How Much Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Make?

Kristen Hamlin
Updated January 11, 2023
Clinical nurse leaders earn an average of $86,000 per year, slightly more than an RN. Certification and professional development can increase pay potential.
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As healthcare facilities continue their focus on providing safe, high-quality care, many are turning to clinical nurse leaders (CNL) to help implement best practices. CNLs are master’s-level professionals who apply data and research to the training and supervision of nurses, with the goal of supporting the best possible care environment and outcomes.

Research from Critical Care Nursing Quarterly indicates that CNLs are directly attributed to improvements in patient safety care quality and reduced readmissions. This guide summarizes CNL salary trends and ways to increase earning potential at every career stage.

Average Salary for Clinical Nurse Leaders

According to Payscale data from May 2022, the average CNL salary is about $84,000 per year, or $36 an hour. This is slightly more than the median wage for registered nurses (RN) with a bachelor’s degree, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) at $82,750. The BLS does not list specific data for CNLs.

Individual employers, location, certifications, and experience influence CNL pay. Because the CNL role is fairly new — the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) first created the role in 2003 — there is limited data in terms of earning potential over the course of one’s career. The available data does indicate that experienced CNLs can earn over $100,000 per year.

Average Annual Salary
Source:PayScale, May 2022

Median Hourly Wage
Source:PayScale, May 2022

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The Highest-Paying States for Clinical Nurse Leaders

The BLS does not list state-specific salary data for CNLs. However, data for all RNs reflects salaries for similar roles. With that in mind, the five highest paying states for CNLs are (in order) California, Hawaii, Oregon, District of Columbia, and Alaska. Other states near the top of the list include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland.

CNLs considering this profession should compare the cost of living in these high-paying areas to other regions. Hawaii tops the list for most expensive places to live in the U.S., with the District of Columbia and California not far behind. The Northeast in general has a higher cost of living, which is reflected in CNL salaries.

4 Ways to Increase Pay As a Clinical Nurse Leader

Although CNLs are paid well, these steps can help increase your pay.

  1. 1

    Consider Pursuing Certifications

    Becoming a certified CNL demonstrates your competency in the role. According to the AACN, facilities with certified CNLs are safer and have less workforce risk than those without this role. Certification is awarded to nurses with a master’s degree in clinical nurse leadership and at least 400 hours of clinical experience (300 of which must be in a CNL clinical immersion experience) who pass a standardized exam. Students in their last semester of an accredited CNL program should apply to take the exam as soon as they graduate.

    The AACN notes that earning certification can lead to better employment and compensation opportunities. It also increases opportunities for career advancement.

  2. 2

    Increase Education Level

    Prospective CNLs must have a master’s degree in clinical nurse leadership to qualify for this position and certification. RNs who wish to move into this role should pursue a master’s degree. Associate-level nurses can enroll in an accredited RN-to-MSN program to further their education, while bachelor’s-level nurses can move directly into a master’s program.

  3. 3

    Explore Different Work Environments

    The AACN reports the majority of CNL work takes place in acute care inpatient facilities, but other work settings offer additional opportunities and the potential for increased earnings. Residential care facilities, inpatient or long-term rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, home health, community health centers, and physician offices all hire CNLs to fill leadership and training roles. The specific work environment can have a significant effect on CNL salary, so explore different options.

  4. 4

    Invest in Professional Development

    As with any nursing role, CNLs must stay abreast of trends and developments within healthcare. Given their leadership position, ongoing professional development is critical to remaining effective and ensuring ongoing quality improvement. Not to mention, ongoing continuing education is necessary to maintain CNL certification.

    CNLs who network, attend conferences and workshops, and devote themselves to ongoing professional development position themselves for career opportunities and advancement.

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Nurse Leader Salaries

question-mark-circleDo clinical nurse leaders get paid well?

CNLs earn slightly more than RNs. Because the position is relatively new, however, there is limited data related to salary growth. Surveys indicate that CNL salaries increase with experience. Also, because there are comparatively few CNLs in relation to other nursing roles, demand for qualified CNLs is also expected to remain steady.

question-mark-circleAre clinical nurse leaders in demand?

Nurses continue to be in demand across the country, with the BLS projecting a 9% growth between 2020 and 2030. Because CNLs lead nurses and support quality care delivery, they too are in high demand in a range of settings, including acute and long-term care facilities, outpatient care centers, and home health.

question-mark-circleIn what states do clinical nurse leaders get paid the most?

State-specific data for CNL pay is unavailable. Based on salary information for RNs, the highest-paying states for this profession are California, Hawaii, Oregon, District of Columbia, and Alaska.

question-mark-circleDo clinical nurse leaders need an advanced degree?

A master’s degree is required to become a CNL. The AACN developed the role as a leadership position with a focus on improving patient care and outcomes. Therefore, nurses in these positions need clinical knowledge and demonstrated competency in risk assessment, quality improvement, care coordination, and best practice implementation to provide knowledge and support to their colleagues working at the bedside.

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