Clinical nurse leaders (often referred to as CNLs) play a critical role within the healthcare industry. As highly educated and certified nurses, CNLs provide direct care to a cohort of patients using evidence-based practice, and, as leaders, CNLs play the role of an air traffic controller.

They often mentor and collaborate closely with nurses and staff on their teams, oversee healthcare delivery between departments, research industry trends and technologies, and implement new medical and safety policies within their organizations.

A CNL’s work can be challenging but immensely rewarding. Because of the high demands and level of responsibility in this role, becoming a CNL requires rigorous training and higher levels of education. In return, CNLs earn higher-than-average salaries and generous benefits, as well as have a significant, positive impact on patient lives and the medical industry as a whole.

In this article, you’ll learn both how to and how long it typically takes to become a clinical nurse leader.

How Long Does it Take to Become a CNL?

To work as a clinical nurse leader, you’ll earn multiple nursing degrees, complete over 400 clinical hours, and finally, obtain your CNL certification. This process can take seven to eight years from start to finish to complete.

It’s important to remember that every person’s career trajectory varies slightly and will depend upon your current levels of education, completed areas of study and training, and the location in which you work.

Steps to Become a CNL

While the exact steps to becoming a clinical nurse leader can vary by state, below are critical education and license requirements every CNL will need, no matter where you practice.

1. Become a Registered Nurse (RN).

CNLs are, at their core, registered nurses focused on providing high-quality patient care, so the first step to becoming a clinical nurse leader is to become an RN. This means you’ll need to earn your bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) by attending an accredited higher education institution. Fortunately, there are many ways to pursue your BSN in order to accommodate your current levels of learning and your ideal education trajectory.

For example, Regis College offers a traditional four-year BSN program, ideal for first-time college students. If you’ve already earned an associate’s degree in nursing, you may decide that the RN-to-BS Completion Program—which can be completed in as little as 12 to 14 months—is the best option for you. Finally, you can complete an accelerated nursing program in 16 to 24 months if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field.

Regardless of the exact path you choose, you’ll be able to earn your BSN in about four years. But that’s not the final step to becoming a registered nurse. Once you’ve completed your BSN, you will take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to earn state licensure where you plan to practice.

2. Complete an MSN in Clinical Nurse Leadership.

The next step to becoming a CNL is to obtain your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in Clinical Nurse Leadership, where you’ll advance your current clinical skills, dive deeper into evidence-based practice, and manage the needs of your patients. Earning an MSN requires completing 400 supervised clinical hours and, in general, can take roughly 2.5 years to complete.

In a CNL master’s program, you’ll learn about various models of healthcare delivery, how to evaluate medical data and outcomes, be able to assess risk within medicine, and stay on top of medical research, information, systems management, and technologies that will advance healthcare and ultimately save many lives. You’ll even gain advanced leadership skills that will empower you to manage, mentor, and communicate with medical staff.

So how does an MSN in clinical nurse leadership differ from other MSN programs? A CNL-focused degree prepares you not only for improving patient care but also for streamlining medical facility operations and practices. A clinical nurse leader master’s program will include heavy coursework on healthcare business management, implementing quality and safety practices, maintaining industry regulations and processes, and ethical business decision-making.

After completing your degree, you’ll be empowered to resolve conflict among your teams, remain emotionally stable and reliable while analyzing healthcare operations, communicate clearly, and lead teams in order to provide and maintain healthcare excellence.

3. Obtain Certification

Finally, the last step to becoming a clinical nurse leader is to obtain your certification. Managed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the CNL certification certifies your clinical competence and point-of-care expertise as a clinical nurse leader. The 140 multiple-choice exam tests your analytical abilities of recent case studies, nursing leadership expertise, and clinical outcomes and healthcare environment management skills.

Of course, your work doesn’t end there. It’s critical to renew your CNL certifications every five years and keep your certifications, licenses, and skills current in order to maintain and advance your nursing career.

Once you pass your exam, you’ll be able to work as a clinical nurse leader.

An Investment of Time

Clinical nurse leaders are incredibly valuable to the healthcare industry. They not only maintain high standards of patient care, but they also act as mentors to their teams and ensure the best (and safest!) practices within their organizations. Although it can take several years to earn the expertise necessary to become a CNL, combining quality healthcare with the newest technologies to save hundreds of lives is well worth the work.