Your time working as an RN has been more rewarding than you ever could have imagined. Between providing first-rate patient care and learning from your fellow health professionals, you couldn’t have dreamt of a more satisfying career, but you still want more. Deciding to become a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) could be exactly the career move you need. Not only will you be able to provide more specialized and advanced care to your patients, you’ll increase both your professional autonomy and your paycheck. As an advanced practice nurse, you can expect a median salary of nearly $100,000 depending on where you work.
If this advanced nursing career sounds right for you, your first step should be to find an online CNS program that suits your needs. Keep reading to see which online CNS programs top our list, find information on accreditation and tuition, and get the answers to your most important questions.
2021’s Best Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Programs
The proliferation of online clinical nurse specialist programs continues, with more and more options popping up from colleges and universities across the country. With so many schools now offering this degree, it’s important that you do your research to find one that matches your academic, financial, and professional goals.
Because so many students work while completing a CNS degree, finding time to conduct extensive research can be a challenge. EduMed is here to provide data-driven, thoughtful guidance on the best programs for 2021. Each school highlighted below comes with the accreditation employers expect and the affordability you need.
FAQs About Online Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Programs
You likely have lots of questions about potential programs that you need answers to before spending your evenings and weekends applying. Knowing that the best decision is an informed decision, this section breaks down some of the most common questions and provides researched answers to help guide your search.
Paying for Your Online CNS Degree
Higher education frequently has a high price tag, making it important for you to consider your funding sources before entering a program. Many general and nursing-specific financial aid options exist if you know where to look and how to take advantage of each. Learn about some of the most popular options below.
Scholarships & Grants
Because you don’t need to repay scholarships and grants (as long as you meet the terms of the funding), these options are a perennially popular option for students at every academic level. You can find them via colleges, professional associations, healthcare organizations, and government agencies, among others.
Student loans are an important part of higher education funding as they help you cover any costs remaining after exhausting other financial aid options. The U.S. Department of Education provides several different options based on your degree level and whether you’re dependent or independent of parents/guardians.
At the graduate level, you may be able to take advantage of teaching and/or research assistantships, fellowships, or paid internships. These usually provide either a stipend and/or tuition remission. If you qualify through the FAFSA, you may also take advantage of digital work-study options through your school.
Accreditation Standards for CNS Degree Programs
Attending an accredited online CNS program is one of the most important steps you can take as a student. Failing to do so can result in issues transferring credits to other institutions, seeking certification, and/or competing for jobs after graduating. Within the world of nursing, two programmatic accreditation agencies exist: The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.
In addition to programmatic accreditation, you should also choose a school that maintains proper institutional accreditation. When in doubt, use the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to research colleges and universities.
Getting Your Professional License and Certification After Your Online CNS Program
To work as a clinical nurse specialist, you must complete a graduate-level program and receive certification from a national credentialing agency. Two main agencies provide these certifications:
American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN): The AACN provides three different certifications for CNS professionals depending on the type of specialty they practice. These options include:
- ACCNS-AG (Adult-Gerontology)
- ACCNS-P (Pediatric)
- ACCNS-N (Neonatal)
American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC): The ANCC offers one certification, the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification (AGCNS-BC). It can be undertaken by both members and non-members of the ANCC.
Career & Salary Outlook for Clinical Nurse Specialists
Before jumping headlong into your career as a clinical nurse specialist, it’s important that you have realistic expectations of what to expect out of your career and how much you’ll earn each year. Learn about demand for CNS professionals and where to find the highest paying jobs below.
Are CNS careers in high demand?
Data from O*NET Online projects that roles for clinical nurse specialists should grow much faster than the average for all occupations at 11% or more. This growth is expected to lead to the creation of more than 210,000 new CNS positions between 2018-2028.
Reasons for this growth include the ability of APRNs to perform some tasks previously done by doctors, a greater emphasis on preventative healthcare, and the retirement of existing CNS professionals.
How much do CNS professionals make?
CNS professionals earn substantial salaries based on their expertise, experience, location, and level of degree earned. Data from PayScale shows the average salary in 2020 is $91,000. Those in the bottom 10% of earners brought home approximately $69,000 while the top 10% commanded salaries in excess of $120,000.
Continuing Education & Related Careers
Whether you’re looking to grow your career or move down a different path, continuing education and related educational programs can help you decide how to move forward. After completing your online CNS degree, plenty of continuing education opportunities exist to help you keep growing your knowledge and stay up to date on the latest findings. Here’s what you need to know.
Given the important medical role CNS professionals play, it’s not surprising that they must maintain national certification, their RN license, and an APRN-CNS license to practice. Many states require you to participate in continuing education to qualify for renewal, while those who write prescriptions may also need to participate in pharmacology continuing education.
Related Degrees to Consider
- PhD in Nursing While DNP programs typically focus on building clinical and leadership skills, pursuing a Ph.D. signals your interest in research and/or academic roles. Rather than requiring a practicum, students research and write a dissertation. Most Ph.D. in nursing programs take 4-6 years to complete and can be found both online and on campus.
- Doctor of Nursing Practice The DNP program best suits students who want to continue using their clinical nurse specialist skills in clinical settings or take on high-level managerial positions. Plan to complete coursework and clinical hours before graduating in 3-5 years. Like the Ph.D., these programs can be done through distance learning or in person.
- Master’s in Nursing, Nurse Practitioner Nurse practitioner roles in many ways relate to the work of CNS professionals, but key differences do exist. Most NPs work more closely with patients and frequently prescribe medications. These programs, which usually take 2-3 years, help qualify students as nurse practitioners and can be done online or on campus. Learn more about online nurse practitioner programs.
Additional Resources for CNS Students and Professionals
- California Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists
This organization provides an example of what to look for in a state-based member organization. The group organizes events, provides an annual conference, and facilitates a student forum.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist
This academic journal publishes six times a year and provides peer-reviewed articles about studies and research in the field.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist – A Day in the Life at Mayo Clinic
This informative article gives you an insider’s look at what it means to be a CNS in a busy healthcare facility.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist – What I Do & How Much I Make
Khan Academy conducted this interview with a CNS to help you understand more about the role and what to expect.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist vs. Nurse Practitioner
The College of St. Scholastica put together this side-by-side table to help you understand how these two roles differ.
- Coronavirus: What’s the Role of the Clinical Nurse Specialist?
Johns Hopkins School of Nursing put together this informational video to address how CNS professionals contribute during COVID-19.
- National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists
The NACNS operates as a membership-based organization for CNS professionals. It provides access to professional resources, awards, advocacy and policy initiatives, and the CNS Institute.
- Real Talk School of Nursing Podcast
If you want to learn what it’s really like to be a nursing student, check out this regularly published podcast.