When it comes to leveling up your nursing career, there are many different potential options available to you. While many RNs eventually go on to become nurse practitioners, it isn’t the only path you can pursue. Becoming a clinical nurse leader (CNL) can also empower you to earn a higher salary, take on more responsibility in your role, and have an even larger impact on your patients’ lives.

Below, we discuss the key steps to becoming a CNL, including which degree is necessary to break into the field.

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)

A clinical nurse leader is a highly educated nurse that serves patients in many healthcare settings. The position, established by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in 2003, oversees the lateral integration of patient care through evidence-based practice.

This means that they not only provide direct healthcare to a cohort of patients but are also viewed as leaders who collaborate with and mentor a wide variety of healthcare professionals in order to implement change within the organization and its operations.

It generally takes about seven to eight years to earn the proper education, certifications, and clinical hours you’ll need to work as a CNL. Remember, every individual’s career trajectory is different and can depend on your current education track, nursing experience, and the location in which you work.

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Although there’s no one set path to become a CNL, there are certain requirements you must meet. You must:

What Degree is Required to be a CNL?

Ultimately, in order to become a clinical nurse leader you will need to earn two different degrees: Your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and your Master of Science in Nursing in Clinical Nurse Leadership.

1. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

In order to become a CNL, you will first need to become a registered nurse.

Although you can also become an RN by earning only an associate’s degree in nursing (ASN), it’s highly recommended you complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program for the simple fact that in order to enroll in most MSN programs, you will need a full bachelor’s degree.

If you’ve already earned your ASN, you can earn your bachelor’s by enrolling in an RN-to-BS completion program. And, if you’ve already earned your bachelor’s degree in another field, you can opt for an accelerated BSN program, which can be completed in as little as 12 to 16 months depending on the program.

Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s in nursing, you’ll be required to pass 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.

2. Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Once you make the decision to become a CNL, you will need to complete a Master of Science in Nursing with a focus in Clinical Nurse Leadership. These programs can go by a number of different names, depending on the university you enroll in. Other degree titles include:

  • Master of Science in Nursing (CNL)
  • Clinical Nurse Leader Master in Nursing

Clinical nurse leader master programs go beyond sharpening your medical and nursing skills. As a CNL master’s student, you’ll learn how to manage the needs of your patients’ point-of-care, as well as take on leadership skills such as communication, mentoring, clinical resource management, ethical decision-making, and healthcare ethics and regulation—all of which are vital to the CNL position.

After you earn your degree, you’ll need to sit for the CNL examination in order to obtain CNL certification from the AACN. This certification needs to be renewed every five years. 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.

More Than A Degree

Working as a clinical nurse leader is one of the most rewarding and in-demand careers within medicine. Whether you’re an aspiring nurse, someone looking for a more challenging role, or want to impact healthcare systems at a higher level, becoming a CNL offers plenty of opportunities to impact both medical professional and patient lives.

As mentors to their staff and nurses, clinical nurse leaders can train other medical professionals and break through department barriers to build camaraderie among many teams. CNLs also have a significant impact on patient lives—not only because they save them—but also because they streamline facility operations, policies, and technologies to provide the best patient experience possible.

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