Working in the nursing profession is a lot like climbing a mountain. You won’t get to the summit — your dream job — without a lot of sweat equity.

However, what makes nursing even trickier is that there are, in fact, quite a few arduous paths to the top.

For instance, you’ve got the roles of the clinical nurse leader vs. clinical nurse specialist. Both of these are graduate-level nursing roles, but they are not the same jobs.

So, which path is the right one for you?

Both jobs offer great promise, with research showing that employment in nursing will climb more quickly than the average through 2026.

However, choosing the graduate-level role that fits your interests the best is crucial for achieving personal job satisfaction long term.

Here’s a rundown on the differences between these two critical nursing careers.

Let’s dig in!

Clinical Nurse Leader vs. Clinical Nurse Specialist: Core Differences

Let’s take a general look at the differences between these two advanced nursing roles.

The clinical nurse specialist, or CNS, focuses on a particular population of patients. For instance, they might concentrate on acute care, gerontological or adult health, or even pediatrics.

Other areas of specialization include women’s health, public/community health, and mental health.

CNSs develop procedures and policies to enhance patient healthcare outcomes by using evidence-based research.

They additionally remain on top of current patient treatment and care recommendations. In addition, they train staff members on industry best practices.

These experts might also conduct or take part in research.

Clinical nurse leaders, or CNLs, on the other hand, focus on the general population.

They might work in certain hospital units, where they work with patients directly and sometimes even manage other nurses.

CNLs might also incorporate evidence-based research. However, a primary role of theirs is to offer expertise in cost-effective patient care.

In essence, they focus on identifying barriers to nursing efficiency and care consistency and then resolving these issues.

CNL Duties and Pay

CNLs are team leaders, patient advocates, and educators. They search for new ways to enhance patient outcomes.

CNLs collaborate with patients’ care teams to gather and study treatment results.

They furthermore analyze risk and stay on top of new technologies. They then incorporate this information into better systems for patients.

These professionals must have strong organizational and problem-solving skills. They also need stellar communication and interpersonal skills.

After all, they work with medical teams, patients and caregivers.

The average salary for a CNL is nearly $77,000.

CNS Duties and Pay

CNSs have a number of healthcare roles. For instance, they must order medical treatments and tests, as well as diagnose patients’ illnesses.

These experts are also responsible for treating diseases related to their particular specialties. Furthermore, they promote wellness and conduct research.

CNSs mentor and educate nurses as well, acting as managers or supervisors to nurses and ancillary staff.

These individuals earn an average salary of more than $86,000 — around $10,000 more than CNLs do.

CNL Education Requirements

To become a CNL, you must first complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.

Some of these programs are available online, whereas others offer traditional classes.

In these programs, you’ll take courses on topics such as advanced pharmacology, research methods, and epidemiology.

After completing your graduate program, you can apply to complete a certification exam for clinical nurse leaders.

Earning this certification demonstrates that you have achieved a high level of knowledge and experience in the field.

CNS Education Requirements

Like CNLs, CNSs have earned their MSNs. Still, some earn their Doctorates of Nursing Practice if they desire to concentrate on research.

Like CNLs, CNSs have to develop a knowledge of theory and evidence-based practice.

They also explore the following in their coursework:

  • Research
  • Role development
  • Ethics
  • Financing
  • Health care policy

Also, like CNLs, CNSs can pursue certification to make themselves stand out in this industry. However, the credentialing organization for CNSs is different from that for CNLs.

A total of 10 certifications are available for CNSs. These include pediatric CNS, gerontological CNS, and even public health CNS.

Importance of CNLs

As we alluded to earlier, CNLs play a critical role in healthcare because their chief focus is to improve the patient experience.

They are advocates for change, even changing patients’ care plans when necessary.

Other leadership positions in nursing focus on administrative or managerial tasks. However, the CNL position is primarily concerned with patient care. This makes CNLs quite different from many other nurse leaders.

Research shows that hospital units that employ CNLs experience several benefits. These include lower rates of patient readmission and shorter patient hospital stay lengths.

Hospitals also experience patient safety and care improvements when CNLs are around. These improvements may include, for instance, decreased fall and infection rates.

Another major perk of hiring a CNLs? They can help to decrease the turnover of registered nurses.

CNLs are also known to identify and implement methods for improving institutional efficiency. This, in turn, helps with decreasing institutions’ health care costs.

Importance of CNSs

CNSs are indispensable in the healthcare field due to their role as advocates, mentors, and educators, as we mentioned earlier.

These individuals are leaders in their specialty areas. They have the potential to facilitate and promote change.

Like CNLs, CNSs help their organizations to deliver quality care in more cost-effective ways.

CNSs can also apply their patient-care experience and observations to research and policies. Their ultimate goal in doing this is to benefit the medical field for years to come.

How We Can Help

We have highlighted here clinical nurse leader vs. clinical nurse specialist responsibilities. However, our website’s main area of focus is the work of CNLs.

For instance, we highlight the educational and experience requirements in place for CNLs.

We also offer a peek at what these professionals do on a daily basis in the modern healthcare setting.

Take a peek here to explore today’s leading CNL programs and find out which one may be the best fit for you.