The field of nursing will grow faster than many other careers over the next ten years. Both the number of jobs and advancement opportunities will allow nurses to not only take on new roles to improve patient care but to earn more money.

The Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) role is one of the emerging nursing roles that’s expected to grow. A CNL is an RN with a master’s degree who successfully passed a CNL certification exam. CNLs leave behind day-to-day bedside care and instead work to enable their RN teams to provide the best care possible.

A CNL advocates for their patient group, nursing team, and ward on interprofessional teams. They impact real change in their healthcare organizations – and they are paid well for it.

Are you thinking about where to take your nursing career? You can become an RN and CNL in as little as six years starting from scratch.

Keep reading to find out how to become a CNL.

How to Go from RN to CNL in Six Years

You can become a CNL in as few as six years if you follow a strict education program. The AACN demands that CNLs achieve an accredited master’s degree before taking the CNL exam, so if you don’t already have a bachelor’s degree, it will take the full six-years of full-time education to get ready for the exam.

1. Become an RN

Your first step towards your goal is to secure a current RN license in your state.

To get an RN license, you’ll first need to finish an accredited RN program. You have several options including getting a nursing diploma, finishing a two-year associates degree, or taking the bachelor’s degree route.

If you are starting on your journey, consider skipping the diploma or associate’s degree and jumping straight into a bachelor’s degree route. The bachelor’s degree will allow you to become an RN and prepare you to apply for a postgraduate program required to become a CNL.

You can also get an associate’s degree and use them to transfer credits to your four-year degree program later.

Whatever you decide, you need to provide proof of education to sit the NCLEX-RN examination. Passing the NCLEX-RN exam allows you to apply for licensure.

The NCLEX is around 119 questions completed within six hours. The 70-75 percent of students who pass then go on to apply for an RN license. Your state will have a specific process in place for you to apply. Contact your state board of nursing to learn more.

2. Graduate with a BSN

RNs with an associates degree have the option of transferring into a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

Whether or not you go on to complete a graduate degree, a BSN is a good idea.

Nursing bodies in the United States are increasingly encouraging nurses to achieve a four-year degree because higher education translates to better care and better patient outcomes. Healthcare organizations are also increasingly requiring these degrees.

Your path to a BSN depends on your educational background and availability. If you have an Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN), then you may be eligible to transfer into a BSN program and complete your education in as few as 18 months.

However you do it, a BSN will improve your work as a nurse, your career prospects, and open up higher education opportunities.

3. Find a Graduate School with CNL Programs

Upon completing your BSN, you may begin finding a school that offers CNL programs.

The CNL program is still limited in scope compared to BSN programs in part because it’s a relatively new addition to the roster.

Your CNL program must be developed in coordination with AACN CNL standards and be accredited. The AACN says there are currently 119 schools in the U.S. that provide a master’s degree suitable for taking the CNL exam.

It’s also possible to complete your CNL master’s program online.

Your BSN was likely a challenge, and your graduate degree will change the way you think, act, and lead as a nurse. Be sure to find a program that suits your practicum experience, GPA, and tuition needs to help you better find success.

4. Complete Your Master’s Degree

Your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree will vary according to the school you choose, but it will be intensive to meet the AACN requirements.

An MSN may last 24 months because it includes both classroom time and a considerable number of clinical and practice hours.

Your clinical experience may begin in the first or second year of the program and may total over 1,000 hours across several settings. CNL-related degrees also typically include immersion hours. Here, you’ll spend several hundred hours working in or alongside the CNL role in an organization.

On top of all these hours, you’ll also complete 60-75 classroom credit hours with assignments. You’ll split these hours between core courses and the choices from a list of optional courses that appeal most to you.

You may also need to complete a thesis or a comprehensive examination to graduate.

5. Take the CNL Certification Exam

Your postgraduate degree prepares you to take the CNL certification exam.

The AACN requires applicants for the exam to complete a graduate degree before taking the exam and applying for licensure.

The CNL is similar to the NCLEX-RN exam in that it requires over a hundred questions and is a computer-based exam. It is also a pass-fail exam You can take the test at your school of nursing or go to another testing center is the exam site isn’t convenient for you.

You can find a full list of dates and sites on the AACN’s website.

Although your degree and experience help prepare you for the exam, you still need to study. The AACN provides a full blueprint to the exam that gets updated with each version of the exam. It provides you with a complete list of domains and subdomains that you should be proficient in before sitting the exam.

6. Become a CNL

Once you pass the CNL certification exam, you are free to use the title of CNL and apply for CNL jobs.

Where Will Your Career Take You?

The role of CNL is a rewarding one that transforms you into a nursing leader. Getting there requires an RN license, a graduate degree, and a CNL exam.

Are you thinking of becoming a CNL but can’t find a college that makes sense for you? Visit our FAQ section to learn more about this growing specialty.