If you’re about to go into nursing, you’re probably aware you have some decisions to make.
As a nurse, you can tailor a career to your interests with more than 100 specializations. You also have options regarding how long you’ll be in school, whether you decide on a two-year associate’s degree program or a doctorate degree. There are also numerous levels of nurses, which means there’s a good fit for everyone whose heart is set on this field.
One of the choices you’ll have to make is whether to become an RN (registered nurse) or a clinical specialist nurse. As you’ll learn in this article, RNs are extraordinary healthcare professionals who do standard nursing work. And, as you could probably infer from the name, clinical nurse specialists handle more nuanced work.
Let’s dive into all the details and learn which role is right for you.
What is a clinical nurse specialist?
Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) are advanced practice registered nurses who hold a nursing degree and have received training in pharmacology, health assessment and physiology. They often specialize in providing care in a specific area of medicine. Here are just a few:
- Pediatrics: working with families and children
- Geriatrics: providing healthcare to the elderly
- Psychiatry: treating, assessing and diagnosing mental health concerns
- Women’s health: consulting with women on reproductive health
- Emergency room: working in a high-intensity emergency care setting
- Oncology: supporting patients suffering from cancer
- Critical care: caring for critically ill patients
Clinical nurses are leaders in their field who educate and perform advanced nursing tasks like ordering tests, performing diagnoses and even prescribing medication.
To earn this high-level role, clinical nurse specialists have to put in the hours at school by receiving either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS). Plus, CNS must pass an exam to become certified before practicing.
What is a registered nurse?
Not sold on getting a Master or a Doctorate quite yet, but want to jump into an essential nursing role? Becoming a registered nurse may be just what the doctor ordered. You’ll have the opportunity to work in a wide range of clinical settings, from hospitals to homes, and you’ll interact with patients daily. RNs are critical to maintaining patient health, providing treatment and direct care and offering moral support and comfort.
Registered nurses perform standard clinical tasks like administering medication, monitoring patients, and creating and executing care plans as part of a team of doctors and clinicians. They also educate patients and their families and loved ones on their conditions.
Becoming a registered nurse is a stepping stone to various advanced careers in the field. If you plan to specialize in the future, you’ll need to hold this title and likely complete a certain number of clinical hours as an RN.
To become an RN, you must earn either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). If you are thinking of specializing, we recommend earning a BSN as this will be required for many nurse specialties later on. No matter what you choose, you’ll have to pass the NCLEX to get your RN license.
Not sure you’re ready for your Bachelor degree yet? Read up on the differences between RNs vs. LPNs here, and learn about the licensed practical nurse role, which will give you plenty of clinical experience but won’t require a college-level degree in nurse studies.
What are the main differences between a clinical nurse specialist and a registered nurse?
There’s a lot of common ground between these RN and CNS roles. In both, you’ll provide direct patient care and work in a clinical environment. The CNS role is more advanced, but both positions are active and essential. Here’s a quick guide to the main differences.
Nursing education and training
Again, clinical nurse specialists must hold a Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctorate, while RNs can practice with an Associate or Bachelor degree from an accredited nursing program. Also, the clinical nurse specialist role requires special certification, while the RN role requires licensure.
Their roles in medical facilities + scope of practice
The CNS role can be more research-driven and administrative than a registered nurse. Aside from doing the everyday tasks like ordering labs, that we mentioned above, clinical nurse specialists act as leaders and help their team members comply with and implement best practices. On the other hand, RNs are care providers who put in plenty of hours of clinical practice.
Both RNs and CNSs have an excellent career outlook, as do most jobs in the medical field. But the salary expectations and growth projections for each role are a bit different.
The advanced practice registered nursing field (of which CNSs form part) is projected to grow up to 45% before 2029. The average clinical nurse specialist’s salary is also strong, coming in at more than $100,000 annually in the US.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the RN field is projected to grow at a rate of 9% before 2030. While the trajectory isn’t quite as steep as that of the CNS role, the growth for RNs is still steady. And the average salary is roughly $77,600 USD per year.
One more thing that clinical nurse specialists and registered nurses have in common? They both get to wear scrubs to the office. So, no matter what career path you choose, count on us for hospital-chic looks. And come to us for more content like this when you have a big career decision (or decisions!) to make.