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Clinical Nurse Leader Career

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

A clinical nurse leader is a hybrid of a leadership role and a direct patient care role. If this is something that interests you, a clinical nurse leader role may be the career path for you.

Nurse showing paperwork to patient

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

A clinical nurse leader (CNL) — also called a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) — is a nursing specialist who is focused on analyzing, improving, and transforming current processes as well as educating other nurses on best practices for the continuum of care within any healthcare environment. Clinical nurse leaders generally fall under the broad category of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

The position itself is an advanced, specialty career, so you will generally need a bachelor's degree in a healthcare-related field as well as a master’s degree in order to get a job as a clinical nurse leader. Some clinical nurse leaders even go on to obtain a doctorate of nursing for this specific role. Note that some healthcare facilities may allow specialized training or certifications in place of a master’s or doctorate degree.

What Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Do?

The exact day-to-day responsibilities of a clinical nurse leader depend highly on where the individual is employed, but some of the common duties for someone in this role include:

  • Performing risk assessments to assess any gaps in care.
  • Analyzing treatment results to identify any outcome commonalities or trends.
  • Carrying out continual research to understand new processes and innovations within the healthcare — and specifically the nursing — industry.
  • Assessing budgets and creating suggestions for cost-effective and comprehensive care.
  • Developing evidence-based solutions for comprehensive care and better patient outcomes.
  • Educating other healthcare professionals on best practices and changes to current processes.
  • Managing the nursing employees.
  • Providing patient care and patient education.

What Education Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Need?

As mentioned above, prospective clinical nurse leaders will need to become a registered nurse, Master's in Nursing Leadership and Management in order to practice in the field. There are options to obtain this degree program for those who already have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, as well as options for those who need to obtain their BSN and MSN both

Best Degrees for a Clinical Nurse Leader

Nursing – Leadership and Management (RN-to-MSN) – M.S.

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a substantial leap toward becoming a nurse leader.

  • Time: 75% of RN-to-MSN grads finish within 42 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,795 per 6-month term during undergraduate portion, $4,385 per 6-month term during graduate portion, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

If you're driven to lead, this online nursing degree will provide you everything needed to make that career a reality.

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This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

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Nursing – Leadership and Management (BSN-to-MSN) – M.S.

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for greater responsibility:

  • Time: 82% of grads finish within 24 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,385 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Sample careers and jobs this degree program will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of medical and health services managers to grow 17% by 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Compare degrees

This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

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Trauma nurse monitoring vitals

What Skills Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Need?

There are certain skills that current and prospective clinical nurse leaders needs for success within the role — some examples of critical skills include:

  • Analytical: Clinical nurse leaders will need to analyze various processes and patient outcomes to determine what areas need to be addressed.
  • Leadership: Clinical nurse leaders help direct/manage other nurses, so it is important to be comfortable giving direction and being in a position of authority.
  • Educational: Clinical nurse leaders often have educational aspects to their roles, so you must be comfortable developing curriculum and facilitating training.
  • Collaboration: Clinical nurse leaders generally work with a number of different healthcare workers and other nurses. It can be hard to analyze everything with a granular view of the day-to-day, so it is important to have good collaboration and communication skills to ensure that you get insight into any issues that need to be addressed.

How Much Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Make?

$104,169

According to a 2021 study from Salary.com, the average clinical nurse leader salary is $91,715 annually with a low of $83,454 and a high of $104,169.

Additionally, where you are located geographically, your level of education, your amount of experience, and the type of facility that you work in can influence your income as a clinical nurse leader. 

 

What Is the Projected Job Growth?

7%

Since the clinical nurse leader role is relatively new, there are no job outlook statistics available as of yet. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the general RN job outlook will see a 7% increase by 2029 — much faster than the national average. 

Additionally, there is a nationwide nursing shortage and clinical nurse leaders fall into one of the nursing career categories with the greatest need. Since medical institutions need certified nurse leaders to train and lead RNs, there will likely consistently be a need for them.

Where Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Work?

Varies

Clinical nurse leaders work in a variety of settings — some examples of areas where they generally work include:

  • Hospitals and private healthcare facilities: Clinical nurse leaders work in hospitals and private healthcare facilities as nurse educators, but also to analyze processes, create evidence-based solutions, and even provide direct patient care.

  • Acute care institutions: Clinical nurse leaders work in these settings to provide acute care for patients who need specific kinds of care. These institutions can range anywhere from specialty clinics (e.g. orthopedic centers) to skilled nursing facilities (e.g. nursing homes).

  • Research facilities: Clinical nurse leaders work in research facilities to analyze data, trends, and new processes that they can implement in various healthcare facilities.

Medical schools: It is fairly common for individuals in this type of specialty to work in the educational realm where they help develop programs to educate future nurses (and clinical nurse leaders) on best practices and standards for quality of care.

Interested in Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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