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How Much Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Make?

Nalea Ko, MFA
Updated May 11, 2022
Clinical nurse leaders rank as top earners in nursing. See which states pay CNLs the most and how they can earn more.
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Clinical nurse leaders (CNLs) emerged as a new career in 2003 to improve patient outcomes and help nurses excel in leadership and mentorship positions.

CNLs collaborate with other healthcare professionals — including physicians, pharmacists, social workers, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse practitioners (NPs) —to collect data to better measure patient care plans.

The job offers great salary potential, especially for CNLs who earn postgraduate certifications and become specialized managers, administrations, or care coordinators.

We rounded up clinical nurse leader salary information by work setting and location in this guide. See what CNLs make in the top-earning states and how to boost earning potential.

Average Salary for Clinical Nurse Leaders

CNLs make more money than registered nurses (RNs) who earn an average annual salary of $80,010, or $38.47 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Clinical nurse leaders make an annual average wage of $83,180, as per Payscale data from February 2022, with specific salaries varying by location and workplace. A nurse’s education, experience, and credentials can also influence salary.

Average Annual Salary

Source: Payscale, February 2022

Average Hourly Wage

Source: Payscale, February 2022

Highest Paying States for Clinical Nurse Leaders

According to the BLS, the top-paying states for RNs include California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Alaska. They respectively pay RNs average salaries of $120,560-$95,270 a year.

The BLS does not report top-paying states specifically for CNLs, but state-by-state earnings likely remain similar to that of RNs.

Many of the states with the top wages also have the highest cost of living. Hawaii, the District of Columbia, California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon have the highest cost of living indexes at 185.6-127.5, respectively.

Employment opportunities also vary by state. Arizona should see the most new openings for RNs with a projected job growth rate of 35% from 2018-2028. Employers could add an average of 2,110 job openings every year for that 10-year period.

Other states projected to see the most employment growth for RNs include Colorado, Utah, New York, and Georgia.

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How Do Clinical Nurse Leader Salaries Compare to Other Nurses?

Clinical nurse leaders can expect top-earning salaries compared to other nonadvanced practice nurse roles. This can be attributed to more rigorous education and training requirements.

Although both CNLs and NPs require a master of science in nursing (MSN), NPs report higher average annual salaries, according to the BLS.

3 Ways to Increase Pay as a Clinical Nurse Leader

CNLs have many options to earn more, particularly as they progress in their career. Higher salaries come to CNLs who switch to better-paying work settings, learn administrative skills, and earn certifications.

1. Change Practice Setting

Where an RN works makes a difference for their pay. More than 1.7 million RNs work in general medical and surgical hospitals, but other settings provide more money. Business support services ranks as the best-paying industry for RNs, with annual mean wages of $106,670.

Other top-paying industries for RNs include the federal executive branch, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and investment pools, where RNs respectively earn $96,230-$91,990.

2. Gain Experience in Administrative Roles

Office administrative services ranks as one of the highest-paying industries for RNs. RNs who work in administrative services earn an annual mean salary of $89,490, or $43.02 an hour.

Nurse administrators advance to managerial roles by earning an MSN or a master’s in healthcare administration degree. Nurses can also earn a nurse executive certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

3. Pursue Additional Certifications in High-Demand Specialties

CNLs can find more opportunities — and higher pay — by pursuing certifications in high-need areas of nursing, such as acute and critical care. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers an acute-critical care professional certification for managers and supervisors who have at least 1,040 hours working as RNs or advanced practice nurses.

CNLs can also get certification in psychiatric mental health, cardiac medicine, or progressive care nursing.

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Nurse Leader Salaries

What is the difference between a clinical nurse specialist and clinical nurse leader?

Clinical nurse specialists consult nurses and provide direct care to patients. CNLs monitor patient care, measure outcomes, and make quality improvements. Both require at least a master’s degree.

These nurses, who also serve as advocates for patients, work in some capacity as nurse and healthcare mentors.

Can a clinical nurse leader become a nurse practitioner?

Yes. After earning an MSN degree, nurses can pursue a postgraduate certificate to become an NP. Becoming an NP also requires passing a certification exam. The American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners offer credentials to become family nurse practitioners and adult-gerontology nurse practitioners.

NPs also must choose to study a specific patient population, such as adult-gerontology, acute care, neonatal, pediatrics, or women’s health NP. Future NPs must complete 500-600 hours of clinical experience in their chosen focus.

What degree is required to become a clinical nurse leader?

Most CNLs earn an MSN degree. This graduate degree offers a concentration in CNL. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, eligible graduate-level programs for the CNL certification also include a postmaster’s certificate for students who have a master’s degree in a non-nursing major.

Should clinical nurse leaders earn a DNP?

Earning an MSN degree meets the requirements to become a CNL. However, some CNLs earn a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). CNLs who hold a DNP have the advanced evidenced-based and clinical theory skills needed to secure upper-level nursing positions.

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