CNL vs. CNS: Which Nursing Career Path Is Best for You?

Clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists are both graduate-level nursing roles. Learn about the differences and similarities between the two roles.
Two nurses in a corridor consulting a file

What’s the difference between a CNL and a CNS? Let’s CTF (check the facts).

It’s easy to get these two job titles mixed up: Clinical nurse leaders (CNL) and clinical nurse specialists (CNS) have similar names, are both graduate-level nursing roles and are rewarding professions. We’ll clarify both roles, their differences, similarities, how they work together and why one of them might be the right career path for you.

What is a clinical nurse leader (CNL) and what do they do?

A clinical nurse leader (CNL) is a master’s-prepared nurse who is responsible for patient care at the microsystem level of a healthcare facility or community, which is the space where healthcare is actually performed. Clinical nurse leaders’ role is to be frontline staff who use evidence-based practices to work directly with patients and their families in settings such as hospital units and outpatient clinics. They may also work as critical care nurses in intensive care units or emergency rooms.

What is a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and what do they do?

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice nurse (APN) who is responsible for the care of a particular population at a macro level — meaning, they handle care for an entire patient population. They specialize in a specific area of care and develop health care plans using evidence-based research. They may also help health care organizations develop and revise policies and procedures to improve patient care.

How do you become a CNL or a CNS?

After becoming a registered nurse through a bachelor’s nursing program, you will need a graduate-level degree to become either a clinical nurse leader or a clinical nurse specialist. Clinical nurse leader requirements include a broad, master’s-level education focused on patient care.

A clinical nurse specialist is educated at the master’s or doctoral level within a particular specialty of health care (for example, orthopedics or cardiovascular care). For example, RUSH University offers CNS education at the doctoral level.

Career paths and salary

Clinical nurse leaders are most often found in bedside nursing roles and sometimes manage nursing staff. They also may take on faculty positions or work in risk management. The average salary for clinical nurse leaders is $94,924, according to

Clinical nurse specialists can also take on leadership roles at health care institutions. They may also conduct quality and safety projects. Clinical nurse specialists make an average of $94,391 per year, according to

Clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists often cross paths as part of a multidisciplinary team. A clinical nurse specialist who is responsible for multiple units of patients may often interact with clinical nurse leaders who are responsible for single units. Both often serve as patient advocates and mentors to other nursing staff.

Are clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists in demand?

There is strong demand for both clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for registered nurses overall is expected to increase 16% from 2016-2026, which is much faster than the rate for all other occupations.

Why RUSH University for a career as a clinical nurse leader or specialist?

RUSH University College of Nursing has two clinical nurse leader graduate programs: the Generalist Entry Master’s for non-nurses and the Clinical Nurse Leader MSN program for registered nurses, which is an online program with small class sizes and can be completed part-time.

Clinical nurse specialist programs are offered in various specialties: adult gerontology acute care, neonatal care and pediatric primary care.

The college shares a campus with RUSH University Medical Center, one of the top hospitals in the country. That allows students to learn from faculty who are also practitioners at a medical center that sees complex patient cases.

“We collaborate very well with the hospital, which provides our students with excellent clinical opportunities,” says Fred Brown, DNP, RN, director of Generalist Education at RUSH’s College of Nursing. “Our students also work closely with other disciplines at the Medical Center and colleagues in other colleges at the University to give them exposure to real-world circumstances.”

RUSH also places an emphasis on community service and has a large presence in various community-based clinics across Chicago. That gives students an opportunity to provide health care services to underserved populations while also honing their craft.

“All of this helps ensure we’re producing clinicians who are in high demand,” Brown says.

Request more information about nursing programs at RUSH.

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