How to Become a Nursing Specialist in the U.S.

Oct 20, 2021

Learn how to become a nursing specialist. Research the education requirements, training, licensure information, and experience you will need to start a career as a nursing specialist.

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Becoming A Nursing Specialist

So, you think you might like to become a nursing specialist? Nursing specialists, also known as clinical nurse specialists, are licensed registered nurses who have expertise dealing with a particular population, condition, or type of care. By integrating nursing practice and medical diagnosis and treatment, they provide expert advice as well as direct care for patients.

Nursing can be physically and emotionally demanding, with the need to work standing for extended periods of time and to sometimes lift or move patients. Some nurses may work with very ill patients and run the risk of acquiring infectious diseases.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree
Degree Field Nursing
Experience 2+ years of experience; may include residency
Licensure and Certification Must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)
Key Skills Critical thinking, active learning, reading comprehension, complex problem solving, judgment and decision making, speaking, active listening, and coordination skills; computer-based training and medical software; use of diagnostic and interventional machinery
Salary (2020) $89,900 (median for clinical nurse specialists)

Sources: National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O Net Online

So what are the career requirements? A bachelor's degree is required to obtain a nursing license, but a master's is required for specialty certification. The degree field is nursing. After completing the bachelor's, you must bass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to earn a nursing license. A nursing specialist has two or more years of experience and may need to complete a residency. The key skills you should have include critical thinking, active learning, reading comprehension, complex problem solving, judgment and decision making, speaking, active listening, coordination, computer-based software, medical software, and the ability to use diagnostic and interventional machinery. According to, the median salary for a clinical nurse specialist is $89,900.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring nursing specialists should first earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), which qualifies them to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Nursing specialists need a bachelor's degree to pursue graduate education. Students who already have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated discipline might choose to enroll in an accelerated BSN program, which generally can be finished in 1 to 1.5 years.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in a residency program. Participating in a nurse residency program is a head start for a nurse who wishes to become a clinical specialist. Such a residency program provides the aspiring nurse with real-life clinical experience in a field of their choice. Sometimes clinical residency assignments lead to full-time positions upon graduation.

Step 2: Get a Nursing License

After receiving a bachelor's degree in nursing, an RN candidate must pass the NCLEX before being issued a nursing license. The nursing student may need to meet other state-specific requirements for licensure, such as a background check or fingerprint scan.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in a study group. The NCLEX is a very challenging exam, and not all candidates pass it the first time they attempt to take it. Consider participating in a study group or structured study class, or use a study guide designed especially for the NCLEX.

Step 3: Complete a Graduate Program

At least a master's degree is required to become a nursing specialist. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program usually takes two years to complete and offers a choice of clinical nursing concentrations, such as adult critical care, gerontology, health systems management, oncology, pediatrics, and women's health.

Success Tip:

  • Consider obtaining a Ph.D. in Nursing. Although it is not required, some aspiring nurse specialists choose to continue their education by pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing. A doctoral degree could be particularly beneficial in the event that certification in a nurse's chosen specialty is unavailable.

Step 4: Specialty Certification

Obtaining a certification in an area of expertise can ensure that a nursing specialist remains competitive. The American Nurses Credentialing Center awards the credential in areas such as adult mental health, diabetes management, gerontology, and public health. Other organizations that offer certification for clinical nurses include the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses Certification, and the Orthopaedic Nurses Certification Board.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization. Nursing specialists who join a professional organization may find opportunities to take on leadership roles by participating in advocacy initiatives and committees. Members of this organization are also eligible to take part in continuing education opportunities and conferences.

Earning a bachelor's degree, getting a nursing license, completing a graduate program, and getting certified in a specialty area are the steps to take to make the most of a career as a nursing specialist.

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