How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader:
The Definitive Guide

Have you been a registered nurse for several years and are looking for a new career?

Do you enjoy helping people, but want to dig a bit deeper with your patients?

As a Clinical Nurse Leader, you could work with other nurses to improve the quality of care for your patients.

This career requires a Master’s degree and requires knowledge of medicine and the clinical setting.

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

A Clinical Nurse Leader is someone who works with patients to determine how to improve the quality of the patient’s care.

Some of the things that this job entails are coordinating with medical staff like doctors clinical nurses, and nurse practitioners.

In order to be a Clinical Nurse Leader, it’s important to have a strong knowledge of problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Unlike an administrative nursing role, a Clinical Nurse Leader works directly with patients to make sure that the care they receive is exceptional.


A Clinical Nurse Leader must be knowledgeable in basic nursing requirements, but there are also some extra duties for this career:

  • Creating collaborative care for patients
  • Providing mentoring for nursing staff
  • Overseeing a healthy work environment
  • Collecting and evaluating patient documents
  • Coordinating direct care
  • Providing integration of healthcare systems
  • Make use of available technology


The average salary for a Clinical Nurse Leader in the United States is around $88,000 a year.

When just starting out as a Clinical Nurse Leader, it is more likely that you will make around $80,000 a year.

With experience, education, certifications, and specialties, it is possible to make around $98,000 a year as a Clinical Nurse Leader.

The main factor that will determine how much you make as a Clinical Nurse Leader is how much time you’ve spent in the profession.

The role of Clinical Nurse Leader is fairly new in the medical field, so having experience will open many doors.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

Annually National Average Salary: $77,460


Average Annual Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
District of Columbia$94,820
New Hampshire$73,880
New Jersey$84,280
New Mexico$73,300
New York$87,840
North Carolina$66,440
North Dakota$66,290
Rhode Island$82,310
South Carolina$64,840
South Dakota$59,540
West Virginia$63,220
Puerto Rico$35,040
Virgin Islands$68,500

Annual Average Salary: Top 5 States

The top earning state in the field is California, where the average salary is $113,240.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

California - $113,240
Hawaii - $104,060
District of Columbia - $94,820
Massachusetts - $93,160
Oregon - $92,960
* Employment conditions in your area may vary. * Salary information based on the May 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey.
Conducted by: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor.

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

Step 1Earn a Nursing Degree

The first thing that any aspiring nurse is going to have to do is earn a Bachelors’s degree in Nursing.

Then, it’s necessary to become a registered nurse by taking an exam and registering with the state in which you work.

Most Bachelors’s degree programs take around four years to complete.

Some of the courses that you can expect to take in a typical nursing program include:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Ethics
  • Nursing Practices

After achieving this huge milestone, it’s important to become licensed and certified as an RN.

The exam that you need to take in order to do this is called the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses.

Completing this will allow you to work as a registered nurse in the United States.

Step 2Gain Experience

In order to begin working as a Clinical Nurse Leader, you are going to need job experience.

The only way to do that is to work and work as much as you can to gain that edge over other nurses.

Some schools provide internships to their students while they are in school, which can secure a job after graduation.

However, there are others who must find employment the hard way.

While working toward becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader, it’s important to take on that role in order to gain experience there as well.

Some of the areas in which you will want to focus on are:

  • Patient Care
  • Administrative Assistance
  • Logging and Completing Patient Plans

Once you have a good hold on all that it takes to be a Clinical Nurse Leader, it’s time to enroll in school once again.

Step 3Obtain a Masters Degree

The job of a Clinical Nurse Leader requires at least a Master’s degree.

This role will provide you with a well-rounded education.

Some of the basic materials that you should have a grasp on before entering a Masters degree program include:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Epidemiology
  • Statistics
  • Healthcare Policies
  • Health Assessment
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology

It is likely that you will be assigned a mentor through your program, and this person can help with focusing on policy and organization, outcomes management, nurse leadership, and care management.

The topics that will be covered in a Masters degree program:

  • Ethics
  • Global Healthcare
  • Professional Development in the Clinical Nurse Leader Role
  • Accountability
  • Assessment
  • Social Justice
  • Personal Values
  • Nursing Technology
  • Human Diversity

The typical Master’s degree program for a Clinical Nurse Leader takes around two years to complete.

Step 4Get Certified

After you earn a Master’s degree and are ready to step back into the working world with your new role, it’s important to take the Clinical Nurse Leader Certification exam.

This exam is given through the Commission on Nursing Certification.

The Clinical Nurse Leader exam takes around three hours to complete and is done on the computer.

The scoring scale is between 150 and 500, but you must get at least 350 in order to pass the exam.

In order to be eligible for the exam, you must:

  • Be in the last term of school, or graduated
  • Have a registered nurse license
  • Provide proof of education

You must renew your certification every five years.


Since it is required to earn a Master’s degree in order to work as a Clinical Nurse Leader, it’s assumed that you’ve already earned a Bachelors’s degree, or you are working toward one.

In order to earn a Master’s degree as a Clinical Nurse Leader, you’ll need to hold a Bachelors’s in Nursing, and also have several years of experience as a registered nurse.

Most Master’s degree programs take around two years to complete, and the Master’s degree in Nursing is no different.

Along with classroom time, you’ll be expected to complete around 400 hours of clinical experience.

At least 300 to 400 of those hours must be dedicated to an immersive experience as a Clinical Nurse Leader.

These experiences can include other students, faculty, and mentors.

Putting students in the middle of the action will allow for growth in clinical experiences as well as teaches them how to work with a diverse group of people.

Some of the coursework that you can anticipate in a program like this include:

  • Team leadership and management
  • Point of care outcomes
  • Clinical leadership for patient care practices
  • Risk anticipation
  • Collaborating with other healthcare workers
  • Design and implementation of evidence-based practices

With a Master’s degree, it is likely that you will have the highest salary as a nurse.

It’s also possible for nurses with Masters degrees to assume roles with greater clinical responsibility.

There are many programs that provide a variety of courses in their Masters of Nursing degree programs.

It’s necessary to already have knowledge of things like physiology, biology, ethics, etc.

Some of the courses that you can expect to take in a Masters of Nursing program are:

  • Health Informatics
  • Clinical Data Management
  • Financial Management
  • Biostatistics
  • Management of Clinical outcomes
  • Risk Management

Some schools allow for the completion of an online degree, but in order to gain the most from your degree, it’s important to ensure the school is accredited.

Video About The Career


After you earn a Master’s degree in Nursing, it’s important to become a Certified Clinical Nurse Leader.

This way, your employer knows that you have all the necessary competencies in the knowledge needed for the job.

Many employers will not even hire people who are not certified as a Clinical Nurse Leader.

That’s because the experience differs due to how much immersive education received in nursing school.

To become a Certified Clinical Nurse Leader, you must take the Clinical Nurse Leader Certification Exam.

This examination is given by the Commission on Nurse Certification.

In order to be eligible for this exam, you must:

  • Hold a current RN license
  • Hold a Masters degree in Nursing from an accredited school
  • Complete a minimum of 400 hours of clinical experience
  • Complete a minimum of 300 hours of immersive experience

If this sounds like you, then you are one step closer to take the exam!

The exam consists of 140 questions, but only 130 of them are scored.

The scoring scale goes from 150-500, but you must have at least a score of 350 to pass.

This exam should take around three hours to complete, some people take less time, so don’t get too freaked out if your time varies.

There are several different topics covered by the exam.

These topics include:

  • Horizontal Leadership
  • Patient Assessment
  • Lateral Integration of Care Services
  • Healthcare Policy
  • Illness/Disease Management
  • Team Coordination
  • Finance Informatics

Nursing Leadership takes up around 32% of the exam, Clinical Outcome Management takes around 23% of the exam, and Care Environment Management takes up 45% of the exam.

When receiving your score for this exam, you will only know if you passed or failed.

You must retake this certification exam every five years in order to stay current with the commission.

You are also only allowed to retake this exam once a year.

Certification Example:

rn nurse certificate

Average Training Program Duration: 4+ Years

The average training program to become a Clinical Nurse Leader is around four years.

We’d expect that it should take around two years of work experience as a registered nurse in order to be prepared for the Masters in Nursing program.

Some people may take less time, however, this is average.

Then, it should take around two years to complete a Master’s degree program.

Popular Degree Programs

Job Outlook

It seems that you will not have to worry about a job in the nursing profession any time soon.

The career is looking to grow around twelve percent within the next decade.

There are more opportunities popping up every day for Clinical Nurse Leaders, and the rise is due to the aging baby boomer population as well as advancements in surgical procedures.

Finding a job as a Clinical Nurse Leader may be difficult for those that live in smaller populations, but still possible in places like rehabilitation centers, chemotherapy, and surgery.

Nurses with a Bachelors’s degree will likely have more job prospects than those with no degree.

* The numbers below reflect all registered nurses and are not limited to clinical nurse leaders alone.

Employment Growth Projection: 12%


That's a higher than average projected growth of 371,500 jobs.

Should You Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Overall Satisfaction

Overall Satisfaction: High

Most Clinical Nurse Leaders find their jobs to be very satisfactory.

When becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader, you will need extensive education.

This means that most people who want to become Clinical Nurse Leaders love their positions as nurses, and want more out of their career.

Being a Clinical Nurse Leader gives a nurse the role of boss, in which they can take a more central part in their work environment.

One of the downfalls of being a Clinical Nurse Leader is the hours at some facilities

Most nurses are required to work 12-hour shifts, which can be daunting.

Average Salary

Average Salary: High

The average salary in the United States for a Clinical Nurse Leader is around $88,000.

With determination, experience, and specializations, it’s possible to make upwards of $98,000 a year in this career.

However, many who are just starting out will likely make around $80,000 a year to begin.

Certifications, education, and time in the profession will allow for pay increases in this career.

Other factors to consider are how large the population is where you work, and how large the facility is as well.

Job Growth Outlook

Job Growth Outlook: High

There will always be a need for nurses in the medical field, which means that there will be a need for Clinical Nurse Leaders.

The job growth outlook for this career is expected to grow around 12 percent within the next decade.

With the aging baby boomer population, along with the advancements in medicine and technology, the rise in career opportunities should be seen throughout the United States.

There may be opportunities in areas like hospitals, outpatient facilities, clinics, care centers and much more.

The creation of these different facilities helps with career opportunities as well.

Education Duration

Education Duration: 4+ Years

In order to be eligible for the role of a Clinical Nurse Leader, you will need to earn a Master’s degree.

This is necessary because a Clinical Nurse Leader needs to have exceptional knowledge of the medical field.

This means that it will take around five to six years to become a Clinical Nurse Leader.

Most Bachelors’ degrees take around four years to complete.

Some Masters degree programs can take around one year, while others may take two years to finish.

Personal Skills Needed

Personal Skills Needed

Consider being a Clinical Nurse Leader as one of the top tiers of the nursing career.

This means that there are specific personal skills needed for this job.

These skills include:

  • High self-awareness skills
  • Accountability
  • Leadership skills
  • Strong problem-solving skills
  • Ability to work as a team
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Integrity
  • Communication skills
  • Professionalism
  • Respect for others

As a Clinical Nurse Leader, you will work closely with patients.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is the average salary for a Clinical Nurse Leader?

In the United States, the average salary for a Clinical Nurse leader is around $88,000 a year.

When just beginning in the career, it’s possible to make lower, at around $80,000 a year.

After experience and education, some Clinical Nurse Leaders can make over $98,000 a year.

Having the proper education, certification, and even specializations can provide this climb in salary.

Q. How long does it take to become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Since a Master’s degree is required in order to work as a Clinical Nurse Leader, it can take a while to become one.

The average Bachelor’s degree takes around four years to complete.

Adding on a Master’s program can take you another two years.

With job experience, it can take up to 6-8 years to work as a Clinical Nurse Leader.

Q. What does a Clinical Nurse Leader do?

A Clinical Nurse Leader provides exceptional care to patients.

Some of the duties of a Clinical Nurse Leader include:

  • Direct patient services
  • Coordinating activities of other nurses
  • Providing a bridge between insurance and healthcare
  • Understanding safety protocols

The list goes on.

There are many responsibilities for a Clinical Nurse Leader, the main one being to provide care to patients and assist other nurses.

Q. What is the demand for Clinical Nurse Leaders?

Well, since there will always be a high demand for nurses and other medical staff, the demand for Clinical Nurse Leaders will continue to rise.

Since this is a newer profession, more and more people are getting into it and providing powerful care to many hospital patients.

Having an advocate in the hospital system will help so many patients, and give Clinical Nurse Leaders a feeling of fulfillment.

More and more people are requiring hospital services, and Clinical Nurse Leaders will help in their time of need.

Q. How much does it cost to become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

It is required that you earn a Master’s degree in order to become a Clinical Nurse Leader.

The average Bachelor’s degree can cost from $15,000 to $35,000.

Add on a Master’s degree program, and that can cost another $15,000 to $40,000 depending on which school you attend.

This means that it can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 in order to become a Clinical Nurse Leader.

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