How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)

The clinical nurse leader (CNL) role is one of the nursing field’s newest and most important. CNLs improve patient care in diverse healthcare settings through research and best practices.

Although the pathway to CNL certification may be lengthy, it can lead to a rewarding career with excellent salary potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses earned a median annual salary of $75,330 as of May 2020. CNLs must hold RN licensure, but may enjoy higher earning power due to their advanced training.

This guide details the education, licensure, and certification requirements to become a clinical nurse leader.

What Is the Role of a Clinical Nurse Leader?

As highly trained nursing professionals, clinical nurse leaders focus on improving patient care. CNLs must understand transitions of care, risk assessment, and best practices. They combine healthcare technology with research and trends to ensure proper treatment, coordinate care plans, and evaluate patient outcomes.

CNLs interact with patients, families, and other healthcare professionals daily. Additionally, these licensed and certified nurses connect nursing staff and administration personnel with resources, data, and solutions for patient care.

Follow the link below to learn more about clinical nurse leaders and their daily responsibilities.

Required Education for Clinical Nurse Leaders

CNLs need a master’s-level education or higher. Many prospective CNLs begin by earning a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), followed by a master of science in nursing (MSN), before obtaining CNL certification. Some learners earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN), followed by an RN-to-BSN degree, and culminating in an MSN.

Graduating first with an ADN allows students to obtain RN licensure more quickly, getting a jump-start in nursing before finishing school. The BSN pathway offers a more seamless approach toward becoming a CNL by reducing the number of programs a learner must complete. Some BSN programs also allow students to earn their RN license before graduating.

Although not required, some CNLs choose to complete a doctorate in nursing practice (DPN) program after their MSN. By furthering their education with a BSN-to-DNP or MSN-to-DNP program, nurses may expand their advancement opportunities.

Required Credentials for Clinical Nurse Leaders

To become a clinical nurse leader, candidates must hold an RN license before pursuing CNL certification. RN licensure allows CNLs to legally practice nursing in their state, while CNL certification demonstrates advanced knowledge and experience. The following information details CNL licensure and certification requirements.

Licensure for Clinical Nurse Leaders

Becoming a CNL typically requires obtaining an RN license after completing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Requirements for RN licensure vary by state, but candidates must usually graduate from an approved nursing program and pass the National Council of State Boards of Nursing’s National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Most nursing graduates wait 45 days after graduation before taking the NCLEX-RN. Candidates can check with their state nursing board to learn specific testing requirements.

State boards of nursing also set standards for maintaining RN licensure. Generally, RNs must participate in continuing education before renewing their license. Many states require biannual renewals. Violating state nursing rules or laws may result in disciplinary action or license revocation.

Clinical Nurse Leader Certification

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) created the clinical nurse leader role and sets CNL competency standards through its certification program. CNL certification through AACN proves a candidate’s leadership qualities and ability to improve patient care.

The CNL certification exam evaluates applicants’ skills and preparedness for a CNL career. Nurses must be enrolled in their last semester of, or have graduated from, an approved master’s degree or post-master’s certificate program to apply for clinical nurse leadership exams.

Before obtaining CNL certification, candidates must hold current RN licensure in good standing with their state nursing board. The process to become a CNL, from an undergraduate program to certification, takes about six years.

CNL certification remains valid for five years.CNLs must renew their certification before it expires by paying a renewal fee and maintaining RN licensure. AACN also requires a minimum of 50 contact hours and 2,000 professional practice hours within the five years before renewal. Candidates with certifications expired past one year must retake clinical nurse leadership tests.

Learn More About Clinical Nurse Leader Certification How to Prepare for the NP Exam Guide to NP Certification

How Do I Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Prospective nurses wondering how to become a CNL should know that the process requires about six years of study. Most CNLs graduate with a BSN, then obtain RN licensure. However, some learners complete an ADN, earn RN licensure, then pursue an RN-to-BSN degree. Next, prospective CNLs gain clinical experience, complete an MSN, and test for clinical nurse leader certification.

Nurses should expect to spend ample time studying for the NCLEX-RN and CNL exams. Although test-takers can retake either exam, they must wait until their next eligible testing period to do so.

The path to becoming a CNL continues past graduation. CNLs must participate in continuing education and clinical experience to maintain licensure and certification.

Steps to Becoming a CNL

Bachelor’s Degree Path

  1. Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Graduating with a BSN typically entails four years of full-time study.
  2. Registered Nurse Licensure. Graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN to obtain RN licensure. Most states require RNs to participate in continuing education and renew their licenses biannually.
  3. Nursing Experience. Most master’s in nursing programs seek applicants with at least one year of clinical experience.
  4. Master of Science in Nursing. An MSN takes about two years to complete. Students should expect to submit a resume and professional references and complete a nursing school interview as part of the application process.
  5. CNL Certification. The clinical nurse leader certification process can start during the last semester of a candidate’s MSN program. Certification-seekers must pass an exam to qualify.
  6. Continuing Education and Professional Experience. RN licensure and CNL certification require nurses to meet continuing education and clinical experience standards. Professionals can check with their state’s board of nursing to learn specific requirements for maintaining RN licensure. CNLs must complete 50 contact hours and 2,000 professional employment hours within the five-year renewal period to maintain certification.

Associate Degree Path

  1. Associate Degree in Nursing. RN licensure requires either a BSN or an ADN. An ADN provides a faster and less expensive pathway to get started as an RN, with most programs culminating in two years.
  2. Registered Nurse Licensure.
  3. RN-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing. ADN-holders must complete an RN-to-BSN pathway before beginning their master’s degree in nursing. This program adds two years of study, totaling four years of undergraduate enrollment.
  4. Nursing Experience.
  5. Master of Science Degree in Nursing.
  6. CNL Certification.
  7. Continuing Education.

Should I Become a CNL?

Nurses who want to become a CNL should consider whether the required educational pathway fits their needs. To become a clinical nurse leader, nurses must earn a master’s degree and maintain licensure and certification. Since licensure and certification require continuing education, the CNL role may best suit self-driven individuals committed to lifelong learning.

Teamwork-oriented nurses who enjoy collaborating with other care providers and community resource specialists may excel as CNLs.

Although demanding, CNL positions offer rewarding opportunities to positively impact patient care. Teamwork-oriented nurses who enjoy collaborating with other care providers and community resource specialists may excel as CNLs. Thanks to its diverse work responsibilities, a clinical nurse leader role is also ideal for nurses who prefer varied daily experiences.

An advanced degree in nursing can open doors for nurses to transition into other leadership positions. Nursing master’s degree candidates can also train for careers as public health nurses, executive nurse leaders, and nurse administrators.

The Clinical Nurse Leader Job Hunt

After completing clinical nurse leader education and licensing requirements, newly qualified CNLs can start their job search. CNL degree programs may provide networking opportunities like nursing residencies and on-campus job fairs. Annual nursing conferences, such as the CNL Summit and the American Organization for Nursing Leadership Conference, can also boost professional networks.

Professional organizations, including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the Clinical Nurse Leader Association, may also connect graduates with networking and career development opportunities. Positive recommendations from instructors and mentors can give CNL job applicants a competitive edge.

  • Nurse.com Jobs

    A Relias child company, Nurse.com provides free continuing education courses to nursing professionals. The company’s job board matches clinical nurse leaders with jobs in every state.

  • American Nurses Association Career Center

    This nurse-specific job board features over 8,000 employers nationwide. Applicants may receive a free resume review.

  • LinkedIn Jobs

    Professionals can search for a clinical nurse leader position on LinkedIn using their profile, work history, and credentials. Users can filter jobs by features such as experience level and company location.

  • Indeed

    Indeed allows job-seekers to create an account to save job searches and upload their resume. Applicants can also receive email alerts when new CNL jobs post that meet their criteria.

Resources for Future Clinical Nurse Leaders

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to get a CNL license?

    The process to become a CNL takes about six years. First, aspiring CNLs must obtain RN licensure after earning an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Then, nurses must complete a master’s degree before taking AACN’s CNL certification exam.

  • What is the typical salary for a CNL?

    As of July 2021, PayScale reported an average annual CNL salary of $83,180. CNLs with several years of experience and continuing education typically earn higher wages than entry-level CNLs.

  • How many CNL certifications are there?

    AACN provides the only CNL certification. The certification proves CNL competencies and nursing qualifications based on AACN standards. Certification candidates must hold an RN license and pass clinical nurse leadership tests to qualify.

  • Are clinical nurse leadership exams hard?

    The clinical nurse leader exam is a computerized, 140-question test. Learners can prepare with several practice exams. Test-takers must achieve a minimum score of 350 out of 500 to pass.

  • What are the best leadership qualities in nursing?

    Nurses in leadership positions need strong communication and delegation skills. The profession often attracts empathetic individuals who understand how to navigate workplace conflicts.


Featured Image: SDI / E+ / Getty Images

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