Online Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

What Is a CNL?

A clinical nurse leader (CNL) is an advanced master’s-level nurse who can work in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and home health agencies. The main role of a CNL is to enhance a unit’s effectiveness and improve the overall quality of patient care. CNLs oversee the delivery of care to a group of patients. They coordinate care, assess risk, measure medical outcomes, and develop alternative care plans. CNLs often serve as the point-person for meeting with new patients. They also act as a liaison between healthcare professionals and communicate with many different nurses, doctors, and pharmacists. CNLs may provide acute or long-term care for patients. Oftentimes, CNLs work closely with families of patients to help transition care from one facility to another. For example, they may help patients move from a hospital bed to their home. While CNL is not considered a managerial role, they do have decision-making authority.

How Do I Become a CNL?

As advanced clinicians, CNLs require a specific certification and a master’s degree in clinical nursing. To earn the clinical nurse leader certification, nurses must enroll in a clinical nurse leader program. CNL online programs typically require a bachelor’s degree and prerequisite coursework in human anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and chemistry. These programs include advanced coursework in pharmacology, epidemiology, health assessment, healthcare systems, and healthcare policy. Students in clinical nurse leader programs conduct research and complete several clinical hours, practicums, and residencies. These experiences allow students to refine their nursing skills by working directly with patients. After earning an online MSN clinical nurse leader degree and a nursing license, individuals may sit for the CNL certification examination. Students interested in pursuing the CNL certification should research the best master’s degrees in nursing.

Is an Online MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Program Right for Me?

Career Mindset

As advanced clinical nurses, CNLs require strong communication and leadership skills. CNLs must demonstrate patience, empathy, and commitment to delivering the best care possible. They should also be comfortable working directly with patients. CNLs use evidence-based practice, which means they must constantly measure and evaluate the successes of their initiatives and be ready to make alternative suggestions to continually improve their patients’ care. Students in online clinical nurse leader programs should have strong decision-making skills, motivation, and dedication. They must work well under pressure and effectively collaborate with others.

Getting Your Degree Online


Distance learning opens up educational opportunities to students who live in rural areas or who have difficulties attending campus. Online MSN clinical nurse leader programs allow students to access lectures and classroom materials from their home, workplace, or anywhere with an internet connection.


Online learning allows distance learners to create study schedules that best suit their individual time constraints and commitments. Online learners can complete assignments whenever is convenient for them, which increases their overall chances of success in the program. This flexibility helps full-time nurses earn an education while they continue to work.

School options

Without having to travel to a brick-and-mortar campus, students have many more school options to choose from, which means they may find a better fit for their unique individual needs. Online clinical nurse leader programs allow students to attend schools in cities and states across the country.


Since students from all over the world can access eLearning programs, online classrooms are often more diverse. These classes bring together students from many different professional and personal backgrounds. Learners can share unique perspectives, learn about different cultures, and expand their personal and professional networks.


Technology plays a vitally important role in online learning. Technology connects students with their classmates, teachers, and university resources. Students who earn their clinical nurse leader degree online gain exposure to a variety of technologies, including chat, email, discussion boards, and web conferencing. Online students often find themselves much more technologically advanced upon graduation than they were at the start of the program.

CNL Program Admission Requirements

Specific admissions requirements for online MSN clinical nurse leader programs vary. Typically, prospective students must hold an undergraduate degree and a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Most accredited schools only accept degrees from other accredited nursing programs. Usually, schools require applicants to hold a current nursing license in the state in which they will complete their clinical hours. Individuals who majored in fields other than nursing may still apply to some schools. However, many programs require prerequisite coursework in science, including anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physiology. Prospective students must submit official transcripts, resumes, and letters of recommendation. Many schools ask applicants to demonstrate their writing skills by submitting an essay, a statement of purpose, or a writing sample. Most CNL nursing programs do not require standardized test scores.

What Does a CNL Do?

Career Paths for a CNL

Nursing professionals with a CNL degree may find employment in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. Graduates can work as clinical nurse leaders, nurse managers, unit educators, supervisors, care coordinators, clinical informaticists, specialists, or executives.

Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical nurse leaders coordinate care for a particular group of patients. CNLs learn about patient needs, measure the success of care, and change care plans when necessary. They work with other nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and healthcare staff to coordinate the best care possible for their patients. CNLs must hold a master’s-level CNL degree.

Clinical Nurse Manager

Clinical nurse managers oversee nursing staff in hospitals and other healthcare settings. As members of management, nurse managers create staff schedules, answer questions, enact hospital policies, and field complaints from employees. Nurse managers must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Employers prefer candidates with experience as advanced practice nurses or nurse practitioners. Many employers hire nurses with advanced credentials such as an online MSN clinical nurse leader degree.

Clinical Supervisor

Clinical supervisors run the operations and administrative duties of a clinic. They often work in both managerial and human resources roles. Clinical supervisors coordinate staff schedules, delegate employee tasks, monitor office inventory, and assess the overall quality and standards of the clinic’s activities and equipment. Supervisors often begin their careers as registered nurses.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical nurse specialists work in a specialized unit such as emergency medicine, pediatrics, or oncology. As leaders and managers, nurse specialists supervise other nurses, teach them new techniques, and review methods of care. They analyze medical outcomes and provide feedback to help improve the overall quality of their departments. These advanced practice registered nurses must hold certification.

Common Employers for Clinical Nurse Leaders


Clinical nurse leaders working hospitals oversee the care of many patients. They make morning rounds and facilitate care transitions. In hospitals, CNLs are lead members of an interdisciplinary healthcare team. They work with a variety of physicians and other nurses.

Long-Term Care Clinics

CNLs who work in long-term care clinics may oversee dozens of patients with complex medical conditions. Patients in long-term care facilities may not have acute care needs. Nurses must develop, evaluate, and modify long-term individualized treatment plans that help maintain and restore quality of life for their patients.

Home Health Agencies

Clinical nurse leaders who work in home health agencies develop complex care plans and improve quality of life for patients living independently. They work collaboratively with other home care specialists. Home health agency CNLs must develop strong relationships and communicate effectively with patients’ families.

Salaries for Clinical Nurse Leaders

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Salary Potential for Clinical Nurse Leaders

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What to Expect from an Online CNL Program

About the Program

Nurses can choose from dozens of clinical nurse leader programs, including full-time, part-time, online, and hybrid options. Accelerated online CNL programs help nurses graduate quickly, while part-time programs allow students to earn their degree at their own pace. Students who wish continue working full time while in school may consider a part-time program.

CNL programs usually consist of 32-40 credits. CNL nursing students must complete approximately 400 hours of clinical experience through practicums or residencies. Full-time students can typically complete online clinical nurse leader programs in two years.

CNL online programs give students the skills they need to become successful nurse leaders in a variety of clinical settings. CNL programs expose students to research and evidence-based practices. Clinical nurse leader programs also prepare nurses to sit for the licensing exam and earn the clinical nurse leader certification.

Typical Curriculum for an Online CNL Program

Specific curricula vary, but a typical clinical nurse leader program includes coursework in physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, and epidemiology. Topics include evidence-based practice, ethics in clinical leadership, risk analysis, and management of clinical outcomes. CNL students also take business and administration coursework in areas such as health systems, financial management, and economics. Other common courses include biostatistics, clinical data management, and health informatics. CNL coursework helps student develop and refine their leadership capabilities and decision-making skills. CNL online programs often culminate with a final capstone course. This experience allows nursing students to synthesize the entire learning experience and demonstrate expertise through individual projects.

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