The demand for doctors and nurses has never been higher, and as career opportunities in healthcare continue to explode, many are choosing to enter the field of nursing as a registered nurse. Meanwhile, many of those who are already in the field are looking for opportunities to take the next step and advance while demand is hot.

If you are already a practicing registered nurse (RN), you have a number of different options when it comes to career advancement. Though the role of nurse practitioner (NP) gets a lot of attention as the next logical step for an RN to take, it’s important to recognize that it isn’t the only role available. Becoming a clinical nurse leader (CNL) can also be an incredibly rewarding next step in your nursing career.

The clinical nurse leader position was established by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in 2003 to combat medical errors, streamline hospital operations, and improve the quality of patient care. As such, CNLs play an incredibly important role in modern healthcare.

Are you interested in becoming a clinical nurse leader? Below, we outline the key steps that you’ll need to take to pursue a career as a CNL.

Steps to Becoming a CNL

1. Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Because CNLs coordinate the care of patients under their charge and act as a resource for other members of the nursing team, it’s essential for CNLs to have a firm understanding of medicine. For that reason, all CNLs will begin their career by first becoming a registered nurse.

In order to become a registered nurse, you’ll need to earn at least an associate’s degree in nursing. But in order to advance your career, you’ll need to complete a master’s degree program, and all graduate level nursing programs will require that you have completed your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). With that in mind, if you know that you would eventually like to advance in your career, earning your BSN is generally the recommended path.

There are several ways to earn your BSN. Depending on your academic institution and personal circumstance, you can earn a traditional four-year BSN, opt for an RN-to-BS completion program, or complete an accelerated nursing program if you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree in a different field.

Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s in nursing, you’ll need to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which tests you on key areas of nursing. After passing, you’ll be eligible to obtain state licensure in the state you wish to practice in. It’s important to remember that each state has different requirements for licensure.

2. Complete a Master of Science in Nursing Clinical Nurse Leader Program

Many aspiring CNLs will work as a registered nurse before deciding to advance in their career. This gives them the opportunity to put their education into practice, gain experience, and advance their care skills. But eventually, in order to become a CNL, you will need to earn a master’s degree (MSN) in a certified clinical nurse leader program.

In an MSN program, you’ll have the opportunity to advance your clinical skills and learn how to manage the needs of your patients’ point-of-care.

You’ll learn about models of healthcare, care management, risk assessment and the evaluation of medical outcomes and data, information and systems management to improve healthcare, and even nursing leadership skills so you can teach, mentor, and collaborate with other medical staff.

But what truly defines the difference between an MSN in clinical nurse leadership and more general MSN programs is that a CNL-focused degree must help you prepare for the intersection of providing quality healthcare and streamlining medical facility operations. As such, these programs also typically include several courses that cover healthcare business, quality and safety within the industry, healthcare standards and regulation, and ethical issues and decision-making skills.

This means you’ll brush up on your soft skills, too, because having the ability to communicate, think critically and problem solve, be compassionate yet emotionally stable, and resolve conflict are critical to a CNL’s success.

Essentially, a clinical nurse leadership program will provide education that focuses on both evidence-based practice and research and strategic leadership thinking in medicine. Another important aspect of becoming a CNL is that you’ll also need to stay up-to-date with healthcare innovation, standards, technology, and general news in order to provide the best patient care possible.

As a CNL, you’ll analyze outcomes and look for ways to improve the patient experience throughout the entire facility, including implementing standards and protocols that embrace new, safe technology.

3. Obtain CNL Certification

The final step to becoming a clinical nurse leader is to sit for a CNL exam in order to obtain CNL certification from the AACN.

The exam consists of 140 multiple choice questions and recent case studies, and it’s scored on a pass/fail structure. The CNL certification exam tests you on three primary components: nursing leadership, clinical outcomes management, and care environment management. After passing your CNL exam, you’ll be able to work as a clinical nurse leader.

Note that CNL certifications need to be renewed every five years, and keeping your certifications, licenses, clinical hours, and skillsets current will help you advance your nursing career.

A Rewarding Career

There’s never been a better time to become a healthcare professional, and working as a clinical nurse leader provides you experience in changing both patient lives and the industry for the better. You’ll also earn a career growth trajectory and a competitive salary and quality benefits in exchange for your hard work, education, and certification requirements.

As a CNL, you’ll be empowered and expected to analyze and streamline facility operations, manage nursing teams, oversee facility standards, quality, and safety, and collaborate with staff from all departments—all while providing direct, life-saving, evidence-based care to patients.