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Certified Nurse Specialist Education Requirements and Career Info

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a certified nurse specialist. Get a quick view of the requirements, as well as details about specializations, licensure and certification to find out if this is the career for you.

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A clinical nurse specialist is a nurse with an advanced degree who often works as a consultant, teacher or nursing manager. You'll need at least a master's degree, a nursing license and certification in order to become a certified nurse specialist.

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Essential Information

Also called a clinical nurse specialist, a certified nurse specialist is a licensed registered professional nurse, with a master's or doctoral degree in one of the clinical nursing specialties. Qualified for primary care, certified nurse specialists work directly with patients or as consultants, teachers or nursing managers. These professionals can choose from a variety of specializations and have a very favorable employment outlook.

Required Education Master's degree
Additional Requirements Nursing license and certification
Projected Job Growth* (2014-2024) 16% for all registered nurses
Median Salary* (2015) $67,490 for all registered nurses

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Education Requirements for Certified Nurse Specialists

Certified nurse specialist is one of four fields of advanced practice nursing, and requires at least a master's degree in a clinical nursing specialty. In some settings, a certified nurse specialist collaborates with or offers expert advice to a physician or medical team. Some certified nurse specialists work independently, serving as primary care providers.

Educational Background

Applicants to a certified nurse specialist program need a current nursing license and at least a year of clinical experience. Most programs are designed for candidates with a bachelor's degree in nursing, although some programs accept experienced RNs with no college degree. Full-time programs take 18-24 months to complete and include more than 500 clinical hours.

Certificate programs for candidates with a master's degree in nursing take up to two years to complete, and typically include 30 course credits plus clinical practice. Applicants who have completed prerequisite clinical and specialty courses may be able to reduce the course requirements to 15 or fewer credits.

Specialty Areas

Specialties may concentrate on a patient population such as pediatrics or women's health, or a clinical setting like an emergency room or ICU. Certified nurse specialists can also focus on a medical subspecialty like neurosurgery or oncology, or in a type of medical care such as palliative care, rehabilitation or wound management.

Certification and Licensing Information

Upon completion of an accredited program, nurse specialists can become certified by passing a national exam administered by either the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Qualifications for a license to practice as a certified nurse specialist are determined separately by each U.S. state's board of nursing or advanced practice nursing. Requirements are based upon nationally accredited programs and certifying examinations, but there are differences from state to state. Before graduation, students can contact the board of nursing in the state where they hope to practice, to ensure their plans will meet state requirements. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing maintains up-to-date contact information for all state nursing boards.

Career Info

Certified nurse specialists serve in a variety of settings as primary care providers, content experts in their specialties, nursing managers, teachers and researchers. In some states, they are licensed to prescribe medicine. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that job opportunities for certified nurse specialists would grow faster than average. The BLS categorizes certified nurse specialists as registered nurses and predicts a 16% job growth from 2014-2024. The demand for advanced practice nurses, viewed as cost-effective primary care providers, was projected to be high. The median annual wage in 2015 for a registered nurse was $67,490, per BLS.

Employment opportunities for nurses were predicted to grow more slowly in hospitals than in private physician offices, outpatient centers, nursing care facilities and residential care settings. Teaching positions on nursing faculties are currently in demand, and that demand is projected to increase.

Certified nurse specialist are seen as leaders in their field; they have extensive education and formal schooling in their credentials. If you're a nurse who's interested in a leadership or teaching position, it may be in your best interest to become a certified nurse specialist.

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