A Guide to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Specialist

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What is an Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist?

The Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who is an expert in the care of adults and older adults across a variety of health care settings such as hospitals, clinics, and private practices.

CNSs have a unique combination of skills and expertise to help assess, design, implement, and evaluate health care practices to improve overall health care delivery and outcomes. For that reason, a CNSs role may entail direct patient care, consultation, collaboration, education, and the implementation of evidence-based practice to ensure safe and quality patient care. Advanced practice as a CNS involves practicing nursing within the three spheres of impact (patient, nurse, and system) to ensure the provision of safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable care.

For more, read "A Look Into the Role of a Clinical Nurse Specialist".

What does a Clinical Nurse Specialist do?

As expert practitioners, CNSs provide direct and indirect care to specialized populations. CNS students at USD specialize in the continuing care of adults across the lifespan and may focus in different settings such as critical care, emergency, medical-surgical, and palliative care.

To learn more about the role, watch the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists team video winner.

Career and Job Opportunities for CNSs

According to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, CNSs hold graduate nursing degrees and are experts in a particular specialty, such as population (e.g. adult-gerontology), type of problem (e.g. wound care), setting (e.g. Intensive Care Unit), type of care (e.g. rehabilitation), or disease (e.g. diabetes). They can work in any number of settings, such as a hospital, private practice, or a clinic. Regardless of specialty or setting, CNSs provide leadership in clinical expertise, nursing practice, and systems innovation. Clinical Nurse Specialists have a range of duties, from providing direct patient care, to managing care, to leading research, to nurse, patient and family education. Here’s a look at some additional roles you are qualified to pursue as an Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist:

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Patient Safety Specialist

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Patient Education Specialist

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Quality Improvement Specialist

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Academic Educator

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Clinical Educator

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Transitional Care Coordinator

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Complex Case Manager Consultant

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Nursing Entrepreneur

A Guide to the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Program

What is the program format and timeline? What are the admissions criteria? What courses are offered in this program? Find out all of this and more in the guide.

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About the Program

At the Hahn School of Nursing, compassion informs our deep commitment to alleviating suffering. Healthy aging is one focus of that mission, and it comes to life in our Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) program—a specialty within our Master of Science in Nursing program.

This program prepares nurses for the advanced practice role caring for adults and geriatric patients across healthcare settings. Our students master their skills as expert practitioners, educators, consultants, researchers, and clinical leaders. Educating fellow nurses, helping with patient care, problem-solving, and establishing healthcare programs are just a few of the skills you'll build and refine.  

Graduates are eligible for certification as Clinical Nurse Specialists in the state of California and for national certification as Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialists by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN).

Learn more about USD's Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program.


Danielle's Story – How I Became a Clinical Nurse Specialist

As I started to research available Adult-Gerontology CNS programs, I was drawn to USD for several reasons. First, it is very highly rated for its MSN programs (in the top 10% nationwide) and recognized far and wide as a prestigious school. I liked that all of the core APRN classes were in-person…

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Adult-Gerontology CNS Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program prepare me to do?

Students have the opportunity to acquire essential skills required of a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), such as effective rounding strategies, negotiation of resources, and participation in ethical decision-making processes. It prepares you to lead and manage change effectively in the evolving health care environment. The graduate CNS has a substantial knowledge base regarding resource utilization, staff engagement and leading the intra-professional team.

In addition to the role of CNS, what other positions might a CNS seek?

A CNS is uniquely qualified to assume a wide variety of roles including Patient Safety Specialist, Patient Education Specialist, Quality Improvement Specialist, Academic Educator, Clinical Educator, Transitional Care Coordinator, Complex Case Manager Consultant, and Nurse Entrepreneur.

Are there jobs for CNSs?

There are many jobs for CNSs in Southern California and across the nation and Canada. CNSs are valuable members of the health care leadership team. While most jobs exist within hospitals, there are also other positions in health care organizations within the community.

Do CNS students complete a project as part of their program?

Students carry out an evidence-based practice leadership project with one-on-one mentoring from a PhD prepared experienced faculty member.

Are the CNS professors experienced CNSs?

Yes, and faculty have research doctorates. They have worked and continue to work as CNSs in our community. They have CNS practice in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, hospice, clinics, and research centers. They have direct experience caring for patients in the CNS role. They've led unit-based and system-wide evidence-based practice projects, quality projects, and research projects—and they've improved both quality and cost outcomes for patients, nurses, and organizations.

What's the academic environment like at USD?

The academic environment at USD encourages students to expand their knowledge, explore their creativity, and grow into the CNS role. Along the way you'll be surrounded by professors and faculty focused on your success as a student and future CNS.

What's unique about the CNS program at USD?

Early in the program, faculty examine student past experiences to outline future clinical priorities for their clinical practicum experiences. We then create semester-by-semester goals to meet the identified gaps. Through early identification of the student’s career goals, each clinical rotation provides the necessary experiences to meet individual growth needs.

Do I have to find my own preceptor?

USD employs a placement coordinator who collaborates with you to find the best placement fit. Considerations include your past experiences, specialty area, types of practice and future goals. There are many expert CNS leaders in the community who consistently serve as preceptors for our students.

Is there a certification exam?

There are two Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist (AGCNS) certification exams that you may choose from upon completion of the program: American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN), and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

When are classes offered? Is there a distance format?

The program is a campus-based program. Some courses may be offered in a hybrid format.

Alumni Spotlight

"I spent weeks looking into graduate nursing programs and after attending USD’s open house, I knew USD was where I wanted to learn how to become a clinical nurse specialist.  Within my first few months at USD, I was introduced to the PhD program as a Dean’s Graduate Merit Scholar. In learning about the CNS role and completing required coursework, it became clear to me how a research doctorate aligned with my reasons for becoming a CNS. I love answering clinical questions and I knew I needed to be equipped to answer clinical questions for which there was limited or no supporting evidence. It is because of the mentorship and guidance offered by the professors at USD that I successfully transitioned into practice as a CNS in 2016 and as a researcher most recently. I love everything about the CNS and PhD in Nursing programs USD!"

– Kimberly Sanchez, PhD, RN, CNS


About the Hahn School of Nursing
and Health Science

The Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science was founded more than 40 years ago on the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego. Our school consistently ranks among the best graduate nursing schools locally and nationally, but that’s not the only reason future students walk through our doors to pursue one of our graduate degrees.

The personal connections between faculty and students fuel our collective success and impact. Compassion isn’t just woven into our coursework — it’s embodied in our commitment to you. As scholars and clinicians, we value your talents and experiences. We’re here to mentor, nurture, and uplift you as you become all you’re meant to be.

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