Nurse clinician holding a folder

Do you love treating patients and want to expand your role as a nurse? Becoming a nurse clinician might be the perfect next step in your career.

Nurse clinicians are registered nurses who specialize in a particular type of medicine and patient care.

You can decide to become a nurse clinician through several career paths, including working as an RN with certifications or becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and working as a nurse practitioner.

You can also pursue certification as a Certified Nurse Leader (CNL), who serves as a manager in their workplace and oversees all patient care under their charge.

With so many exciting options available, planning ahead is a good idea. Let’s see the general roadmap for becoming a nurse clinician from the beginning.

What are the steps to becoming a nurse clinician?

Nurse clinicians are responsible for providing direct patient care in various settings; those with advanced degrees can usually perform clinical examinations, make formal diagnoses, and write prescriptions.

Your exact role will vary based on your specialty, but every nurse clinician’s career starts with a great nursing program.

1. Earn a nursing degree

You can earn your bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) online or in person. If you decide to study online, ensure your state’s boarding nursing recognizes the school. 

All verified nursing programs must have accreditation through the CCNE or ACEN. 

Without either of these credentials, a program does not meet federal standards for nursing, and you won’t be able to use your degree toward passing the NCLEX (more on that in a moment).

Nursing degrees prepare students for work as registered nurses in two ways:

  1. They provide a strong educational background in subjects like anatomy, biology, psychology, and pharmacology.

  2. They teach hands-on clinical skills that you will need to perform nursing tasks and care for your patients in various settings.

During your time in nursing school, it won’t all be classroom lectures and homework. In fact, most nursing students are placed in hospitals or healthcare clinics by the second semester of their first year!

Over the course of a bachelor’s degree, you will spend hundreds of hours performing clinical rotations in different healthcare settings. This helps you build confidence as a new nurse, so you can pass your certification exam and work independently.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

The NCLEX-RN is the only certifying exam for nurses in the United States. You must pass the NCLEX before getting a license number and working as a registered nurse. As an adaptive exam, the NCLEX adjusts its questions based on what you know. It will ask a minimum of 60 and a maximum of 145 questions to determine a score. The score itself doesn’t matter; all you need to know is whether the system determines your knowledge sufficient to work as a nurse.

There is a time limit of 5 hours, so you’ll have to complete all of your questions within that time frame to avoid failing. Luckily, you can read through test plans and plenty of study guides to prepare. You can also take a practice exam to ease any test anxiety and identify areas you should study more.

3. Gain work experience

Every nurse clinician has to work as a nurse before they’re ready to pursue specializations. While there are many different nursing specialties to choose from, most require at least two years of experience working as a nurse full-time.

The early years of your career are the perfect opportunity to explore different areas of healthcare. You might take a job at a physician’s office, then move on to a hospital. Exploring your options now will help you decide where you’d like to focus later.

During this part of your career, work on developing nursing skills, building good patient rapport, and discovering your interests as a nurse. You may realize that you love working in intensive care or are better suited to a more relaxed environment at a doctor’s office or family care practice.

4. Consider specialty qualifications

In some states, nurse clinicians is another term to describe RNs. These RNs often hold specialty certifications, such as CEN (Certified Emergency Nurse), PED-BC (Board-certified Pediatric Nurse), or MEDSURG-BC (Medical-Surgical Nurse)

You can take a look at different nursing specialty certifications offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

To really take on the role of clinician, then you’ll have to return to school and earn a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner (NP). NPs are the next step up from registered nurses; they can make clinical diagnoses and write treatment plans for their own patients.

Nurse practitioners specialize in a particular field, like family medicine, gerontology, pediatrics, acute care, or psychiatric health.

5. Apply for nurse clinician jobs

Depending on what path you’ve decided to pursue, there are many nurse clinician jobs out there. You might find that being an RN by title is enough to work with the type of patients you love the most. In other cases, you may pursue a master’s degree and additional credentials to take on greater responsibility for your patient's care.

When it comes to choosing the right nursing job for you, think about location, shifts, education requirements, and work-life balance. These factors greatly influence how much a nurse enjoys their job and how satisfied they are.

Workplace satisfaction is important for everyone, but it is especially relevant when discussing nursing roles. If you’re happy in your job, you can be more present, attentive, and responsive to your patients’ needs. High-quality healthcare depends on happy nurses.

One of the best ways to ensure you’re satisfied with your job is to choose a specialty or work environment that aligns with your interests and ambitions.

Can you become a nurse clinician online?

When it comes to becoming a nurse of any kind online, the answer is 50/50. Although you can complete coursework through an accredited online nursing school, you will still have to perform mandatory clinicals in person. Some advanced programs also require RNs or aspiring NPs to attend in-person skills labs, so they can develop new techniques under the guidance of an experienced nurse educator.

What is the difference between a nurse clinician and a registered nurse?

A nurse clinician can be a registered nurse. Because they practice clinical work, all RNs are technically nurse clinicians. To qualify as a nurse clinician, you must perform direct clinical care. This means that you work with patients to provide care, support, and treatments. Some RNs do this in a more general context, while others pursue certifications.

In many contexts, a nurse clinician is an RN with specialized training or advanced education. However, all nurse clinicians are still nurses. Even nurse practitioners who see and diagnose their patients cannot call themselves physicians. That title is only reserved for someone who has completed medical school and residency. They must have an M.D. or D.O. to be considered a licensed physician.

What positions can you progress to from being a nurse clinician?

If you’re an RN, then you have several options to advance your career. You can become a nurse manager or charge nurse or even look for a career as a nurse case manager. If you want to work even more closely with patients, you could become a nurse practitioner. Those who are passionate about operative care may decide to become a certified nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

You could also consider becoming a doctor after being a nurse. The path from RN to MD requires:

  1. Having a bachelor’s degree in nursing or a similar field, such as anatomy or biology

  2. Taking the MCAT exam

  3. Applying to and completing medical school

  4. Completing a medical residency program

  5. Passing parts one and two of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE)

  6. Choosing a specialty during your residency

  7. Passing the final part of the USMLE

  8. Earning board certifications

  9. Applying for a state doctor’s license

If you would rather become a nurse practitioner, then you can earn a nurse practitioner master’s degree in your desired specialty area. The specialties for nurse practitioners are:

  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)

  • Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)

  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)

  • Emergency Nurse Practitioner (ENP)

  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

  • Women's Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

As you can see, there are many ways you can build upon a passion for nursing and turn it into a fulfilling, prosperous career. We suggest taking time as an RN to get direct experience in an area of interest. Then, you can decide whether a specialty is really the right fit for you.

Do your nurse clinician exam qualifications expire?

All nurses’ licenses expire. Continued education and recertification ensure every nurse’s practice is on par with the latest advances in their field. Medical knowledge and technology evolve often, and it’s important that all clinicians have the most up-to-date information and skills to care for their patients.

How much do nurse clinicians make?

Nurse clinicians can earn between $52,804 to $96,284 per year, according to Zippia. Additional credentials like a nurse practitioner license can qualify you to earn six figures annually.

Nurse salaries in the US vary greatly by location, education, and specialty. Read more about how much nurses make in every state.

How long does it take to become a nurse clinician?

It takes between 4 to 8 years to become a nurse clinician, depending on your career path. If you only want to work as an RN, it takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. You can also become an RN after earning an associate’s degree, which takes two years. However, to advance in your field, you will need a BSN to pursue other credentials.

FAQs about nurse clinicians

Is a clinician the same as a nurse?

“Clinician” can be used to describe someone who works as a registered nurse. Nurse clinicians can be any RN that provides direct patient care in a healthcare setting. It can also refer to an RN with specialized education or advanced training in a particular area.

Is a nurse clinician a nurse practitioner?

All nurse practitioners are nurse clinicians, but not all nurse clinicians are nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners hold master’s degrees and have trained to provide patient care in a particular field of medicine. Not all nurse clinicians can diagnose patients and write prescriptions, but nurse practitioners can.

How can a nurse become a clinician?

To start your career as a nurse clinician, you must earn a nursing degree, pass the NCLEX-RN exam, and look for nursing jobs near you. If you want to take on greater clinical responsibility, you can look into becoming a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or clinical nurse specialist.