Career Resources / CNS vs. NP
Nurses with advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) licensure have options for advancing their careers. Among the available options, you can choose to work as a clinical nurse specialist or a nurse practitioner.
Clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners both have extensive knowledge in healthcare and nursing best practices. Many similarities exist between their nursing roles. However, there are some subtle differences that might influence which path you choose.
In this article we’ll discuss:
- What is a clinical nurse specialist?
- What is a nurse practitioner?
- How do clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners compare?
- What are the differences between clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners?
- What are the career outlooks for clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners?
What is a clinical nurse specialist?
A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an APRN who has earned a graduate-level nursing degree. CNSs assess, diagnose, and treat patients with a variety of conditions across all age groups.
Clinical nurse specialists can specialize in any of the following:
- Critical care
- Pain management
- Rehabilitation services
- Women’s health
In this nursing role, you can support a team of nurses or recommend practice changes to improve patient outcomes. Clinical nurse specialists can work in clinics, hospitals, and private practices.
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What is a nurse practitioner?
A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse who undergoes rigorous educational and clinical training. NPs combine their clinical expertise with disease prevention and health management components for an exciting and well-rounded nursing career.
As a nurse practitioner, you must emphasize the health and well-being of the whole person. You’ll focus on disease prevention and health education, guiding your patients toward lifestyle choices that maintain their health.
Some of your daily tasks as an NP may include:
- Counseling patients on treatment plans
- Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic health conditions
- Educating patients and caregivers on disease prevention
- Managing treatment plans
- Ordering, performing, and interpreting diagnostic tests
- Prescribing medications and other treatment
How do clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners compare?
If you’re trying to decide between becoming a clinical nurse specialist or a nurse practitioner, you should explore the similarities and differences between the two nursing roles.
To become a CNS or NP requires either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). You also must become certified in a specialty of your choosing once you have completed your formal education and have your APRN license to practice.
Both nursing roles can earn you a six-figure salary and be professionally fulfilling. Check out the differences in the roles and responsibilities, salary, and education to determine which option best suits your nursing career goals.
What are the differences between clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners?
When exploring a career as a clinical nurse specialist or nurse practitioner, it can seem like the two nursing roles are the same. However, there are slight differences in the roles and responsibilities, salary, and education requirements for each.
Roles and responsibilities
When it comes to the roles and responsibilities for CNSs and NPs, a clinical nurse specialist focuses on patient outcome improvements that rely on evidence-based research. Nurse practitioners promote disease prevention while diagnosing and treating patients with acute or chronic conditions.
Some of the most common job duties for a CNS include:
- Administering health care to patients
- Developing policies and procedures to improve patient outcomes
- Educating and training staff in a clinic, hospital, or private practice
- Providing expert consultations
NPs spend more time engaged in the following tasks:
- Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic health conditions
- Educating patients and caregivers about health conditions
- Prescribing medications for disease control or management
- Providing referrals to specialists
- Promoting disease prevention
Clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners make roughly the same average annual salaries in the U.S. As with other nursing roles, salaries vary by location. Nurses with more years of experience in the field can make more than those fresh out of nursing school.
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When starting from scratch, it can take 5 to 7 years to complete an MSN degree program if attending full-time. Most nursing professionals become a licensed RN and work in the field while attending an MSN program.
A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a terminal degree in nursing. It is one of the two highest degrees you can obtain. DNP programs include one to two years of full-time coursework following your entry-level nursing program completion.
There are bridge programs to help you cut down on time spent in school:
Both CNSs and NPs hold advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) licenses. To become a licensed APRN, you must complete an MSN or DNP nursing degree program and pass the NCLEX exam.
Whether you work as a CNS or an NP, your APRN license must be renewed every five years.
Completing your nursing degree program and becoming a licensed APRN aren’t the only requirements to working as a CNS or NP. Both types of nursing professional must pursue certifications before they can begin working in their respective roles.
CNS certification is offered through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACCN). You can take national certification exams for CNS core and nine specialty areas, including:
- Family Nurse Practitioner Certification (FNP-BC)
- Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (AGPCNP-BC)
- Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Across the Lifespan) Certification (PMHNP-BC)
Credentials must be renewed every five years.
NP certification is offered through the ANCC or the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). NPs can earn specialty certifications in some of the following:
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
Credentials must be renewed every two years.
What are the career outlooks for clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners?
Demand remains high for all nurses with advanced degrees. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), projected growth for CNSs and NPs is at 40% from 2021 to 2031. Data indicates about 30,200 openings for nursing professionals that fall into this category.
Choosing a nursing career path should never be rushed. Explore all your options before deciding to pursue the advanced education and certifications required to work as a CNS or NP.
Both nursing roles require dedication to years of extra nursing education and clinical experience before you can begin working.
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The main differences between CNSs and NPs are the roles and responsibilities and the certifications you must obtain to work in each specialty.
The salary difference between CNSs and NPs is minor. CNSs make an average annual salary of $113,507, while NPs earn $118,040.
Both jobs are demanding, yet rewarding, in different ways. You must have excellent communication skills and advanced nursing education to work in either nursing role.
- American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. aanp.org. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners. aanp.org. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- How Long Is the DNP Program? online.maryville.edu. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists. nacns.org. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- NCLEX & Other Exams. ncsbn.org. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners. bls.gov. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- Nurse Practitioner Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics. bls.gov Accessed October 18, 2022.
- Our Certifications. nursingworld.org. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)? aanp.org. Accessed October 12, 2022.
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