No matter where you are in your career as a nurse, even if you’re just starting out as a student, it’s a good idea to consider the many options available for advancement in the field. While it may seem daunting to choose from the myriad options available, it may help to familiarize yourself with the different ways an RN can utilize a master’s degree for career advancement.

A relatively new and exciting opportunity for nurses looking to pursue a master’s degree is the clinical nurse leader (CNL) designation. Born of a need for cohesion of an increasingly complex and fragmented healthcare delivery system, CNLs are quickly becoming an integral part of the interdisciplinary clinical team.

Working as a CNL is a highly collaborative role that focuses on improving safety and healthcare outcomes through education, data-driven interventions, and optimizing communication and cooperation between all members of the healthcare team.

While becoming a CNL is an excellent way to advance your career and increase your earning potential as a nurse, it also allows you to improve the lives of patients on a larger scale in a leadership role. If this opportunity sounds appealing, read on to learn more about the necessary milestones on the path to becoming a CNL.

What Does The Typical CNL Career Path Look Like?

In order to become a CNL, you will first need to become a registered nurse (RN), gain experience in the field, and earn the required graduate degree.

1. Become a Registered Nurse

The first step on the path to becoming a clinical nurse leader is to first become a registered nurse. In order to do this, you’ll need to earn a degree from an accredited institution.

It is possible to become an RN by earning your associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). However, it is becoming more common in some states to require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Even in some states where only an ADN is required, some employers have begun to only consider applicants who hold bachelor’s degrees.

Additionally, as you will eventually need to earn a master’s degree in order to become a CNL, a BSN will be a prerequisite. That is why, if you know you would eventually like to advance in the field by becoming either a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse leader, it’s typically advised that you earn your BSN.

Nurses with an ADN can utilize RN-to-BSN bridge programs to obtain the necessary bachelor’s degree if they wish to pursue a graduate degree in nursing, which is an essential step on the path to becoming a clinical nurse leader.

2. Gain Experience in the Field

It is not unheard of for an RN-BSN to begin pursuing a graduate degree in nursing immediately after completing their bachelor’s program. However, there is something to be said for working in the field for a time before deciding on an advanced degree in nursing.

The amount of time that a nurse takes before they decide on an advanced degree is a matter of choice. One nurse might take only a few months to decide on an advanced degree, while another might decide to work for years as an RN in one or more specialties before choosing a graduate program that suits their passions and career goals.

While on the job clinical experience is not a prerequisite for pursuing a master’s degree, time spent working alongside colleagues with advanced nursing degrees might help a new nurse to choose the program and career path that is right for them.

Working as an RN also sharpens essential skills for assessing and caring for patients, familiarizes new RNs with the inner workings of the healthcare system, and shows them the importance of communication and cohesion amongst all members of the interdisciplinary team (i.e. physicians, social workers, physical therapists, etc.) to deliver care safely and effectively. Conversely, seeing firsthand when ineffective communication between those teams has led to poorer patient outcomes might galvanize that nurse to become a CNL to prevent those issues for more patients in the future.

It is also invaluable for nurses who plan to pursue leadership positions in nursing to have skills and clinical knowledge relative to the nurses and support staff who will report to them as their CNL. As nurse leaders, CNLs should have a familiarity with the operational aspects of the unit they serve, which also means a knowledge of the needs and challenges associated with caring for that patient population, A CNL’s clinical experiences as a bedside RN can deepen their understanding for how best to combat its unique challenges.

3. Earn a Graduate Degree in Nursing

It is important to note that obtaining a master’s in nursing (MSN) is not a one-size-fits-all process, because the specialty you are pursuing will determine your specific program. For example, a nurse practitioner (NP), a nurse educator, and a clinical nurse leader might all have master’s degrees in nursing, but their academic tracks differ from one another a great deal because their specialized roles require very different skills.

There will of course be some overlap in the curricula for different MSN programs. All master’s prepared nurses must have a deeper understanding of advanced pathophysiology, health assessment, and pharmacology as compared to an RN.

However, the role of the CNL is quite different from the responsibilities of an NP, so CNL master’s programs spend a great deal of time educating prospective CNL students on the operational aspects of nursing and quality improvement rather than the more clinical focus of an NP’s duties (e.g. diagnosis and treatment if illnesses, prescribing of medications).

Courses in quality management, evidence-based practice, informatics, nursing leadership, ethics, health policy and promotion, and nursing theory are key components of this academic track. Clinical immersion, leadership mentoring, and mandatory clinical hours are also a component of a CNL program in order to prepare prospective CNLs for work in a variety of clinical settings. Full-time students can expect to earn their MSN in Clinical Leadership in around two to two and a half years.

4. Obtain Your CNL Certification

In the same way that you must obtain your nursing degree to sit for the NCLEX, you must also obtain your clinical nurse leader master’s in nursing before you are able to sit for the CNL Certification Exam. This exam is offered by the Commission on Nursing Certification (CNC), and candidates who pass can call themselves CNLs.

5. Find New Ways to Advance Your Career

In the same way that new nurses gain experience and sharpen their skills on the units where they work, new CNLs will also need to put their new skill set to use to become proficient. They must prove themselves up to the task of improving outcomes for an entire unit of patients while also spearheading a culture of safety and quality for their colleagues.

Add to this the challenge of continuing to prove (as nurses have done since the designation’s inception in 2003) that clinical nurse leaders are vitally important to maintaining the hard-won cohesion of the medical unit.

As a source of guidance and education for their staff, the CNL should be an advocate for lifelong learning for their unit. Staying abreast of all developments in nursing research, new protocols, and best practices is an essential aspect of the role, not to mention the dissemination of that information to all members of the unit. A CNL also can pursue further credentials relevant to their unit’s patient population (e.g. oncology or gerontology) to better understand their unique needs.

Take the First Step in Your Path to Becoming a CNL

Despite the relative novelty of the role, clinical nurse leaders are quickly proving to be essential elements of cohesion for the healthcare delivery systems that adopt them. This unique leadership opportunity could be the right choice for a nurse looking to advance their career and play a leading role in advocating for positive changes for patients and colleagues alike