on school policy, full-time can take between 18-24 months to complete, while part time pursuit may take 2-4 years.

The didactic portions are delivered entirely online by way of a course management system, such as Blackboard. Discussion boards, virtual media, video presentations, pre-recorded lectures and live conferencing are used to deliver instruction and classwork. The in-person component of the program consists of a number of clinical courses. These requirements may be completed under supervision either at the healthcare facility on campus or at an approved facility near the student's home. Usually this is where the student is currently employed.

Technical requirements include a computer with Internet access and a current Web browser. Operating systems should be at least Windows XP or Mac OS X. A DVD drive may be required for course content delivered on discs, and a headset is needed to participate in live streams of classes. Anti-virus software, such as Norton or McAfee should be installed.

Course Topics

Over 500 hours of clinical work is required in the master's degree program. The didactic components of the programs entail core courses. Specialty courses generally take place during the clinical practicums.

CNS Theory

The basic concepts and theories behind the role of a clinical nurse specialist are examined and discussed in this course. Students are exposed to the characteristics, duties, responsibilities and core competencies of the profession.


This course is focused on the clinical use and effects of drugs and drug groups on different physiological functions. Students learn to make clinical judgments and patient management decisions by understanding the effects of pharmacological mechanisms, side effects, contra-indications and drug interactions.


This is an instructional course in various statistical methods of healthcare research. Models and theories are examined, including analysis of variance (ANOVA), non-parametric tests, hypothesis testing, linear and multiple regression, t-tests and correlation. Computer applications and examples from research literature and appropriate databases are used to illustrate.

Post-Master's Clinical Nurse Specialist Certificate

Those who have already earned a master's degree in nursing can enroll in a post-master's certificate program to focus on clinical nurse specialist training. A certain amount of on-the-job experience is usually required for admission to the program. The program trains the potential CNS in the handling of difficult and complicated patient care issues. Graduates are also trained in managing staff nurses and instituting programs to improve the quality of system operations. A CNS certificate may also qualify graduates to teach nursing in an academic institution.

Program Information and Requirements

Students can usually complete all certificate requirements over the course of three semesters. The program includes the 500 hours of supervised clinical practice at a school-approved facility near the student's home. This can often be the candidate's current place of employment. The didactic portions of the program are taken online through video lectures and texts.

Technical requirements include a computer with Internet access, preferably broadband. A capable browser such as Internet Explorer, Netscape or Firefox is also required. Depending on the school, students may need programs capable of reading Word documents and PDF files. The computer should be equipped with a CD-ROM drive and a reliable anti-virus system such as McAfee or Norton.

Course Topics

The few core courses in the certificate program are delivered online. Specialty training takes place during 500 hours of clinical practice, which is spread over two semesters.


The ability to analyze and deal with physiologic problems as they arise in advanced practice is the focus of this course. Students learn how the interplay between normal physiology and pathophysiology over a lifespan affects the nature of various diseases encountered in a patient population. Subject matter extends from the cellular level through major organ systems.

Health Assessment

Students learn to examine functional and dysfunctional health patterns exhibited by patients and families over a lifespan. Essential evaluation skills, including observation techniques, critical thinking and decision making are developed to enable graduates to make correct assessments and determinations of health status, health risks and illnesses.

Clinical Practicum

Under the supervision of a practicing CNS, students in practicum courses gain experience applying the skills they've learned in core courses to work in the field. The work examines the role of the CNS in the areas of patient-client relations, staff nurse relationships and the operation and organization of clinical facilities.

Career Information

Graduates who complete clinical nurse specialist training may be eligible to sit for one of a number of national certification examinations. Certification is renewable every four years, provided the individual completes a prescribed number of continuing education credits. Certification is available in subjects such as adult health, psychiatric and mental health, CNS core, database management, gerontology, home health, pediatric health and public health.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for registered nurses, including clinical nurse specialists, should increase 12% from 2018-2028 ( In a November 2019 survey, reported the median annual salary for clinical nurse specialists to be around $89,000.

Those who complete a post-master's certificate program for clinical nurse specialists have the same opportunities as those who earned the master's degree. Graduates may wish to earn certification in one of the many CNS fields of focus, such as home health or pediatrics.

As a rule, clinical nurse specialists, as advanced practice nurses, may prescribe medicine. Since authority to write prescriptions differs from state to state, the state board of nursing should be consulted for specific regulations in this regard.

Specializations for clinical nurse specialists may include pediatrics, geriatrics, critical care or oncology, and can be taught through hybrid master's degree or certificate programs. In these programs courses like CNS theory, biostatistics and pathophysiology may be found online, but students need to complete in-person clinical experience.

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