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How to Become a Nursing Specialist

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A nursing specialist is an advanced-level role in hospitals and other clinical locations. These registered nurses (RNs) strive to improve healthcare through evidence-based practice at the patient level as well as the system level. They have often opted to take their careers further by earning a bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s or doctoral degree, in the nursing field. Nursing specialists choose one or more specific practice areas to master through advanced education and hands-on experience. 


In the broadest terms, a nursing specialist provides safe, quality care to patients while assessing, diagnosing, and treating illnesses. The specific demands of the position vary depending on the medical setting and specialization. Typically, a nursing specialist’s responsibility is to provide highly specialized, patient-oriented direct care at an advanced level.

The Role of a Nursing Specialist

Nursing specialists offer vital care in medical settings that are aligned with their focus area. They specialize in clinical areas that suit their personal and professional interests. For example, some nursing specialists may choose to focus on a specific patient population such as young children or women. Others may choose to specialize in a particular disease, type of care, or medical situation. They may also train for nursing roles in a specific hospital setting, such as the emergency room or in critical care.


No matter the specialty, what nursing specialists do helps provide frontline care for patients. Nursing specialists frequently manage clinical issues across different hospital departments, such as oncology or prenatal care, with an eye toward organizational improvement. Because of this, nursing specialists assume a leadership position at their medical facilities.

Nursing Specialist Job Duties

The responsibilities of a nursing specialist include the following:


  • Observe, diagnose, and treat patients. Nursing specialists make informed decisions about patient health and treatment everyday. Using their advanced training and education, they discuss symptoms with their patients, order laboratory tests, and determine diagnoses. They develop comprehensive plans for the unique needs of each patient.
  • Treat diseases, injuries, and disabilities associated with their specialties. Nursing specialists work across many different areas of a hospital. With their specialized knowledge, they consult with medical staff and offer guidance on topics relating to their area of expertise. This collaboration enables the medical staff to make the best possible decisions about patient care.
  • Advise other staff on patient care. Nursing specialists are leaders in the hospital system and experts in their focus area. As such, they provide education and coaching to health caregivers, hospital administrators, and nurses.
  • Research and obtain further training in their specialty. Nursing specialists are enthusiastic about continuing education. Medical treatments are always evolving, so nursing specialists must review new research and pursue additional training.

Types of Nursing Specialists

Specialized nursing roles focus on a specific patient demographic or particular health issue. While the goal behind these specializations is delivering optimized care to potentially improve patient outcomes, the approach toward achieving this goal may differ based on the specialization.

Specializations include the following:


  • Critical care nurse: Specializes in and provides care to patients in critical and intensive care units
  • Neonatal nurse: Specializes in providing patient care to mothers and newborn babies
  • Oncology nurse: Specializes in treating patients receiving cancer treatments
  • Pediatric nurse: Delivers patient care to children in pediatric units, hospitals, and private practices
  • Trauma nurse specialist: Treats individuals in hospital trauma units
  • Clinical nurse specialist: Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) providing direct patient care in specialized settings

Steps to Become a Nursing Specialist

The path to becoming a nursing specialist may vary depending on a nurse’s interests, educational level, and location. The employment requirements for licensed nursing specialists vary by role and by state. However, there are common steps and skills that are required for specialized nursing roles.

Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

To become a nursing specialist, candidates must gain RN licensure. The amount of education and experience employers require varies based on the specific position, location, and licensure rules.


The first step in the journey toward becoming a registered nurse is to earn a nursing degree. The three options are a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an associate degree in nursing, or a diploma from an approved and accredited nursing program. These credentials establish the initial benchmarks needed to launch a career in nursing.

Step 2: Get Licensed

Individuals must be licensed in the state where they plan to practice. They obtain a license by passing an exam known as the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). They must complete their initial educational requirement before being eligible to sit for the exam. States may have other requirements in addition to this prerequisite, such as passing a state criminal background check.

Step 3: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree isn’t required to become an RN, but those who wish to become nursing specialists will often need a BSN. Obtaining this degree lays the foundation for future specialization and exposes students to the real-world demands of the field.


Practicing RNs can choose to enroll in a bridge program, such as an RN to BSN program. These programs, particularly online programs, are usually flexible, and this can allow students to keep working as RNs while they pursue their degrees.

Step 4: Gain Experience

RNs typically need to have several years of experience in an RN setting to be hired for a nursing specialist role. Their practical experience adds vital skills to their repertoire, including communication, critical thinking, active listening, organizational ability, and active learning. Exact experience requirements will vary depending on location, position, and employer.

Step 5: Earn a Master’s Degree

Achieving a top-level nursing position, such as clinical nurse specialist or nurse practitioner, requires advanced education. Through master’s-level study, individuals can deepen their knowledge of concepts associated with advanced nursing. Master’s-level programs also typically offer specializations that can allow aspiring nursing specialists to focus on a demographic or an area that’s particularly relevant to their interests.

Step 6: Gain Certification

Nursing specialists may need to obtain certification to give specialized care. This certification is in addition to the licensing they already have, but for some professions, certification is optional. To become certified in a specific field, candidates will need to meet education and experience requirements and pass an exam in their specialty provided by a governing body such as the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Step 7: Keep Learning

Nursing specialists are at the forefront of advancements in medical science and patient care. They must stay current on disease and injury treatment options and other advancements in their specific field. There are a variety of ways nursing specialists stay current, including completing continuing education coursework, attending training seminars, and reading medical journals.

Nursing Specialist Salary and Job Outlook

Because nursing specialists have advanced knowledge, have proven experience, and provide specialized care, they usually earn higher than average salaries for the nursing profession. This amount can differ depending on the precise specialty an individual may pursue.

Nursing Specialist Salaries

Nursing specialists’ income may vary based on the level of experience, geographic region, and type of medical institution. For example, a large public hospital may provide a different rate of pay than a private practice or hospice care facility.

The following are the approximate median annual salaries of nurse specialists in various clinical areas as of May 2022 or June 2022, according to the compensation website PayScale, depending on the specialty:


  • Critical care nurse: $75,000
  • Neonatal nurse: $72,000
  • Oncology nurse: $77,000
  • Pediatric nurse: $61,000
  • Trauma nurse specialist: $79,000
  • Clinical nurse specialist: $95,000

Employment Outlook for Nursing Specialists

As the U.S. healthcare field continues to struggle with an ongoing nursing shortage, the demand for nurses, including those in nursing specialist roles, is massive. The BLS expects demand for RNs to grow 9% between 2020 and 2030. The BLS also projects a 45% job growth for APRNs such as nurse practitioners, a role associated with numerous specializations.

Exploring Nursing Specialties and Career Options

You can explore several different specializations once you’ve completed the required steps. Regardless of what specialty you choose, you’ll be doing your part in offering patient care that can ultimately make a profound impact on people’s lives. This can make a career in the nursing field one of the most satisfying career paths you can take.


Maryville University’s RN to BSN online program can be a critical component of this professional journey. Our program is designed to provide you with the foundational knowledge and skills that can flourish in a healthcare setting and can also inspire a love of lifelong learning. Learn how we can help you begin your journey.


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