How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

An in-depth look at the responsibilities, requirements, certifications, job outlook, and salary.

Critical Care Nurses are highly trained Registered Nurses who work in high-pressure situations where lives are consistently on the line. Every day their knowledge, skill, and quick-thinking abilities are tested, and can routinely make the difference between life and death. This immense responsibility can be a barrier to some aspiring nurses and a welcome challenge to others.

As seen throughout nursing, organization is a crucial skill for Critical Care Nurses, probably more so than any other type of nurse. A keen eye, attention to detail, and the ability to remain calm under pressure are vital attributes for a Critical Care Nurse. These are the qualities that often set them apart from other nurses.

Critical Care Nurses have a highly demanding physical and emotional job. Therefore, this specialization might not be ideal for all aspiring nurses.

Due to the high level of skill and competence involved, experienced Critical Care Nurses rank among the highest-paid nurses in the country.

(Click here to see our full list of the highest-paying nursing jobs in the U.S.).

Continue reading this career guide if you’re interested in specializing as a Critical Care Nurse. We will cover how to become a Critical Care Nurse and the specific responsibilities, requirements, and salary* expectations for this vital profession.

Critical Care Nurse Definition

What is a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical Care Nurses provide vital care to patients in intensive care units (ICUs). The specialties in this demanding field include coronary, pediatrics, burn-care, cardiothoracic, trauma, surgical, and high-risk nurseries. Critical Care Nurses work with various doctors, consultants, and physiotherapists to ensure optimal care for their patients.

Critical Care Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

Critical Care Nurses deal with patients experiencing life-threatening or high-dependency conditions.

They assist during procedures, check vital signs, take blood samples, manage ventilation and life support systems, and order diagnostic tests. They also can administer medication and provide personal care such as bathing and dressing. In addition, they observe patients’ progress, record observations, and update attending physicians as necessary.

Critical Care Nurse: Job Responsibilities

A Critical Care Nurse’s role comes with a long list of responsibilities that typically outweigh those of the regular nurse. Their patients’ lives hang in the balance, and the responsibility can be overwhelming for some. Emotions and intensity can run high, and the pressure is unending. With that said, some nurses thrive in this type of environment. The critical nature of their work sets even the most mundane tasks apart from those of other nurses. These include:

  • Identifying patients’ needs and altering care plans as necessary
  • Providing post-mortem care
  • Performing therapeutic or diagnostic procedures
  • Evaluating vital signs and laboratory data
  • Administering blood and blood products and monitoring for signs and symptoms related to transfusions
  • Administering medications
  • Advocating for patient’s needs and providing emotional support for patients and families
  • Setting up and monitoring medical equipment and devices
  • Monitoring patients for changes in status and indications of conditions
  • Assessing patients’ pain levels and sedation requirements
  • Evaluating patients’ psychosocial status and needs
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals to develop and revise treatment plans
  • Collecting specimens for laboratory tests
  • Conducting pulmonary assessments
  • Documenting treatment plans, interventions, outcomes, or plan revisions
  • Identifying patients who are at risk of complications
  • Prioritizing nursing care for critically ill patients
  • Assisting physicians with procedures
  • Assessing family adaptation levels and coping skills
  • Participating in professional organizations and continuing education
  • Participating in the development, review, and evaluation of nursing practice protocols
  • Supervising and monitoring unit nursing staff

Critical Care Nurse Jobs

Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work?

Critical Care Nurses work in intensive care units, hospital emergency rooms, and cardiac and pediatric wards. They sometimes work in health care clinics.

Critical Care Nurse School & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Critical Care Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Critical Care Nurse?

Becoming a Critical Care Nurse requires comprehensive education and work experience. Critical Care Nurses must have a talent for various medical procedures, communication, management, and attention to detail. As with most nursing professions, becoming a Critical Care Nurse begins with becoming a Registered Nurse.

To become licensed a Registered Nurse, prospects must complete an associate or bachelor’s degree and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. A Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctoral degree is required to become a Critical Care Nurse.

Here is a closer look at the necessary steps to becoming a Critical Care Nurse:

1. Earn a BSN Degree

The first step to becoming a Critical Care Nurse is to obtain an accredited nursing degree. Your BSN degree combines the fundamentals of nursing theory with hands-on clinical practice to develop knowledge of various medical procedures.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Certification Examination

After earning a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to earn your license and become a Critical Care Nurse.

(Click here to read our NCLEX-RN Exam Review & Study Guide).

3. Earn an MSN Degree

After passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and obtaining an R.N. license, you will need to pursue your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. MSN coursework is more advanced, building on the knowledge gained in an undergraduate program.

4. Get Certified by the AACN

Aspiring Critical Care Nurses need certification from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The AACN establishes and maintains high standards of professional practice excellence through certification and re-certification of nurses caring for critically and acutely ill patients and their families.

Critical Care Nurse Salaries

How Much Do Critical Care Nurses Earn?

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not explicitly report on wage statistics for Critical Care Nurses, the salaries of Nurse Practitioners are a valid comparison. These nurses make an average salary* of about $118,000 yearly with an hourly wage of $57.

However, Critical Care Nurse salaries in the 90th percentile can reach an average of $163,000 per year.

Top Paying Industries for Critical Care Nurses

Critical Care Nurse Salaries can vary based on the industry. Here are the top-paying industries for Critical Care Nurses.

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Accounting or bookkeeping $71.62 $148,980
Business $64.33 $133,800
Home healthcare services $64.03 $133,170
Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals $63.38 $131,830
Outpatient care centers $62.11 $129,190

Highest Paying States for Critical Care Nurses

Critical Care Nurse salaries vary based on location. For example, here are some of the top-paying states for Critical Care Nurses:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
California $72.99 $151,830
New Jersey $65.87 $137,010
New York $64.39 $133,940
Washington $62.90 $130,840
Massachusetts $62.28 $129,540

Top Paying Cities for Critical Care Nurses

Here are some of the top-paying cities for Critical Care Nurses:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Jose, CA $95.13 $197,870
Napa, CA $88.80 $184,700
Vallejo, CA $86.72 $180,380
San Francisco, CA $85.18 $177,160
Yuba City, CA $76.57 $159,260
San Luis Obispo, CA $73.70 $153,300
Sacramento, CA $73.58 $153,050
Santa Rosa, CA $73.15 $152,150
Santa Cruz, CA $72.25 $150,280
Fresno, CA $71.04 $147,760

Job Outlook for Critical Care Nurses

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also does not report the specific job outlook projections for Critical Care Nurses, they note that overall employment for Nurse Practitioners and other comparable nursing occupations is projected to increase by 40% through 2031.

Critical Care Nurse Careers

Are you ready to start your career as a Critical Care Nurse?

If you can juggle a wide range of responsibilities and is as comfortable working in high-pressure environments, the role of a Critical Care Nurse could suit you well.

If this sounds like you, begin your journey as a Critical Care Nurse by earning your BSN degree at Eagle Gate College.