Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

What Is a CNS?

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) holds specialized advanced practice knowledge in an area such as pediatrics, community health, and gerontology. CNSs provide direct care to patients in their area of specialization. However, they also work on macro-level issues related to nursing education, research, and leadership. They also often collaborate with other medical staff to solve systematic issues. Nurse specialists tend to work independently, and may supervise other nurses.

CNSs have more specialized knowledge than most other nurses, especially in their area of focus.

To become a CNS, you must complete at least a master of science in nursing (MSN). Some CNSs hold doctoral degrees. CNSs have more specialized knowledge than most other nurses, especially in their area of focus. Consequently, clinical nurse specialist programs include extensive education and clinical experiences.

What Degree Is Needed to Be a CNS?

Because each state creates its own rules and regulations regarding nursing licenses, requirements for working as a licensed CNS vary. However, most states require you to hold an MSN. Many CNSs subsequently earn a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP). You must earn your MSN or DNP from a college or university that holds accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Typical CNS programs give students skills in research, clinical work, and leadership. Students then focus on a specialized area of health such as pediatrics, women’s health, or oncology. Online CNS programs include a clinical practicum that gives students experience working directly with patients. To work as a CNS, you also typically need certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Is an Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program Right for Me?

Career Mindset

Online clinical nurse specialist programs tend to attract ambitious and driven students who want to take on leadership roles in their profession. Nurses who do well in online CNS programs are usually collaborative, detail oriented, good at communication, intellectually curious, empathetic, and able to make informed decisions. Most clinical nurse specialist online programs prefer students with a few years of professional nursing experience. Typical day-to-day tasks for a CNS include diagnosing and treating patients in their area of specialty, conducting research, supervising and educating other nurses, and collaborating with doctors and other medical staff.

Getting Your Degree Online


Online clinical nurse specialist programs allow students to access lectures and course materials from anywhere, at anytime. As long as you complete your coursework on time, your physical location does not matter.


Students in clinical nurse specialist online programs usually do not need to attend class at a specific time each week. Instead, learners can watch lectures and complete readings on their own schedules. This flexibility benefits students who want to continue working or who need to maintain family responsibilities while in school.

School options

Students can enroll in CNS online programs around the country, regardless of where they live. Distance learners can choose the program that most closely fits their academic interests and career goals, rather than just attending the closest college to their home. Many online programs charge all students the same tuition, regardless of state residency.


Online clinical nurse specialist programs give you the opportunity to learn with students from around the country, and sometimes from around the world. Learners can discuss unique perspectives, network with peers, and share their experiences.


Online CNS programs use technological tools to connect students with their classmates and faculty. Typically, distance education programs include access to online libraries, message boards, chatrooms, and an online testing center.

CNS Program Admission Requirements

Online clinical nurse specialist programs typically require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Most CNS programs prefer candidates with a bachelor’s in nursing, but some accept students who hold a bachelor’s in a field other than nursing. Students should typically have a minimum 3.0 GPA, a current registered nurse license, and at least two years of professional nursing experience. Other common requirements include community service, professional commitment, an interview with faculty members, and a written statement of purpose. Students pursuing clinical nurse specialist programs online may also submit letters of recommendation, official transcripts from all previously attended colleges, and a current resume. Some online clinical nurse specialist programs may also require prerequisite courses in subjects such as statistics.

What Can I Do with a CNS Degree?

Career Paths for a CNS

Professionals who complete clinical nurse specialist programs online can find work as clinical nurses, researchers, educators, consultants, and case managers. CNSs lead interdisciplinary healthcare teams and help patients and their families navigate healthcare systems. Explore more CNS careers here.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

This advanced practice role typically focuses on managing treatment and improving patient care. CNSs usually work in a specific area such as oncology, emergency care, or pediatrics. They often provide education to other nurses and collaborate with medical professionals to improve patient outcomes. To work as a clinical nurse specialist, candidates must usually have a CNS degree.

Clinical Nurse Leader

These professionals lead clinical nursing tasks within their department or organization. Clinical nurse leaders frequently supervise other nurses, interact with patients and their families, organize and administer medications, plan nurses’ schedules, and work with doctors and other medical professionals. When necessary, they also make decisions about changing care plans. A CNS degree gives students the leadership skills needed to work in this role.

Clinical Research Nurse

This type of nurse provides direct care to patients enrolled in clinical research trials. Clinical research nurses usually need an extensive background in clinical nursing. They work with a diverse variety of people and provide all kinds of care, including giving study medication to patients and completing study documentation. They also recruit clinical trial patients. A CNS degree can prepare students to work in this research-heavy role.

Nurse Midwife

Nurse midwives provide direct care to patients preparing to have children. They offer prenatal care, delivery, and family planning services. Nurse midwives work in obstetrician and gynecologist offices, public health departments, and hospitals. They must know how to handle stressful medical situations. A CNS degree allows students to specialize in women’s health services and learn the skills necessary for this position.

Common Employers for Clinical Nurse Specialists


CNS professionals who work in hospitals typically provide direct care to patients within a specific department or unit, such as emergency care or pediatrics. They tend to take on leadership roles and supervise other nurses in their unit. Sometimes CNSs work as staff educators in hospital settings.

Long-Term Care Clinics

CNSs who work in long-term care clinics typically specialize in gerontology. They provide direct care to elderly patients, supervise other nurses in the clinic, and train caretakers. They often work collaboratively with other medical professionals. CNSs may help research new evidence-based standards.

Home Health Agencies

CNSs that work at home health agencies provide direct care to patients within their specialty area. They usually work in gerontology, oncology, or adult healthcare. These CNSs may also work as staff educators or develop new protocols based on research.

Salaries for Clinical Nurse Specialists

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Salary Potential for Clinical Nurse Specialists

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What to Expect from an Online CNS Program

About the Program

Most clinical nurse specialist online programs require students to earn an MSN. On average, these programs take about two years of full-time study to complete. Part-time learners can earn a CNS master’s in three to four years, and students who already hold an MSN can earn a clinical nurse specialist certificate in about one year. Most CNS master’s programs include approximately 40 credits of coursework in general nursing and a specialty area. Common classes include scientific writing, nursing research, decision-making, and leadership. Some graduates from CNS programs go on to earn a doctoral degree. CNS programs should hold accreditation from either the CCNE or ACEN.

Typical Curriculum for an Online CNS Program

Online clinical nurse specialist programs typically focus on advanced practice nursing skills in the student’s chosen specialty area. The curriculum also covers core CNS skills such as leadership, resource management, communication, research, and teaching methods. Students who take clinical nurse specialist programs online usually complete courses in clinical diagnostics, theoretical basis for nursing practice, advanced health assessment, and pathophysiology for the advanced practice registered nurse. Students then take classes in a specialty area such as gerontology, pediatrics, or oncology.

CNS programs also require an internship or clinical practicum. Students spend around 500 hours gaining real-world clinical practice in their specialty area. Usually, students take three practicum courses, one each semester starting in the second term. Online learners typically complete their practicum at a healthcare facility in their local area. CNS graduates leave their program with the advanced practice nursing skills and theoretical understanding necessary to take on leadership roles in the healthcare field. They possess in-depth knowledge of a specific specialty area of nursing, as well as an understanding of some of the macro-level issues in the healthcare field.

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