How to Become an ICU Nurse

Submitted by Jay Borenstein on Wed, 05/22/2024 - 18:21
An ICU nurse working with their patient

Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses are healthcare professionals who work in hospital ICUs. These nurses receive specialized training and education to become qualified to work in critical care units, where patients experiencing a life-threatening medical event are placed.

Nurses who work with critically ill patients in the ICU are responsible for monitoring patients carefully and assessing and documenting their condition. They may also administer medication and therapies, collaborate with other members of a patient’s healthcare team, and communicate with a patient’s loved ones and family members. 

Some nurses find working in an ICU to be incredibly rewarding. The fast-paced and high-stakes nature of the ICU offers a challenge unlike any other in the healthcare setting. The specialty is also in high demand. Keep reading to learn more about ICU nursing—including how to get started in this field.


What sort of work can nurses expect working in an ICU? 

ICU nurses care for patients in the middle of a health crisis. Most ICU nurses work in hospitals. To provide round-the-clock care, these nurses typically work in shifts. 

For some patients, the prognosis is good, and they simply need to spend some time in the ICU for treatment and monitoring while they stabilize. For other patients, time spent in the ICU is extremely fraught, and there might not be a clear or hopeful outcome anticipated. The work of ICU nurses is crucial for helping patients survive and go home to their families or to ensure a peaceful and compassionate end of life. 

There are a wide range of roles and responsibilities for ICU nurses. A typical job description for an ICU nurse might include: 

  • Continually monitor and assess patients 
  • Administer medications, including IVs and sedation and pain management drugs
  • Communicate with patient’s families, explaining care plans and treatment options
  • Maintain accurate and detailed documentation for all patients 
  • Work collaboratively with physicians, pharmacists, therapists, and other healthcare professionals to develop and implement patient care plans 
  • Provide advanced life support measures, including assisting with intubation, extubation, and central line placement


Who is ICU nursing right for?

ICU nursing is a demanding role—and some nurses thrive in it. Caring for critically ill patients requires stamina, adaptability, advanced understanding of pharmaceuticals and pathophysiology, and critical thinking skills. 

An ICU nurse should also possess some or all of these qualities:

  • Exceptional levels of emotional intelligence for dealing with patients and family members
  • Clear, assertive,and concise communication skills, even in high-pressure situations
  • Technical proficiency with a wide range of technology and medical equipment, including cardiac monitors, ventilators, and infusion pumps 
  • Advanced clinical knowledge and training in up-to-date, evidence-based nursing practices

An ICU unit often has a smaller patient-to-nurse ratio to maintain the intense level of specialized care each patient needs. Patient loads can vary according to hospital policy and the resources available. Nurses who thrive on providing more intensive, specialized care to fewer patients at a time may find their way to working in the ICU. 


ICU nurse job outlook and salary stats 

The United States is having difficulty hiring enough new nurses to maintain safe hospital staffing levels to high demand for nurses of all types. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that nursing will grow 6% within the next ten years, including hospital settings like the ICU. 

As the US population ages, it makes sense that more nurses equipped to care for critically and chronically ill patients will be needed. ICU nurses also may have a high rate of turnover, which means there are regular job openings in this specialty. 

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for a hospital nurse was $88,430 in May 2023. However, nurses with certain educational credentials or work experience can often earn much more. 


Steps to become an ICU nurse

1. Get a nursing education. 

Nursing school is the first step for any nursing candidate. Some nurses have an Associate’s in Nursing (ADN), but employers are increasingly preferring the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, especially for specialized roles like the ICU. 

You can attend nursing school remotely by choosing an online program. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you don’t have to start from scratch and get another four-year degree. Accelerated BSN programs (also called ABSNs) allow students to leverage their previous education and graduate from a fully accredited nursing program in 18 to 36 months. 


2. Apply for your nursing license.

Once you have completed your nursing education, you can apply for licensure while you wait for your testing date to take the NCLEX-RN examination. State fees and requirements vary, but you will typically need to submit a licensure fee, submit fingerprints, and agree to a background check. 


3. Pass NCLEX-RN examination.

All registered nurses (RNs) working in the US must pass the NCLEX-RN licensure examination. This test assesses whether you have the knowledge to safely and effectively care for patients in the clinical setting. 


4. Gain work experience with critically ill patients. 

ICU nurses typically have experience working in an acute care or critical care setting. This work experience helps nurses refine their clinical skills as they learn to manage the unique stresses of working with critically ill patients. However, it is worth noting that some hospitals have extended and specialized orientation programs that help new nursing graduates start their careers in the ICU setting. 

Any ICU nurse will need to be familiar with common medical conditions, manage and administer medications, and implement treatment plans before they begin working in an ICU environment. 


5. Get an ICU nurse certification. 

An ICU nurse certification is an additional educational credential demonstrating a nurse’s qualifications and capabilities in the ICU setting. The Critical Care Registered Nurse (CCRN) and the Certified Critical Care Nurse (CCCN) are two common credentials that allow nurses to work in the ICU setting. Nurses with these certifications must meet an eligibility requirement that includes working a certain number of hours in critical care settings and passing a standardized exam to demonstrate their knowledge.


What to do next 

You can take the first step toward becoming an ICU nurse today. 

Nurses with a BSN degree are well-positioned to apply for ICU nursing jobs. Second-career nurses who earn an ABSN often have a unique level of maturity, self-efficacy, and intentionality that serves them well in an ICU setting. A BSN also provides a foundation to build on as you progress through your nursing career.

You can input your zip code below to see the accelerated BSN programs available in your area. We’ll connect you with one of our advisors who can help you determine the right nursing program for you.