How to Choose a CNS Degree

Do you think you may be interested in a career in advanced practice nursing? One of the most exciting careers in this field is that of clinical nurse specialists (CNS). These are highly trained advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have several years of education beyond a bachelor’s degree in nursing. A CNS enters the field by earning her Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), with a specialty in clinical nursing.

Most MSN programs take two years of education beyond a master’s degree. You also must complete 500-750 clinical hours to earn your degree.

As you are thinking about getting your MSN degree as a CNS, you need to consider the following factors:

  • Which subspecialty will you select?
  • Which is the best university program for you?

As with all of the most popular APRN roles, a clinical nurse specialist has a very special set of skills and knowledge that puts them at the top of the nursing profession. They:

  • Function as a patient advocate but also determine how to save money and resources
  • Diagnose patients and provide advanced treatments
  • Serve in leadership and management roles
  • Reduce complications in medicine and boost satisfaction of patients
  • Often work in specialized nursing areas, such as acute care, neonates and geriatrics, among many others.
  • Work closely with the entire nursing staff to improve practices and patient outcomes.

You also will earn a high salary, with a typical salary of approximately $90,000.  Also, job demand for all APRN occupations should soar by 30% or more by 2024. You will rarely suffer from lack of work as a CNS.

If becoming a CNS sounds like something you want, you will need to learn about which MSN/CNS program to choose. You also need to determine which subspecialty is for you.


How to Select Your MSN and CNS Program

The first thing to consider is whether to take your MSN classes on a campus or online. You have the option of earning your MSN degree almost entirely online, and no longer have to regularly attend classes in person.

You also should decide which specialty you would like to focus on in your CNS program. For example, Kent State University in Ohio offers three CNS programs that are 100% online:

  • Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist: This concentration prepares you to care for young and old patients. You will learn advanced nursing skills in primary care, leadership, collaboration, research, advocacy and ethical decision making.
  • Advanced Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist: You will do the same as the above speciality, but will be focused on cancer patients who are undergoing treatment.
  • Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist: A specialty focused on patients who are in ERs and trauma centers.
  • Pediatric Clinical Care Specialist: Focuses on caring for children in an advanced practice capacity.

The Kent State University program is 38 credit hours and can be done in two years full time.

The curriculum for CNS at Kent State includes these courses:

  • Advanced Nursing Informatics
  • Advanced Health Assessment
  • Healthy Policy and Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Pathophysiology for APRNs
  • Theoretical Basis for Nursing Practice
  • Methods of Inquiry
  • Pharmacology for APRNs
  • Clinical Diagnostics
  • CNS Practicum

Clinical Nurse Leader Option

Another option in the CNS field is to become a clinical nurse leader, or CNL. This is a relatively new role in the field of nursing; these programs prepare RNs to be highly advanced nursing generalists who are point of care experts.

For instance, the University of South Alabama offers a CNL program that may be completed in as little as three semesters, with all courses online. Most students can arrange clinical hours in their local area.

A typical curriculum for CNL is as follows:

  • The Physio-Pathological Basis of Advanced Nursing
  • Scientific Foundation of Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Pharmacology for Advanced Practice Nurses
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Clinical Nurse Leader Synthesis
  • Clinical Nurse Leader Practicum
  • Advanced Nursing Assessment
  • Healthcare Policy and Finance

Check Program Accreditation Carefully

Whether you attend classes in person or not, it is important to select a CNS program that is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

CCNE and ACEN have been recognized by the US Department of Education as the best accreditation agencies in nursing. If you would like, you can read more about the standards that these organizations have for accrediting MSN programs.

Also, you need to verify that the university is accredited by one of the national, regional accreditation associations that are recognized by the US Dept. of Education:

As you are thinking about earning your online CNS degree, you should always remember that getting a degree online is not easier. In fact, some people may find that it is more difficult because you have to work more independently on some very difficult coursework. Earning an online degree usually requires more discipline than campus-based classes, too.

Further, you have the same level of expectations on your whether you take classes online or in person.

CNS Bridge Programs

Another good option for many professionals is an MSN bridge program. These programs allow you to earn an MSN degree as a CNS in a faster time. For instance, consider these MSN CNS bridge programs:

  • RN to MSN: This is for a current nursing professional who is an RN with an associate’s degree, or occasionally, an RN diploma (less common today). You could earn your BSN first, but this would take at least three years, plus two years to earn your MSN. You may be able to earn your MSN degree in 4-5 years. For instance, LaSalle University offers an RN to MSN bridge program in person, for the professional with nursing experience.
  • BSN to MSN direct entry: Some professionals want to enter nursing from another field entirely who already have another bachelor’s degree. You have options as well. You can earn your MSN degree in the CNS field without earning a separate BSN degree, saving you at least a year or two. Drexel University offers an online, direct entry BSN to MSN program.

These bridge programs offer a fast track path for both the experienced nurse and the experience professional from another field. Both are excellent options to save you time and money.

CNS Summary

Earning an MSN degree focused on the CNS specialty will put you in a very high paying career field. You also will have soaring job demand and will be able to make a major impact on the lives of many patients.