Advanced Practice Nursing

How to Become a Critical Care Registered Nurse

How to Become a Critical Care Registered Nurse
Critical care registered nurses form part of the team (with doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists, and social workers) that treats critically ill and injured patients. Image from Unsplash
Suzanne Wentley profile
Suzanne Wentley October 31, 2019

There's never a dull moment in critical care nursing. Whether working in the ICU, a nursing home, or the back of an ambulance, critical care registered nurses provide treatment to those most in need.

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Critical care. It’s as dire as it sounds. When someone suffers complications from surgery, has breathing or heart problems, contracts a life-threatening illness, or endures a life-threatening injury, they need critical care. The intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital, where critical care is administered, is a place where death is always a possibility.

Critical care registered nurses form part of the team—with doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists, and social workers—that treats these patients. The job requires a calm temperament, quick thinking, and an ability to compartmentalize the mayhem that accompanies extreme medical situations.

There are many ways to describe the careers of critical care nurses, but boring isn’t one.

If you’re thinking about a career in nursing, now is a good time to enter the field. Forbes projects a 15 percent jump in nursing jobs over the next five years, the result of an aging population that both creates more patients and removes older nurses from the workforce.

For someone with the ability to stay calm in a crisis, becoming a critical care registered nurse can be a great career move. In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • The pros and cons of becoming a critical care registered nurse
  • The kinds of critical care registered nurse careers
  • The educational commitment to become a critical care registered nurse
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a critical care registered nurse
  • Resources for becoming a critical care registered nurse
  • Typical advancement path for critical care registered nurses
  • Further accreditation or education for critical care registered nurses

Pros and cons of becoming a critical care registered nurse

Pros of becoming a critical care registered nurse:

  • High pay: Registered nurse earn $71,730 on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. reports that critical care nurses earn $90,330 a year, on average.
  • Different every day: You never know who or what is going to come through the doors of the emergency room or the ICU. Critical care registered nurses must be prepared for it all. If you like your work varied and exciting, critical care definitely checks those boxes.
  • Saving lives: “Hey, what did you do at work today?” “Oh, the usual. I saved a bunch of people’s lives.” If you’re the sort of person who wonders, “Does my job matter?” working as a critical care registered nurse will eradicate all doubts. Your job will be critically important. Literally.

Cons of becoming a critical care registered nurse:

  • Long shifts: Like many nurses, critical care registered nurses often work 12-hour shifts. Even when there isn’t an emergency for them to handle, they’re still responsible for taking vital signs and checking on medications for all the patients in their unit. There isn’t any down time, so it becomes important to find moments to relax when you’re not working.
  • High physical demands: ICU and critical care nurses need to be in excellent physical condition, as the demands are greater than with most other kinds of nursing. You may need to assist in moving and lifting patients and equipment. This is not a desk job.
  • Emotional toll: At times, your team will work to save a patient’s life and fail. Those times can be some of the hardest of your life, reports the Annals of the American Thoracic Society. Nurses must exhibit plenty of compassion and communicate with families, especially in facilities that provide patient-centered care. That makes the tough days even tougher emotionally. Critical care registered nurses must be empathetic, yet must also learn to compartmentalize to manage the daily stress and occasional tragedy.

Kinds of critical care registered nurse careers

Critical care registered nurses can be found wherever there are patients in need of emergency assistance. The facilities where you could work include:

  • Hospitals: Critical care registered nurses play an essential role in state, local, and private hospitals throughout America. Each hospital has a different organizational style and financial model, but the need for ICU nurses to help those in the gravest danger remains the same.
  • Ambulances: Known as ambulatory healthcare services, companies that transport emergency patients to the hospital need to have a trained professional ready to begin life-saving treatment upon arrival. Critical care registered nurses often serve this role.
  • Nursing care facilities: The aging of the baby boom generation has resulted in a greater need for critical care nurses in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Often, having a registered nurse on staff and on the grounds is a selling point for retirement communities.
  • Government: Government agencies employ critical care nurses to provide emergency assistance as provided at public events, meetings, and other such functions.
  • Schools: Critical care nurses sometimes work as school nurses. Having a nurse with specialized emergency training and experience can give parents peace of mind when their children are in the classroom.

Educational commitment for becoming a critical care registered nurse

To become a critical care registered nurse, you will first need to complete an
accredited general nursing program. You can become a registered nurse with an associate’s degree, but a bachelor’s degree in nursing is almost always required for jobs in the ICU.

As you consider undergraduate programs in nursing, make sure the schools you consider are accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. You’ll also want to make sure the school has a reputable clinical site, as much of your practical, hands-on education will be conducted there. During the semester, clinical shifts can last from 4 to 12 hours.

Many universities, including many reasonably priced state universities, offer the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Typical of these programs:

Some universities also offer online courses for a bachelor’s of science in nursing. These include:

These degrees can be expensive. Fortunately, there are also many scholarship opportunities and financial aid programs available for those who wish to pursue this career.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a critical care registered nurse

In all states, prospective nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN). The National Council of State Boards of Nursing oversees the test, which costs $200.

To be eligible for the NCLEX-RN exam, you must first apply to the nursing regulatory body where you wish to practice. After confirming that you graduated from an accredited program and meet other requirements, the regulatory agency will clear you to take the exam.

Resources for becoming a critical care registered nurse

Critical care registered nurses greatly benefit from the support and resources available from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. While certification from this board is voluntary, it shows future employers your professionalism and keeps you abreast of best practices in your industry. The organization provides numerous online courses available for continuing education and professional development Certified nurses are always in high demand.

Typical advancement path for a critical care registered nurse

Critical care nurses typically work in other fields before entering this specialization. That’s because the job requires skills accrued through hands-on experience, such as:

  • A calm demeanor
  • Excellent critical thinking and communication skills
  • A high level of organization

Critical care nursing can open doors to further advancement. Opportunities include:

  • Promotion to administrative roles, such as head nurse or director of nursing
  • Nurse educator
  • Professor of nursing

Administrative roles may require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). A master’s can also qualify you as an advanced practice nurse, opening the opportunity to become a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse specialist.

Some nurses can step away from the intensive care unit to help teams managing home-based or chronic care needs. They typically find work with:

  • Insurance companies
  • Managed care agencies
  • Pharmaceutical companies

A critical care registered nurse’s career path could even include work in marketing, consulting or quality assurance , according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Critical care nurses can further advance their careers by obtaining certification in areas of specialization, such as:

  • Geriatric nursing
  • Labor and delivery
  • Respiratory therapy

Further accreditation or education for a critical care registered nurse

Many nurses continue their education by earning a master’s degree to further specialize and become more competitive in their profession. Lifelong learning is an important part of being a critical care registered nurse since technology and best practices change with time. You’ll need to be prepared to help in the most effective ways possible.

Some nursing students also enroll in a combined program to complete their bachelor’s degree and their master’s degree at the same time before entering the workplace.

Experts believe that the nursing profession as a whole is becoming more professionalized, with a greater expectation for advanced degrees. As you consider a career as a critical care registered nurse, plan your education with your career goals in mind. If you hope to advance beyond the ICU floor, you may want to consider earning that MSN. It will prepare you for roles with more responsibility as well as a higher income.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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