Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs with Course Information

Sep 11, 2019

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a clinical nurse specialist. Get a quick overview of the requirements as well as details about salary and employment outlook to find out if this is the career for you.

Clinical nurse specialists are registered nurses who work in a particular area of healthcare. They must complete a master's degree and additional certification to qualify for this career.

Essential Information

Clinical nurse specialists are advanced registered nurses (RNs) who provide patient care in a specialized area of healthcare such as cardiology or urology, for example. They may specialize in a disease or illness, patient type, healthcare setting or treatment method. Becoming a clinical nurse specialist entails several years of nursing experience in the chosen specialty and completion of a graduate degree program. Certification or licensure is also required.

Required Education Master's degree
Additional Requirements RN license; additional state licensure as a clinical nurse specialist; voluntary specialty certification available
Projected Job Growth* (2018-2028) 12% for registered nurses; 13% for health diagnosing and treating practitioners
Median Salary* (2018) $71,730 annually for registered nurses; $80,990 for health diagnosing and treating practitioners

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

Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

Clinical nurse specialist graduate programs provide skilled nurses with advanced theoretical knowledge and practical experience. Aspiring clinical nurse specialists may choose to focus on any of a variety of specialties, including community health, gerontology, adult medicine and mental health. Due to the large number of possible specialties, program curricula vary based on students' chosen fields.

Educational Prerequisites

To gain admission into graduate degree programs, applicants must hold nursing licensure and at least a bachelor's degree in nursing. Some programs admit registered nurses who hold degrees in majors other than nursing.

Master of Science in Nursing

Prospective clinical nurse specialists are required to complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program with a clinical nurse specialist concentration. These programs generally take 2-3 years to complete. Such MSN programs allow students to customize their curricula according to specialty, resulting in a variety of possible course schedules. Courses often include:

  • Advanced patient assessment
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Advanced nursing theory
  • Educating through nursing
  • Family nursing
  • Ethics in nursing

Doctor of Nursing Practice

Some colleges and universities offer Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs geared toward clinical nurse specialists. These programs tend to focus on theory, research and leadership in the students' specialties. DNP programs also equip students with extensive exposure to their specialties through advanced clinical practicums and doctoral projects. Curricula vary by specialty, but core courses tend to include:

  • Evidence-based nursing
  • Clinical practice theory
  • Healthcare law
  • Statistics in clinical practice
  • Advanced ethics
  • Financial management in healthcare


Upon completing a graduate degree program, clinical nurse specialists may choose to become certified by a national organization. Some employers require nurses to hold such certification. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification programs for several clinical specialties, including adult health, pediatrics, community health and diabetes management. Certification entails passage of a specialty exam. Certified clinical nurse specialists must renew their credentials every five years by earning professional development units.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 12% increase in employment for registered nurses between 2018 to 2028 and a 13% increase for health diagnosing and treating practitioners, which includes clinical nurse specialists, during the same time frame. This rate of growth is higher than average and is perhaps due in part to the increasing number of elderly citizens requiring medical and nursing care. In 2018, registered nurses earned a median annual salary of $71,730 according to the BLS and health diagnosing and treating practitioners earned $80,990.

The requirements for a clinical nurse specialists include certification as a registered nurse (RN), experience in the chosen specialty, and completion of a master's degree in nursing. Certification for nurse specialists is voluntary, but may be required by some employers. The job growth outlook for registered nurses is faster than the job market as a whole, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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