Here you’ll find a complete breakdown of RN to MSN CNL degrees—including details on admissions requirements, coursework, and clinical practicums—and useful advice on online RN to MSN CNL programs. You can examine the debates between the CNL vs. Nurse Manager, CNL vs. NP, and CNL vs. CNS and learn more about why a CNL is not considered an APRN. We’ve also included a checklist for AACN’s CNL certification, helpful tips on CNL jobs and salaries, and links to CNL conferences, organizations & resources.
Ready to take the plunge? Skip ahead to our Directory of RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Programs.
What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?
Definition of a CNL
A Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) is a skilled clinician who is dedicated to improving patient outcomes at the point of care.
On any given day, these advanced generalists might be expected to coordinate patient care plans, improve safety procedures, develop quality improvement strategies, deploy evidence-based solutions, anticipate medical risks, reduce costs, utilize new healthcare technologies, delegate daily tasks, and mentor fellow nurses & support staff.
This kind of hands-on leadership work is done at the micro level (i.e. within a unit, floor, clinic, etc.). The CNL is a clinical role, not an administrative one. Though they often collaborate with nurse managers and clinical nurse specialists, CNLs remain focused on direct patient care. However, instead of being bedside nurses, they act as a specific and individual part of an interprofessional team.
As a result, CNLs are able to work with a variety of patient populations in almost all practice settings, including:
- Hospital units & floors
- Outpatient clinics
- Rehab centers
- Public health agencies
- Physician practices
Note: Want some real-life examples of this role? CNL job descriptions typically have a checklist of daily duties!
CNL & State Licensure
The CNL is a generalist role without prescriptive authority or a defined area of practice, so state licensing boards don’t consider it to be in the same category as nurse practitioners and other advanced practice roles (e.g. CNM, CNA/CRNA, etc.).
However, the CNL is still a clinical role, so you will need to hold an RN license before you can apply for CNL master’s programs and achieve CNL certification.
A number of RNs decide to become CNLs because they’re quite happy with their RN designation but they want more leadership responsibilities.
Clinical Nurse Leader vs. Other Specialties
CNL vs. Nurse Manager/Leadership Roles
One of the challenges with the phrase “clinical nurse leader” is that the role tends to be confused with management positions (e.g. nurse executive, nurse manager, nurse administrator, etc.). In reality, they are two different beasts:
- Clinical Nurse Leader: CNLs are RNs who have completed an accredited CNL master’s program and achieved CNL certification. Because they often work within a unit or specific setting, some folks like to call them unit leaders. Thanks to their training in patient safety, evidence-based practices, risk reduction, healthcare technology, and quality control, CNLs get to make decisions & improvements at the point of care. They usually report to a nurse manager or nurse director.
- Nurse Manager & Other Leadership Roles: Nurses in administrative & executive positions have a much wider range of responsibilities. They may be in charge of patient care operations, staff budgets, schedules & assignments, staff hiring & training, HR management, and more. During some work days, they can have little or no direct patient contact. There are no specific technical qualifications for this role, though folks often go through a MSN leadership program & earn administrative certifications (e.g. CNML, NE-BC, CENP, etc.).
If you like hands-on care & patient interactions, and can’t imagine a day without being among other nurses and support staff, consider the CNL. If you enjoy the large-scale challenges of management (i.e. the macrosystem), take a look at our guide to RN to MSN Nursing Administration Programs.
Note: Programs with the title of “Nursing Leadership” or “Nurse Leader” are often management degrees. If you’re aiming to become a CNL, look for graduate programs that only contain the words “Clinical Nurse Leader” and check the fine print on the program website. It should state that it will prepare you for CNL certification.
CNL vs. NP (Nurse Practitioner)
Are you a staff nurse with a few years of experience under your belt? You may be debating whether to become a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse leader. Both roles involve a significant amount of day-to-day clinical work.
- Clinical Nurse Leader: CNLs are advanced generalists who work with all kinds of patient populations. They do not train for a specific field of nursing in their master’s program and they do not have prescriptive authority. Instead, they act as expert RN clinicians & leaders within their unit, floor, or clinic—improving patient safety, employing evidence-based practices, implementing quality controls, mentoring staff, managing complex cases, etc.
- Nurse Practitioner: NPs are advanced practice RNs (APRNs) who specialize in a population focus area (e.g. neonatal infants, women, families, etc.). They’re expected to go through the APRN state licensure process and attain national certification. As a result of their medical training, NPs have considerable flexibility when it comes to employment. In some states, they can prescribe medications and work independently. Check out our guide to RN to MSN Nurse Practitioner Programs for an overview of the field.
Remember that you don’t have to settle for one or the other! Because CNL, NP, and other APRN programs share certain core subjects (i.e. advanced pharmacology, advanced physiology, and advanced health assessment), you can often use your master’s coursework as a foundation for a post-master’s certificate. For example, you could:
- Earn an RN to MSN Adult Gerontology Acute Care NP degree, put your medical skills into practice in an acute care hospital unit, and then earn an online CNL post-master’s certificate in order to gain more leadership responsibilities within the unit.
- Earn an RN to MSN CNL degree, focus on improvements & patient safety in your obstetrics ward, and then expand your job opportunities by earning a post-master’s certificate in nurse midwifery (CNM).
Note: Talk to the university about their program offerings before you commit to degree. They may have a post-master’s pathway all set up for MSN graduates!
CNL vs. CNS (Clinical Nurse Specialist)
Another tricky choice for RNs is deciding between clinical nurse leader (CNL) and clinical nurse specialist (CNS) programs. We cover the entire debate in our guide to RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs, but here’s a quick way to distinguish the two:
- Clinical nurse leaders are advanced generalists working at the micro level (e.g. hospital unit, outpatient clinic, home health agency, etc.).
- Clinical nurse specialists are advanced specialists who concentrate on a specific population focus and work at the macro level (e.g. institution-wide).
CNLs and CNSs often collaborate, though CNSs have seniority.
RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Programs
RN to MSN CNL: Overview
RN to MSN CNL programs are tailored to working RNs who have a diploma or an associate’s degree (e.g. ASN/ADN) and want to pursue an MSN or MS to become a clinical nurse leader. There are also RN to MSN CNL programs for RNs with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing.
Our directory includes ACEN and CCNE-accredited CNL programs in both of these categories. They are offered by strong schools and they all contain the words “Clinical Nurse Leader” in their degree title. Check the program website or talk to the program coordinator to ensure that the degree will prepare you for CNL certification.
Note: We just want to repeat that programs with the title of “Nursing Leadership” or “Nurse Leader” are frequently aimed at aspiring nurse managers or nurse administrators, not CNLs.
RN to MSN CNL: Admissions
RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader programs often have the same general prerequisites as other advanced nursing programs. That means colleges & universities will be looking for:
- A diploma or associate’s degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in another field from a regionally accredited institution
- A current RN license
- At least one year of RN clinical experience
- A baseline undergraduate GPA (usually 2.75-3.0)—if your GPA is not strong (e.g. above 3.5), some schools may want to see GRE or GMAT scores
- Letters of professional/academic reference
Want to improve your chances of success? Applications committees like to see RN candidates who have had some exposure to the CNL field (e.g. working in a team on quality improvement projects, integrating research into practice, implementing patient safety measures, etc.)—anything that demonstrates a commitment to better clinical care.
RN to MSN CNL: Undergraduate Phase
Before you can get stuck into a master’s degree, you’ll be required to earn good grades on upper-level undergraduate courses at the university.
The length of this period will depend on whether you have an associate’s degree, diploma, or a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, but most undergraduate coursework takes 6 months-2 years to complete.
Frequent titles for RN to MSN undergraduate courses include:
- Foundations of nursing research & evidence-based practice
- Concepts/foundations of professional nursing practice
- Community health nursing
- Health assessment
Schools of Nursing may allow you to transfer certain undergraduate credits (e.g. statistics, health assessment with a portfolio) if they feel your grades are strong enough. Talk to the program coordinator if you have any questions!
RN to MSN CNL: MSN Curriculum
When it comes to coursework, CNL programs typically try to match their curricula to AACN’s outline of Competencies and Curricular Expectations for Clinical Nurse Leader Education and Practice (2013) and AACN’s Recommended CNL Practice Experiences (2017). That’s because they want to prepare you for CNL certification.
In plain speech, that means your classroom work will be split into three parts:
- Core Courses: ~3-5 courses in advanced clinical work and leadership training (e.g. evidence-based practice & research methods; advanced nursing concepts & theory; advanced nursing practice; foundations of leadership; etc.).
- Advanced Clinical Practice Courses: 3 courses in advanced pharmacology, advanced pathophysiology, and advanced health assessment. (These fundamentals are covered in NP, Nurse Midwife, and CNS programs as well.) Some schools may add informatics.
- Specialty/Concentration Courses: 3-4 courses that specifically focus on CNL topics. Clinical outcomes management and care environment management are popular concentration courses, but topics can vary widely (e.g. healthcare policy; quality & safety; epidemiology & population health; healthcare technology; healthcare systems; law, regulation & ethics; teaching; etc.)
Depending on the school, you may be able to take a course in a focus area (e.g. rural healthcare, global public health, etc.). Many CNL programs also include a thesis or research/action project.
RN to MSN CNL: MSN Clinical Hours / Practicums
During the second half of your degree, you’ll also be participating in clinical practicums. Almost every CNL program includes ~400 clinical hours—that’s the magic number mentioned in AACN’s Recommended CNL Practice Experiences (2017). This minimum is lower than other advanced programs (i.e. CNS & NP degrees), but it still gives you an opportunity to test your skills.
The AACN recommends that 300 of those 400 hours be devoted to a “practice immersion experience” supervised by an experienced CNL or appropriate clinician/professional. In RN to MSN CNL degrees, this experience may be referred to as a capstone, internship, and/or role immersion.
In other words, you may be looking at:
- First Practicum/s: Shorter general clinical practicums devoted to CNL skills or a clinical focus area (e.g. education & mentoring; contemporary issues in nursing, etc.)
- Final Practicum: A longer immersion experience in a relevant healthcare setting (e.g. acute care facility, quality improvement department, etc.). Activities might include the modeling & development of patient care plans, assessment & evaluation of patient outcomes, case management & service integration, unit & interdisciplinary team leadership, and the like.
Be sure to ask the program coordinator about how practicums are organized, especially if you’re interested in working in a particular setting (e.g. large hospital unit). Schools may be able to arrange for you to work with one of their partner healthcare organizations. For example, the University of Virginia offers clinical experiences at the UVA Medical Center and Regis has a special clinical partnership with Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH).
Online RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Programs
Are Online RN to MSN CNL Programs Available?
Yes. Because the CNL doesn’t require as much specialized training as an NP or CNS program, there are a significant number of schools in our directory that offer Online RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader degrees. Some will even help you earn a BSN along the way.
Here’s how most CNL distance learning programs are organized:
- Undergraduate Phase: Just like on-campus programs, you’ll be expected to earn good grades in upper-level undergraduate courses from the university before you can tackle the MS or MSN. These courses are almost always offered online, so you can work while you study.
- Graduate Phase: You’ll usually be able to take all of your standard MS or MSN courses online. But remember that you must complete ~400 clinical hours in order to graduate. Clinical practicums can take place in your home community. However, you may be expected to find the site and a CNL preceptor who is willing to supervise you.
Keep in mind, too, that some universities will expect you to visit the campus at least once before graduation. For example, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh requires online students to attend a mandatory orientation session on campus. Budget for all travel expenses.
Note: Do you live in a large metro area (e.g. Pittsburgh) with great nursing schools? You could consider a program that blends online & on-campus courses. It’s not as convenient as a distance learning degree, but you’ll get more face-to-face time with instructors.
Online RN to MSN CNL Programs & State Authorization
As we mentioned in our section on CNL & State Licensure, state licensing boards do not consider CNLs to be in the same category as nurse practitioners and other advanced practice roles.
That also means that a lot of the headaches involving distance learning & nursing programs vanish. Because CNL clinical practicums don’t lead to advanced practice licensure, you should be eligible for a number of online CNL programs, regardless of your state of residence.
Having said that, we recommend you visit the School of Nursing’s State Authorization or State Regulation page and talk to the program coordinator before you select a degree. Because of interstate agreements, schools still cannot accept certain applicants. For example:
- Washburn University’s State Authorization section explains that it’s authorized to offer its Online MSN-CNL program in most (but not all!) states.
- On its Online MSN-CNL program website, Southern New Hampshire University notes that its nursing programs are not authorized in Washington.
Clinical Nurse Leader Certification
Overview of CNL Certification
Almost all CNL master’s programs will prepare you for Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) certification from AACN’s Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). If you want to dig deep, the AACN has some useful advice on CNL Certification in its CNL Certification Guide.
You need to be an RN before you can become certified as a CNL, but you do not need to pursue APRN state licensure after you’ve received your certification. The CNL is a generalist role without prescriptive authority, so state licensing boards haven’t developed specific requirements for active CNLs.
The CNL is offered by the AACN’s Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). To gain it, you must:
- Hold a current, active RN license.
- Earn a master’s (e.g. MS or MSN) or post-master’s qualification (e.g. post-master’s certificate) from a CNL program accredited by a nursing accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. The AACN has a list of eligible CNL programs.
- Contact your CNL Program Director (or the equivalent) and ask him/her complete the Online CNL Education Documentation Form.
- Take & pass the CNL exam. It’s a computer-based, three-hour exam that consists of 140 multiple-choice, single answer questions.
- Keep your CNL certification up-to-date through continuing education. The initial certification period lasts 5 years.
Note: Students in the last term of their CNL education program are allowed to take the CNL exam.
Clinical Nurse Leader Jobs
Clinical Nurse Leader Careers
Still not sure if the CNL is the right fit for you?
- Research the Role Beforehand: Start with CNLA’s job shadowing program. This will give you a chance to experience a CNL’s day-to-day routine, ask relevant questions, and get used to the practice setting. You can also talk to current CNLs (e.g. via LinkedIn) about their responsibilities and job satisfaction.
- Get Some Experience Under Your Belt: Once you’ve decided to become a CNL, we recommend that you check the requirements in current job descriptions. Employers often want to see CNLs who have at least 2 years of RN clinical experience (e.g. as a staff nurse); some are looking for 5+ years or more. Decide if you want to pursue graduate studies now or later.
- Choose a Job-Focused Graduate Program: Does the School of Nursing offer career counseling, professional & career development workshops, and job fairs? Can it help you arrange clinical practicums in your chosen practice setting (e.g. rehab center)? Does the CNL coursework include case studies? Will your research or action project have real-world applications? Will you be able to collaborate with other medical professionals during the degree?
If you’re a seasoned RN with a newly minted CNL MSN degree and plenty of hours in direct patient care, you should be in a strong position to apply for jobs. Prior professional experience counts for a lot in this field!
Clinical Nurse Leader Job Openings
- Indeed: Clinical Nurse Leader Jobs, Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) Jobs, CNL Jobs, etc.
- Monster: Clinical Nurse Leader Jobs.
- Glassdoor: Clinical Nurse Leader Jobs (mixed with CNS & Nurse Manager job postings).
- LinkedIn: Clinical Nurse Leader Jobs.
Alternative CNL Job Titles
Want even more choice? CNL jobs can fall under multiple names, including:
- Nurse clinician
- Outcomes manager
- Quality & safety manager
- Unit manager
- Patient care coordinator
- Healthcare systems analyst
Clinical Nurse Leader Salaries
Glassdoor’s page on Clinical Nurse Leader Salaries and Payscale’s page on Clinical Nurse Leader Salaries will give you ballpark salary figures for CNLs. In 2018, average CNL salaries ranged from $77,000-$105,000.
It’s worth pointing out that these figures are lower than average CNS salaries, due to the difference in responsibilities and training.
Clinical Nurse Leader Resources
CNL Certification Bodies
CNL Professional Associations
CNL Conferences & Events
CNL Useful Resources
- AACN: CNL Career Services
- AACN: CNL Certification Guide
- AACN: CNL FAQs
- AACN: Find a CNL Program (Eligible for CNL Exam)