Clinical Nurse Leader

A clinical nurse leader (CNL) is pivotal in patient care, seamlessly blending clinical expertise with innovative leadership skills. As the demand for highly skilled nursing professionals continues to rise, key care providers like CNLs who can provide comprehensive care will be in high demand.

As such, a CNL is a registered nurse with additional training and education at the master’s level to provide outcome-based care and to offer quality improvement strategies. 

All CNLs must first be licensed registered nurses. After gaining some work experience, RNs can apply to a master’s in clinical nurse leadership or post-master’s certificate program. These programs are offered online or in person and can take as little as a year or as long as two to complete. The duration of the program will vary based on the previous level of education completed and if the program is full or part-time. 

The curriculum in CNL programs will vary based on school but will typically encompass classes such as confronting issues in contemporary healthcare environments, advanced ethical decision-making in healthcare, quality and safety in healthcare, research methods and biostatistics, and evaluation and translation of health research. These courses are designed to mold nurses’ authoritative resources in evidence-based practices for their future clinical teams.

Keep reading to learn more about becoming a clinical nurse leader, including admission requirements, the importance of accreditation, certification options, and typical job duties. Also included below are top in-person and online education options. 

Clinical Nurse Leader Specializations & Degree Types

The two education options to become a CNL are a master’s degree in clinical nurse leadership or a post-master’s certification. Applicants with a BSN must complete the master’s option, while those with a master’s degree can choose a post-master’s certificate. 

Clinical nurse leadership is a specialization for registered nurses. Professionals in this career practice across the entire continuum of care with patients of all ages without the need for further specialization.

Admissions Requirements for Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

Admission requirements for clinical nurse leader programs will vary by program but typically include a bachelor’s degree with at least a 3.0 GPA, a current and unencumbered RN license from the state where the candidate practices, two letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, official transcripts, and a background check. Some programs may require test scores such as the GMAT or GRE, work experience, and prerequisite coursework. 

Clinical Nurse Leader Program Accreditation

Nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Students should verify that the nursing program they are enrolled in holds accreditation, as it is a requirement for certification and licensure.

Holding CCNE or ACEN assures employers, licensing bodies, and patients that the nursing program has met rigorous standards of quality. The accreditation process involves a comprehensive evaluation conducted by the accrediting board, which thoroughly assesses various aspects of the program, including faculty qualifications, facilities, curriculum, and student outcomes.

On-Campus Clinical Nurse Leader Degree Programs

University of Rochester – School of Nursing 

Students at the University of Rochester School of Nursing can complete their master’s in clinical nurse leaders. This is the only program available in Upstate NY and features a holistic approach that ensures graduates emerge equipped with the essential skills needed to implement evidence-based clinical practice. There is also a strong emphasis on safety, quality, and improvement at the point of care. While classes for this program are offered primarily in person, students who need more flexibility can take some courses online or in the evenings. 

Graduates of this program work as care coordinators, clinical informaticists, unit educators, program coordinators, nurse managers, or nurse executives. For the past four years, 100 percent of graduates of this program have passed their CNL certification exam. 

  • Location: Rochester, NY
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $$1,740 per credit 

Augusta University 

Augusta University offers an accelerated master of science in nursing program clinical nurse leadership degree.  This program is specifically designed for individuals with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees who want to make a career change. The curriculum equips graduates with eligibility for both the NCLEX licensure examination and the CNL Certification exam provided by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. 

The MSN-CNL program is available at the Augusta and Athens campuses, offering accessible education options. This is a full-time, in-person degree. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, admission requirements include a 3.0 GPA, a personal essay, an interview, prerequisite coursework, and three letters of recommendation. 

  • Location: Augusta and Athens, GA 
  • Duration: 16 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,225 per credit 

University of Maryland – School of Nursing

The direct entry master’s of science in nursing in clinical nurse leadership at the University of Maryland School of Nursing is ranked number two in the nation by US News and World Report. This full-time program takes at least two years to complete and includes over 800 clinical hours. Students are expected to attend classes on campus for this degree. Since this is a direct entry program, applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing.

Graduates can sit for the NCLEX and the CNL certification exams. Required courses that students will complete include health assessment across the lifespan, introduction to gerontological nursing, technology solutions for healthcare, and pediatric nursing. 

  • Location: Baltimore, MD 
  • Duration: Two years 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,549 per credit

University of Nevada, Reno

The University of Nevada, Reno’s master of science in nursing program aims to equip registered nurses with the necessary skills and knowledge for advanced practice, educator, and leadership roles in healthcare. Through this program, nurses can enhance their clinical competence and apply a theoretical framework to their practice. This program has seven concentrations, including one in clinical nurse leadership. 

Completing this degree can also serve as a stepping stone for those interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in nursing, as there is a strong emphasis on scholarly activity and fostering collaboration among healthcare professionals.

  • Location: Reno, NV 
  • Duration: Four semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $675 per credit 

University of Virginia – School of Nursing

Students can apply to the direct entry master’s of science in nursing in clinical nurse leadership at the University of Virginia School of Nursing as long as they are licensed RNs or have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. This means they do not need a BSN to be eligible for admission. As part of this program, students will gain clinical experiences across five specialty areas, including medical surgical, psychiatric, community and public health, pediatrics, and labor and delivery. 

Credits earned in this program can be transferred to a subsequent nurse practitioner program should graduates want to pursue additional studies. Graduates are eligible for the NCLEX and CNL certification exams. In  2021, 97 percent of graduates passed their NCLEX exam, and 93 percent passed their CNL certification exam.

  • Location: Charlottesville, VA 
  • Duration: 24 months for those with a bachelor’s, longer for RNs with an associate’s 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,564 per credit

Online or Hybrid Clinical Nurse Leader Degree and Education Programs

Rush University

At Rush University, students can complete their master’s of nursing clinical nurse leader degree through online learning. This program is for  RNs with a bachelor’s degree in nursing who want to take on leadership responsibilities and be accountable for clients’ health outcomes in various clinical settings. Graduates will be able to promote health, minimize risk, and enhance point-of-care results. 

The curriculum prepares students to bring extensive clinical competence and knowledge to individuals and clinical populations throughout the care continuum. They will learn how to coordinate care across multiple settings, implement evidence-based practices to ensure patients benefit from the latest innovations, and act as a resource for the clinical team by implementing quality improvement measures. 

  • Location: Chicago, IL 
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,286 per credit 

Sacred Heart University 

With six start dates each year, the online master’s of science in nursing clinical nurse leader program at Sacred Heart University is convenient for students looking for flexibility.  In addition to the 39 credit hours required to earn this degree, students will complete 348 hours of role immersion to ensure they meet the requirements to sit for the CNL certification exam. 

To be eligible for this program, applicants must hold a current and unencumbered RN license and a bachelor’s degree in any field and provide a current resume, statement of professional goals, two letters of recommendation, and proof of malpractice insurance. There are also extensive prerequisite coursework and statistics and health sciences.

  • Location: Fairfield, CT 
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $695 per credit hour

University of Massachusetts Amherst – Elaine Marieb College of Nursing

The online master of science program with a clinical nurse leader concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Elaine Marieb College of Nursing focuses on strengthening healthcare delivery through advanced knowledge and skills. Graduates are equipped to provide comprehensive nursing services to individuals, families, and groups across the lifespan. They are also prepared to lead both intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary healthcare teams, functioning effectively in various clinical settings within complex care delivery systems. 

Admission requirements to this program include a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing, or an associate’s degree in nursing and a non-nursing bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 or higher. Candidates must also hold a current and unencumbered RN license. 

  • Location: Amherst, MA 
  • Duration: Two years full-time, three years part-time
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $16,742 per semester for ten credits

Cleveland State University 

In less than two years students can earn their master’s of science in nursing clinical nurse leadership at Cleveland State University. Notably, this program offers the flexibility of 100 percent online asynchronous didactic coursework, eliminating the need for on-campus residencies. Students will gain hands-on experience through 500 experiential learning hours within their communities. This is a part-time program, and upon completion, graduates will be fully prepared to sit for the CNL certification exam.

To be considered for admission to this program, students must already hold a BSN degree with at least a 3.0 GPA or higher, have completed an undergraduate statistics course, and supply a personal essay, two letters of recommendation, current resume, and proof of an active and unencumbered RN license.

  • Location: Cleveland, OH 
  • Duration: Nineteen months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $9,884 per semester

Oakland University

The only online master’s in nursing in clinical nurse leadership in Michigan is offered at Oakland University. This part-time program is designed to accommodate the schedules of working nurses, allowing them to further their decision-making authority and increase their earning potential through potential supervisory roles. With combined online coursework and hands-on clinical instruction, students will gain the skills to effectively implement evidence-based practices at the point of care, collaborate within interdisciplinary teams, and significantly improve patient outcomes.

  • Location: Rochester, MI 
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,027 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Becoming a CNL can take six to eight years, depending on the individual’s prior education and experience. Typically, it is at least four years for a BSN and then an additional two for an MSN in clinical nurse leadership. Timelines vary depending on part-time or full-time study and program availability.

How To Become a Clinical Nurse Leader  – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Nursing education starts with earning a high school diploma or a GED. This base education shows commitment to an education program and a minimum level of knowledge. Aspiring nurses should focus on science and math classes to prepare them for college-level studies. 

Step 2: Complete a Nursing Program or a Bachelor’s in a Non-Nursing Field (Two to Four Years)

For the most part, aspiring CNLs must first complete a general nursing program. This general nursing program will include extensive clinicals in order to ensure graduates have the hands-on skills necessary to be entry-level nurses. Completing at least a bachelor’s of science in nursing is recommended to be prepared for additional studies. 

However, some programs offer direct entry master’s degrees for students with a non-nursing degree looking to change careers to nursing. These applicants will need a bachelor’s in any field and prerequisite classes to be considered for admission. 

Step 3: Pass State NCLEX Exam (Timelines Vary)

All states require registered nurses to sit for and pass the NCLEX exam. This test evaluates a candidate’s knowledge and competence in nursing practice. It covers various aspects of nursing care, including patient assessment, pharmacology, medical-surgical nursing, pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, and more. 

Direct entry students will complete this step post master’s. 

Step 4: Apply for State Licensure (Timelines Varies)

After passing the NCLEX exam, nurses can apply for licensure from their state nursing board. Requirements will vary by state, so candidates should contact their local board to ensure they have the necessary qualifications. 

Direct entry students will complete this step post master’s. 

Step 5: Earn a Master’s of Nursing in Clinical Nurse Leadership (One-and-a-Half to Two years)

The last education step for CNLs is to complete a master’s in clinical nurse leadership. These programs are available online and in person to suit each student’s needs. 

Step 6: Obtain Clinical Nurse Leader Certification (Timelines Vary)

Certification as a CNL is voluntary but can be an excellent way to demonstrate mastery in this field. Certification is through the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). 

What Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Do?

CNLs have many employment opportunities, including hospitals, medical-surgical units, critical care, emergency departments, and specialized areas like pediatrics or oncology. They also play a crucial role in outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, community health organizations, and rehabilitation centers. Typical duties will vary based on place of employment but can include:

  • Coordinating and managing patient care plans, ensuring optimal patient outcomes
  • Collaborating with interdisciplinary healthcare teams to develop and implement evidence-based practice guidelines and protocols
  • Serving as a resource and mentor for nursing staff, providing guidance and support in their professional development
  • Conducting research and quality improvement initiatives to enhance patient care and healthcare delivery processes
  • Analyzing data and metrics to identify areas for improvement and develop strategies to enhance patient outcomes
  • Participating in healthcare policy development and advocacy to promote the interests of patients and the nursing profession
  • Facilitating communication and collaboration between healthcare providers, patients, and their families to ensure comprehensive and patient-centered care
  • Assessing and managing patient populations, identifying health risks, and implementing preventive measures
  • Utilizing technology and informatics to improve healthcare systems and patient outcomes
  • Staying updated on current healthcare trends, research, and best practices, continually enhancing knowledge and expertise

Clinical Nurse Leader Certifications & Licensure

All CNLs must first be licensed RNs. The respective state board of nursing issues licensure for RNs. Requirements will vary by state but will typically include:

  • Completing an approved nursing education program
  • Passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN)
  • Background checks or fingerprinting
  • Drug screening

Certification for CNLs is through the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). This voluntary certification demonstrates a high level of competency in patient care management and coordination. To be eligible to sit for this certification exam, candidates must be graduates of an accredited CNL master’s or post-master’s program or be students in their last term of an accredited CNL master’s or post-master’s program. Certification is granted to candidates who have passed the exam, have a current, active, and unencumbered RN license, and have submitted all required documentation.

How Much Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Make?

The salaries for CNLs aren’t differentiated from those of registered nurses by the Bureau of Labor Statics (BLS May 2022). Currently, there are 3,072,700 RNs in the US, many of whom have less education than what is required of CNLs. On average, RNs earn $89,010 per year. The percentiles for wages were:

  • 10th percentile: $61,250
  • 25th percentile: $66,680
  • 50th  percentile (median): $81,220
  • 75th percentile: $101,100
  • 90th percentile: $129,400

For salaries specific to CNLs, the salary aggregate website PayScale (2023) estimates that this career’s average salary is $89,456 per year. The bottom 10 percent earn $69,000, and the top 90 percent earn $118,000.

Clinical Nurse Leader Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as a clinical nurse leader. 

Become a Nurse Educator

Nurse educators are responsible for teaching and training aspiring nurses and providing continuing education for practicing nurses. Nurse educators develop curricula, design and deliver lectures, facilitate hands-on learning experiences, and assess student progress. They impart knowledge and skills and mentor and guide students, fostering their professional growth and development. 

Additionally, nurse educators stay up-to-date with advancements in healthcare and research, ensuring they provide their students with the most current and evidence-based information.

  • Typical Education: Master’s 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National League for Nursing 

Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses who provide comprehensive and specialized care to patients across the lifespan. Often, they work collaboratively with physicians and other healthcare professionals. Duties include assessing, diagnosing, and treating acute and chronic conditions, prescribing medications, ordering diagnostic tests, and providing education and counseling to promote health and prevent illness. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of science in nursing or doctor of nursing practice
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), National Certification Corporation (NCC), Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB), Dermatology Nursing Certification Board (DNCB), Nephrology Nursing Certification Commission (NNCC), Orthopaedic Nurses Certification Board (ONCB), and Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) 

Become a Nursing Home Administrator

A nursing home administrator oversees the daily operations of a nursing home facility. They are responsible for managing staff members, creating and maintaining budgets, ensuring compliance with regulations, coordinating resident care, managing the facility’s maintenance, and acting as a liaison between residents, families, and external parties. Their work contributes to providing high-quality care, a safe environment, and effective communication within the nursing home.

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Board (NAB)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


At, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth and insightful articles since 2019, aiding prospective students to navigate the complexities of choosing the right healthcare degree. Her recent work includes topics such as the ethics of gene editing and physician assistant’s fight for autonomy.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.

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