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ICU Nurse Career

How to Become an ICU Nurse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), injuries are the number cause of death for people ages 1 to 44 years. And traumatic injuries among the elderly are predicted to grow as the baby boomer generation ages. 

As an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse, you must be able to act quickly to save a life hanging in the balance. These nurses also need to remain calm under extreme pressure, stay strong in the face of catastrophic injuries, manage multiple priorities and tasks, and quickly provide and follow instructions in chaotic situations.

Nurse looking in hospital patient's ear

What Is an ICU Nurse?

An ICU nurse works in the intensive care unit, attending to patients who are dealing with serious and often life-threatening conditions. While ICU patients may be slightly more stable than those with critical conditions who are in the ER, they still require heavy monitoring and attention. ICU patients’ conditions can change at any moment, resulting in serious consequences and even death.

What Does an ICU Nurse Do?

As an ICU nurse, you’ll provide life-saving care to patients that are extremely sick or fighting for their lives within the intensive care unit. These patients require 24/7 nursing and are often intubated, ventilated, and on several medications, so you’ll need to be well versed in all aspects of wellness restoration. 

Essential duties for the job include:

  • Monitoring and evaluating patient progress.
  • Identifying changes in patient condition.
  • Beginning treatment and monitoring doses.
  • Responding to medical emergencies and alerting doctors.
  • Delivering ongoing updates to doctors, patients, and patient family members.
  • Caring for patient needs during recovery, including creating plans of care.
  • Maintaining patient records and completing transfer paperwork.

How Do I Become an ICU Nurse?

To work as an ICU nurse, you must first become an RN by graduating with an ADN or BSN from an accredited nursing program. You’ll then get your licensure by passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

Next, you’ll need to gain at least two years of nursing experience in a position that specializes in intensive care nursing. And, as with the journey to becoming an ER nurse, you must get an advanced certification specific to the role.

The most popular credential for ICU nurses is the Certification for Adult Critical Care Nurses (CCRN Adult). To be eligible to sit for this exam, you must meet one of two criteria:

  • 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.

You can also choose to get your CCRN certification with a pediatric or neonatal specialization.

What Degrees are Best for an ICU Nurse?

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, MO, and UT only.
  • Tuition and fees: $6,575 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 – Education (BSN-to-MSN) – M.S.

A master's in nursing education program for nurses with BSNs....

A master's in nursing education program for...

A master's in nursing education program for nurses with BSNs.

This degree will prepare you to teach the next generation of nurses.

  • Time: 80% of grads finish within 2 years.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,385 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Nurse Educator
  • Nursing Faculty
  • Program Director
  • Academic Clinical Nurse Educator

Hospitals and other facilities need nurse educators. Earn your MSN – Education and step into a role inspiring and empowering caregivers.

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: $4,385 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

Nursing Education – Post-Master's Certificate

A specialty certificate in nursing education for nurses with...

A specialty certificate in nursing education for...

A specialty certificate in nursing education for nurses with MSNs.

This program will prepare you to teach the next generation of nurses.

  • Time: 12 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,385 per 6-month term, plus a one-time Health Professions Fee of $350.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Nurse Educator
  • Nursing Faculty
  • Program Director
  • Academic Clinical Nurse Educator

Hospitals and other facilities need nurse educators. Earn your Post-Master's Certificate in Nursing Education and step into a role inspiring and empowering caregivers. This program will prepare you to sit for the National League for Nursing Certified Nurse Executive (CNE) exam.

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: $3,795 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 (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: $3,795 per 6-month term during undergraduate portion, $4,385 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 Leadership and Management – Post-Master's Certificate

A certificate for registered nurses with a master's degree in...

A certificate for registered nurses with a...

A certificate for registered nurses with a master's degree in nursing who are ready for greater responsibility in a leadership and management role.

  • Time: 12 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,385 per 6-month term, plus a one-time Health Professions Fee of $350. The cost to sit for the NAHQ Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality (CPHQ) exam is included in tuition.

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.


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What are the Differences Between an ICU Nurse and an ER Nurse?

A young nurse works among the community to dispel medical ignorance.

Both ER and ICU nurses are similar in that they tend to patients experiencing urgent, severe, or life-threatening medical conditions. Many of their roles and responsibilities overlap, too. Where you’ll find the main difference for these jobs is in their work environment.

While they both provide critical care, the emergency room and the intensive care unit are two very different functioning areas of a hospital: 

  • The ER—Treats patients with acute medical conditions, such as severe injuries or heart attacks. It’s open around the clock for patients in emergency situations that can admit themselves or arrive via ambulance. Emergency room visits are spontaneous and not planned in advance.
  • The ICU—Provides ongoing treatment to patients with life-threatening medical conditions. Patients can be transferred to the ICU after being stabilized in the ER, or they can have planned ICU stays to recover from invasive surgeries. Patients experiencing severe complications from chronic illnesses may also be admitted to the ICU.

Because the work settings are quite different, the personalities of ER and ICU nurses are unique as well:

  • ER nurses—Are calm, collected, and highly adaptable during emergencies. They’re quick-acting, big-picture thinkers that seek adrenaline and thrive on organized chaos.  
  • ICU nurses—Are organized and meticulous planners that love the detailed level of care they provide. They seek numerous responsibilities and are exceptional multitaskers. 

Another key divergence is the number of patients these nurses see. Emergency nurses can see up to 10 patients per shift, while ICU nurses may focus on just 2 patients over multiple shifts.

As for variances in the skills that you’ll need for success in either job:

  • ER nursing—Requires the ability to remain calm under pressure: a lot of pressure! You must have boundless energy, be able to think on your feet, and remain calm in a crisis.
  • ICU nursing—Requires the ability to follow procedures with a sharp eye for details. The stakes are still high, although less urgent. So you must be patient and have keen observation skills to notice subtle changes in patient conditions.

How Much Does an ICU Nurse Make?

$101,000

According to ZipRecruiter, the national average annual salary for ICU nurses in 2021 is $101,374. The top one percent can make as much as $188,000 or more per year. Pay can vary depending on the state and level of education and experience.

What Is the Projected Job Growth for an ICU Nurse?

9%

The BLS projects that the demand for registered nurses will grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030, resulting in more than 276,000 additional jobs in the field. ICU nurses may be in even greater demand as they require an elevated skill set and greater level of certification.

Where Do School Nurses Work?

Hospital

Most often, ICU nurses work in the intensive care unit in a hospital. On occasion they may work in other units like the PACU (post-anesthesia care units) or SICU (surgical intensive care units).

Interested in Becoming an ICU Nurse?

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

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