Clinical Nurse Leader Career Overview

  • What You Will Do: Design, coordinate, and implement patient care, mentor nursing staff, integrate healthcare services, provide patient education, advocate for patients, evaluate patient outcomes, and more
  • Where Will You Work: healthcare clinics, hospitals, rehab facilities, correctional facilities and more.
  • Employment Projections: By 2026 nursing professions of any specialty are projected to increase by 16 percent.
  • How Much Will I Earn: CNLs are well paid earning between $88,000 and $120,000 every year.
  • Number of Programs: There are 120 CNL programs in the U.S.
  • How Long Does It Take to Become an CNL: Two years of master’s education in addition to bachelor’s degree is what you will need to be a CNL. An RN to MSN program is typically 2 years as well.
  • Requirements to Become One: As a CNL you need to have your RN license, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s in nursing, and CNL certification.

Six Steps to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

  • Earn Your RN – Becoming an RN by finishing a nursing program through a CCNE or ACEN school is the first step. This will make master’s programs more likely to accept your credentials. Our BSN guide can help you figure out what type or program you should apply to.
  • Pass The NCLEX-RN Exam – Passing the NCLEX-RN exam is mandatory for becoming an RN. This NCLEX-RN exam guide along with our practice tests are great tools to help you master exam day.
  • Earn Your MSN – Your CNL program will include courses in leadership, quality improvement, pharmacology, health policy, evidence-based practice and more.
  • Complete Supervised Clinical Hours – At minimum you must complete 400 hours of clinical/practice experience.
  • Become Board Certified – You will need to get certified by taking the CNL exam administered through the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC).
  • Maintain Active Certification – Renewing certification requires obtaining 50 continuing education (CE) credits during the 5-year renewal period. You must also maintain active RN and BLS licenses and provide proof of 2,000 hours of employment in a CNL role.

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

CNLs are master’s prepared nurses that primarily focus on improving the quality of care for patients. As a CNL you will be a leader in interdisciplinary collaboration for the entire healthcare team. You will work to integrate healthcare services to manage costs and ensure that evidence-based healthcare is being provided to patients. You will also be trained to investigate and identify areas that require quality improvement and will be a leader in the quality improvement processes. You will advocate for patients and ensure that they are receiving holistic patient centered care. Unlike a Clinical Nurse Specialist you will not specialize in a particular patient population. While it will be possible to for you to provide direct patient care, this will may not be a part of your job at all. The amount of direct clinical care you provide will depend on your specific job and the institution you work for. The impact that your work will have will help healthcare facilities and providers improve the care that they deliver to patient populations and ensure that their needs are being met. You will work directly with other nurses, laboratory personnel, pastoral staff, physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurse administrators and other staff members. As a CNL you will play a pivotal role in healthcare as the system continues to change in the coming years.

How Do I Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

To be a CNL you will first need a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in nursing. Even if you are not yet an RN you can enter a master’s program to become both an RN and CNL.

  • BSN to MSN: A master’s degree in nursing if you are already an RN will take 2 years.
  • Bachelors to MSN: Direct Entry Master’s programs enable you to become a nurse and a CNL if you have your bachelor’s in something other than nursing. These programs will provide you with the training and education that you need to sit for the NCLEX-RN Exam and become and RN. During this time, you will also receive the training and education you need to become a CNL.
  • BSN to DNP: If you wish to get your Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP) and already have a BSN this will take about 4 years.
  • MSN to DNP: If you already have your master’s and are looking to advance your degree further a DNP program will be about 2-3 years long.

Certification and Licensure: You will have to take an exam as a CNL to become certified. The CNL certification exam proves that you have received the proper training and education to fulfill your job duties. In order to take the certification exam, you must have graduated from a CNL accredited program or be in the last semester of your program. In order to maintain your certification as a CNL you must earn 50 continuing education (CE) hours within the 5-year renewal period and pay the $130 fee. You must also provide proof of 2000 hours of employment in any of the following areas:

Aside from maintaining and active and unencumbered RN license, no other license is required for you to be a CNL.

Where Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Typically Work?

As a CNL you will have the opportunity to work wherever patients are cared for and where there is a need for quality improvement and enhancement of healthcare delivery. This can include hospital settings and primary care facilities. It is also possible for you to work in specialty clinics such as rehab facilities, occupational health settings, research facilities, prisons and more.

How Much Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Earn?

Your salary may vary slightly depending on your work location and experience level. Overall, you can expect to make between $88,000 and $120,000. If you have more experience and work in an urban area you are more likely to earn a higher salary than someone working in a rural area with little experience. Additionally, pay may vary between hospitals and private clinics. If you have taken out loans as a part of receiving your education, you have the option to get those paid for through loan forgiveness programs. If you work in medically underserved areas you may also be eligible for programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program or the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program which will help you repay your debt after a certain time commitment working in that area. Perkins Loans may also be eligible for forgiveness. Check out our state by state guides to see what benefits your state may offer you.

Online Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

Online CNL programs provide you with a bit more flexibility when pursuing your advanced nursing degree. These programs are designed with the busy adult in mind and offer online classes and coursework. Some of the programs are fully online while others (hybrid programs) offer a mix of online and in class experiences. This will enable you to continue with your life commitments while working towards becoming a CNL. Many people forgo an advanced degree due to the time commitment and lack of flexibility in programs. Online programs will also help you organize your clinical or practice experiences in a convenient area with a CNL who is willing and prepared to train you.

What is a Typical Clinical Nurse Leader Curriculum?

Curriculum can vary by university but in general all CNL programs will have core courses that resemble those offered at Ohio State University:

  • Innovation Leadership in Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Quality Improvement and Informatics
  • Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Across the Lifespan
  • Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Evidence-Based Nursing Scholarship

Number of Clinical Nurse Leader Programs in the United States

About 120 CNL programs exist in the U.S. giving you plenty of options to choose from.

Clinical Nurse Leader Resources

Denisco, S. M., Barker, A. M., (2016). Advanced practice nursing: Essential knowledge for the profession. Burlington, MA: Jones and Barlett Learning.

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