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Critical Care Nurse Career Guide

A nurse leader stands prominently with hands on her hips in front of a group of nurses.

What Is A Critical Care Nurse?

If you’ve ever been seriously ill or visited someone in the hospital who was, you’ve likely encountered a critical care nurse. Often called ICU nurses because of the unit they commonly work in, critical care nurses are highly trained to understand and provide care for people of all ages who are recovering from life-threatening illnesses or injuries. 

Today, there are more than half a million critical care nurses working in the United States. But despite that number, critical care careers continues to be in high demand thanks to the recent registered nursing shortage.

If you’re thinking about becoming an ICU nurse, you should know it’s both a demanding career and a rewarding one. From a patient’s first assessment to end-of-life care, you’ll be a vital part of lifesaving treatments and actions. You’re also caring for people who are at their very worst, physically. For this reason, it takes a special kind of nurse to work in care units.

What Does A Critical Care Nurse Do?

Critical care nursing involves working with doctors and specialists to assess, treat, and monitor critically ill patients while also providing their basic care.

A typical shift as an ICU nurse can include things like assessing a patient’s condition and starting treatment, taking vital signs, communicating with patients and their families, setting up IVs, and administering medication. Many times, patients in the ICU are ventilated or have multiple IV drips. For this reason, registered nurses in critical care unites (also known as intensive care units or ICUs) need more knowledge of equipment and charting than other registered nurses.

While this isn’t a complete list, a day-in-the-life of a nurse in the ICU might look like: 

  • Assessing and treating patients. 

It’s fairly common that a patient sees a nurse in the ICU before a doctor, so ICU nurses will be expected to assess a patient’s condition and start treatment. This could include everything from taking vital signs to dressing wounds. They'll also be in charge of monitoring a patient’s progress and reporting back to the physician. 

  • Ordering diagnostic tests. 

Many of the patients an ICU nurse will see on a day-to-day basis will be suffering from some kind of injury or illness, which means they’ll need diagnostic testing. It’s often up to the critical care nurse to send orders for x-rays, EKGs, or CT scans and then go over those results with the doctor to decide on a treatment plan. 

  • Acting as a patient advocate. 

When critical care patients are physically at their worst, the nurse's role is to be there to provide support, education, and empathy. This is done in several different ways—from helping patients make informed decisions about their health, to translating complex medical terms, to acting as a liaison between patients and their doctor.   

  • Monitoring medical equipment.

Many critical care patients will be set up on cardiac monitors or ventilators, so their nurse will be the one in charge of setting up those machines and regularly monitoring and tracking a patient’s progress. 

“My WGU degree will give legitimacy to what I'll be doing over the course of my career.” Christina Carey,
BS Nursing RN-BSN

How Do I Become A Critical Care Nurse?

Step One: Become a registered nurse.

The first step in becoming a critical care nurse is completing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Most programs take four years for full-time students to complete. However, students who’ve already completed an associate nursing degree can apply to RN-to-BSN programs that let working nurses earn bachelor’s degrees in less time.   

Step Two: Earn your critical care nursing licensure.  

After earning your degree, you’ll be required to pass the NCLEX-RN exam and meet your other state’s other requirements to be eligible for nursing licensure. This exam is a computer-generated test that’s offered by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN). The NCLEX-RN is divided up into four categories and six subcategories that cover the foundations of nursing practice and measure nursing competency.

Step Three: Get certified as a critical care nurse.

Nurses who want to establish their knowledge for nursing critically ill or injured patients should obtain the CCRN certification from the AACN. To be eligible for this exam, you’ll need to meet one of the following:

  • Practice as an RN or APRN (advanced practice registered nurse) for 1,750 hours in direct care of acutely or critically ill patients during the past two years. 875 of these hours must be accrued in the year preceding application.

  • Practice as an RN or APRN for at least five years with a minimum of 2,000 hours in direct care of acutely or critically ill patients. 144 of these hours must be accrued in the year preceding application.

Step Four: Explore additional certifications and education. 

After working as a critical care nurse, you might decide to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. Or you may choose to earn specialty certifications depending on what type of patients you enjoy working with most. 

These additional certifications could include: 

  • CMC: providing care to critically ill cardiac patients

  • CSC: providing care to critically ill cardiac surgery patients

  • ACNPC-AG: providing care for very sick geriatric patients

Best Degrees for Critical Care Nurses

Nursing (Prelicensure) – B.S.

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you...

A one-of-a-kind nursing program that prepares you to be an RN and a baccalaureate-prepared nurse:

  • Locations: offered in FL, IN, TX, and UT only.
  • Tuition and fees: $5,925 per 6-month term.

WGU offers the prelicensure program in areas where we have partnerships with healthcare employers to provide practice sites and clinical coaches to help teach you and inspire you on your path to becoming a nurse.

If you don't live in one of our prelicensure states or don't qualify to apply, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry, while also working directly with patients who need help.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (RN-to-MSN) – M.S.

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and...

This program for RNs includes a BSN component and is a substantial leap toward becoming a nurse leader.

  • Time: 75% of RN-to-MSN grads finish within 42 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,545 per 6-month term during undergraduate portion, $4,135 per 6-month term during graduate portion, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

If you're driven to lead, this online nursing degree will provide you everything needed to make that career a reality.

Compare degrees
This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

Nursing (RN-to-BSN Online) – B.S.

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking...

An online BSN degree program for registered...

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking the added theoretical depth, employability, and respect that a bachelor's degree brings:

  • Time: 66% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition and Fees: $3,225 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.
  • Transfers: On average, students transfer 81 credits.

With over 35,000 BSN alumni, this is one of WGU's most popular online degree programs. View our RN to BSN degree guide.

If you don't currently have an RN and don't qualify for your nursing prelicensure program, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry in a unique way.

Nursing – Leadership and Management (BSN-to-MSN) – M.S.

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree...

For registered nurses with a bachelor's degree who are ready for greater responsibility:

  • Time: 82% of grads finish within 24 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,135 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Sample careers and jobs this degree program will prepare you for:

  • Director of Nursing
    Chief Nursing Officer
    Quality Director
    Clinical Nurse Leader
    Project Manager

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of medical and health services managers to grow 17% by 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Compare degrees

This program is not the only degree WGU offers designed to create leaders in the field of healthcare. Compare our health leadership degrees by clicking the button below.

Compare Similar Degrees

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Our online university degree programs start on the first of every month, all year long.

No need to wait for spring or fall semester. It's back-to-school time at WGU year-round. Get started by talking to an Enrollment Counselor today, and you'll be on your way to realizing your dream of a bachelor's or master's degree—sooner than you might think!

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Nurse practitioner helping a patient

What Skills Does A Critical Care Nurse Need?

Being a nurse in an intensive care unit is a demanding position—both physically and mentally. The physical demands might include working on your feet for long shifts, transporting patients by pushing or pulling wheelchairs, and lifting patients as needed. You’ll also be constantly monitoring highly unstable and at-risk patients, so strong analytical skills and the ability to make quick decisions under pressure is a must. 

To be successful working in critical care you’ll need a mix of clinical and non-clinical skills. Some of these include: 

  • Understanding medical technology and equipment 
  • Strong knowledge of anatomy and physiology 
  • The ability to create and implement patient care plans
  • Understanding how to use various medical devices, such as catheters and feeding tubes
  • In-depth knowledge of medications, including side effects and dosing calculations
  • Operating life support systems
  • Understanding patient safety and privacy rules and regulations 
  • Good communication skills and the ability to work well in a team environment 
  • Strong organizational skills and the ability to prioritize 
  • Comfortably handling end-of-life situations
  •  

How Much Does a Critical Care Nurse Make?

$73,300

Critical care nurses are often paid higher than other nurses because of their specialized training. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median average salary for RNs was $73,300 in 2019; however, the typical range is between $67,217 and $81,049.

What is the Job Outlook for Critical Care Nurses?

7%

The BLS also predicts the demand for RNs, which includes critical care nurses, is expected to grow by 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is fueled by increasing rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity, the aging population, and an increase in emerging diseases like COVID-19.

Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work?

Varies

Critical care nurses typically work in hospital emergency rooms, intensive care units or in specialty departments such as cardiac care, pediatrics, neonatal units, or trauma and burn units. They can also be employed at health care clinics or provide in-home care.

Interested in Becoming a Critical Care Nurse?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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