Are you a nursing student who wants to become a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)? Or perhaps you are already an RN in California or another state who wants to upgrade your license?
Well, wherever you are in your nursing journey, we’re here to guide you through how to become a CNS in California.
Becoming a CNS is a great choice for anyone interested in advanced nursing practice.
It allows you to get more involved in the overall care of your patients. You can conduct research and provide leadership as well.
You can also specialize in a certain population group, such as children or the elderly.
Not to mention, the salary upgrade! You can earn more as a CNS.
But the question is… how do you become one?
We’ll need to wade through different terms and requirements, but we promise to make it as simple as possible for you!
We will give you the process in 4 steps. We’ll also answer some FAQs, such as:
- What is the difference between a CNS and a CNP?
- How long does it take to become a CNS?
- How much does a CNS earn in California?
- Which California cities have the highest pay for CNS?
We have a lot on our plate, so if you’re ready, let’s dive in!
How to Become a CNS in California – 4 Simple Steps
Here is a summary of our 4 simple steps:
- Become a Registered Nurse in California and Gain Experience
- Enroll in a Masteral or Doctorate Degree for Nursing
- Apply for Your CNS License in California
- Keep Your CNS License Active
Let’s discuss each step, one by one!
How to Become a CNS in California Step #1: Become a Registered Nurse in California and Gain Experience
Before you can become a Certified Nurse Specialist, you first have to become a Registered Nurse.
We have a complete guide on how to become a RN in California that you can check out here, but here’s a summary:
- enroll in an approved BSN-RN program;
- apply for a license with the California Board of Registered Nursing; and
- work as an RN and keep your RN license active.
Enroll in an Approved BSN-RN Program
To become an RN, you’ll need either a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) degree.
We suggest that you enroll in a BSN program rather than an ADN.
This is because BSN is usually the minimum educational requirement for you to be able to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree to become a CNS.
If you graduate from an ADN program, you will still need to take a bridge program to earn a BSN. This is called an RN to BSN program.
Some schools may allow you to enroll in their master’s program as an ADN, but they will include the missing units from the BSN program and your master’s degree will still be extended. This is called an RN to MSN program.
So, if you know you want to pursue a more advanced practice, choose a BSN program to prevent delay, added costs, and complications. It’s the most straightforward path.
And don’t forget to enroll in an approved or accredited program!
Apply for a License with the California Board of Registered Nursing
After you graduate from your nursing program, you will need to apply for your RN license through the California Board of Registered Nursing. Your application will be through examination.
You will need to take and pass the NCLEX exam and pass other requirements such as a criminal background check and an application fee.
But if you are already an RN with an active status in another state, you don’t need to take the NCLEX again. You can apply for a California RN license through endorsement or reciprocity. You will still need to undergo a background check and pay an application fee, however.
Work as an RN and Keep your RN License Active
Once you have your RN license, it is better to gain some work experience before you enroll in a Master’s program.
Most schools require or prefer that you have nursing experience before you enroll.
This is also a good time for you to determine what field or area of nursing you are most interested in.
You will not just get a feel of the job theoretically but in a practical and real-life setting.
During this time, make sure that you keep your RN license active by complying with the renewal requirements every two years.
An active RN license is required if you want to gain a CNS license in the future.
For more details on the whole process of how to become an RN in California, you can read this article.
How to Become a CNS in California Step #2: Enroll in a Masteral or Doctorate Degree for Nursing
Now that you are an RN in California, you can proceed to the next step which is to enroll in a master’s or doctoral degree in a clinical field of nursing.
When you enroll, you need to specify the area you would like to focus on, such as:
- population group (such as adult, geriatric, or pediatric),
- type of setting (such as intensive care or specialty clinic)
- type of problem (such as wound care or pain)
- type of disease (such as diabetology or oncology)
- type of care needed (such as hospice, psychiatric, or rehabilitation).
Whatever you choose, make sure that the program conforms to the standards as shown in the California Business and Professions Code Section 2838.2
Here is a list of schools in California that offer master’s programs that conform to the requirements of the BRN.
No matter what specialty you choose, there are 5 main areas of competency that you must demonstrate proficiency in:
- expert clinical practice
- clinical leadership
You will also need to complete a minimum of 500 hours of clinical experience.
Some people opt to enroll in a master’s degree related to a clinical field of nursing, instead of directly in a clinical field of nursing. Such degrees may include psychology, public health, social work, education, health sciences, behavioral sciences, nutrition, and bioethics.
This is alright as long as you can provide proof that you gained advanced competency in the 5 main areas described above.
How to Become a CNS in California Step #3: Apply for Your CNS License in California
Now that you have a master’s degree, you can start to apply for your CNS license with the California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN).
But first! Make sure your California RN license is active! If it isn’t, you need to reactivate it first. If you’re from another state, make sure to first get an RN license from California through endorsement.
Once that’s covered, you will need to:
- Complete an online application for the Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification
- Pay a Clinical Nurse Specialist certification fee of $500.00
- Submit the required documentation to determine certification eligibility.
In California, there are 3 methods to be eligible for a CNS license:
- Method one: Earn a master’s degree in a clinical field of nursing that conforms to the standards of the BRN (as stated in 2838.2) and gain expert clinical practice.
- Method two: Earn a master’s degree in a clinical field of nursing or a clinical field related to nursing, and gain certification from a national organization whose standards meet the requirements of the BRN.
- Method three: Earn a master’s degree in a clinical field related to nursing and demonstrate graduate-level advanced practice nursing course work and clinical experience for the 5 component areas.
You can find the forms for all three methods here.
Let’s talk a bit more about each method.
This is for those who graduated from a master’s program that conforms to the standards as stated in the California Business and Professions Code Section 2838.2. You must also be able to show proof of CNS clinical experience from a valid verifier.
You will need to submit: a) verification of the completion of your master’s degree, b) official transcripts for your completed master’s program, c) and verification of CNS clinical experience from a valid verifier.
In this method, you may have graduated from a program that conforms to the BRN’s standard, or you may have graduated from a clinical field related to nursing. In either case, you will need to seek certification from a national organization whose standards meet the requirements of the BRN.
The California BRN identified the following as the national organizations that have met the standards equivalent to theirs:
- American Nurse Association-American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC),
- Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC),
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACCN)
You must check with the specific organization/association where you want to get certified for any additional requirements.
Once you are certified by any of these organizations, you can apply for a CNS license by submitting: a) verification of the completion of your master’s degree, b) official transcripts for your completed master’s program, and c) verification of CNS certification by the national organization/association you joined.
This method is for those who graduated with a master’s degree in a clinical field related to nursing.
You must demonstrate graduate-level advanced practice course work and clinical experience from a valid verifier in the 5 component areas of expert clinical practice, education, research, consultation, and clinical leadership.
You will need to submit:
a) verification of the completion of your master’s degree,
b) official transcripts for your completed master’s program,
c) verification of CNS clinical experience from a valid verifier,
d) verification of required advanced nursing component areas to meet the requirements for CNS certification, and
e) curriculum and course descriptions for the completed master’s level course work in advanced nursing with accompanying official transcripts or certificate of completion.
How to Become a CNS in California Step #4: Keep Your CNS License Active
Now, we’re in our final step. If you’ve reached this far, congratulations!
Once you become a licensed Clinical Nurse Specialist, a lot of opportunities will come your way and the hard work will pay off!
Not to mention that you will be able to work in the specific area of your interest!
But it doesn’t mean that the journey ends here.
You will need to keep both your RN and CNS license active.
To keep your RN license active, you need 30 hours of continuing education units every two years. You also need to pay a renewal fee of $190.
To renew your CNS license, you need to pay a renewal fee of $150. This is renewed at the same time as your RN license.
If you are nationally certified (using method 2), then the organization/association that certified you may have additional requirements.
You can check for additional information here:
- ANCC (American Nurses Credentialing Center)
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses
- ONCC (Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation)
Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming a CNS in California
What is the difference between a Certified Nurse Specialist and a Certified Nurse Practitioner?
Certified Nurse Specialists and Certified Nurse Practitioners are two kinds of Advanced Practice Nurses.
Their training and practice are rather similar and can even overlap in many instances. Both groups can take medical histories, do physical examinations, develop and modify medical care plans, assume leadership and educational roles, etc.
However, according to a study done by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc. (NCSBN), the CNS’ role tends to focus more on administration, patient advocacy, evidence-based research, interdisciplinary collaboration, and program development.
CNPs, on the other hand, tend to focus more on direct patient care.
How long does it take to become a CNS?
This depends on where you are right now in your nursing journey.
You need to become an RN first. If you take a BSN course, this will usually take you a little more than 4 years (including the time it takes to prepare for the NCLEX and process your license).
You will also be encouraged to gain some work experience as an RN before you enroll in a master’s program. One year of experience (or more) may be required.
You then need to complete a master’s degree, which can take about 2 years (depending on your pace). You will also need to gain at least 500 hours of clinical experience.
We suggest you just take things one step at a time.
How much does a CNS earn in California?
The average annual salary for a CNS in California is $176,123.
Which California cities have the highest pay for CNS?
The top 3 highest paying cities in California are:
- San Francisco – $203, 795
- Santa Clara – $178, 608
- San Jose – $174,357
And there you have it!
We’ve told you all you need to know about how to become a CNS in four steps! We’ve also answered some questions that may be helpful for you.
Although there are many requirements and so many things to consider, we hope this guide simplified matters for you.
Know that we’re cheering you on your journey to becoming a CNS in California!
If you have any more questions, please feel free to comment below.