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How to Become a Critical Care Nurse: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a critical care nurse. Explore the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in critical care nursing. View article »

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  • 0:53 Career Requirements
  • 1:28 Step 1: Education
  • 2:19 Step 2: Licensure
  • 2:37 Step 3: Acute Care Experience
  • 3:19 Step 4: Graduate Education
  • 3:44 Step 5: Certification

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Video Transcript

Critical Care Nurses

Critical care nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who care for acutely ill patients of all ages. They work in critical care settings, such as intensive care units and burn centers. Nurses in general spend many hours working on their feet and often experience back problems related to lifting and moving patients. Some may nursing critically ill patients on a daily basis stressful. Nurses can work both full-time and part-time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses can expect a 16%, or much faster-than-average, increase in employment from 2014-2024. In May 2015, they earned a median annual salary of $67,490.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate's or bachelor's degree
Degree Field Nursing
Experience Many employers require candidates with 1-2 years related experience
Licensure and Certification National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), Certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support and/or Pediatric Advanced Life Support
Key Skills Critical thinking, decision-making, empathy, and interpersonal communication; be familiar with medical and information retrieval software, and know how to operate imaging systems, traction equipment, and vascular catheters
Salary (2015) $67,490 (median for registered nurses)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Job postings, O*Net Online

Step 1: Education

Nursing programs can lead to an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree, or a diploma. Once enrolled, aspiring critical care nurses take courses in human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, microbiology, and nutrition, along with the behavioral and social sciences. Those pursuing bachelor's degrees take liberal arts courses. Core nursing subjects generally include nursing ethics, mental health nursing, and pharmacology. Students also participate in clinical experiences in a variety of settings.

Success Tip:

Seek clinical rotations in intensive care units or similar settings. Many employers require experience in critical care settings. Although students are required to work in a range of clinical settings while in nursing school, they may be able to choose those related to their areas of interest.

Step 2: Licensure

In addition to completing an approved training program, critical care nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) before they can qualify for a state-level license. Additional requirements are set by each state's board of nursing.

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  • Clinical Nursing
  • Critical Care Nursing
  • Direct-Entry Midwifery - LM, CPM
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  • Mental Health Nursing
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  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Nurse Assistant or Patient Care Assistant
  • Nurse Midwife
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  • Nursing Administration
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  • Pediatric Nursing
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  • Registered Nurse

Step 3: Acute Care Experience

Entry-level registered nurses typically evaluate patients, take vital signs, and administer medication. Those who continue their education, perform well, and gain experience may receive promotions or move to other areas. These might include intensive care or coronary care units where they can gain the necessary experience to become critical care nurses.

Success Tip:

Get certified in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and/or Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS), which may be required by some employers. The American Heart Association maintains guidelines and offers courses and testing for both certifications.

Step 4: Graduate Education

Some schools offer graduate nurse practitioner programs with a specialty in acute care, which can require anywhere from 39-60 credit hours of course work. At this level, students learn about clinical pathophysiology, trauma nursing, and advanced cardiac life support. They also take research courses and participate in clinical experiences. Some programs may include internships at medical facilities.

Step 5: Certification

Another way for critical care nurses to advance their career is by obtaining optional certifications. The American Association of Critical Care Nurses offers a certification for registered nurses and nurse practitioners working with acutely ill patients. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification. Requirements differ between the certifying organization and level, but typically include the appropriate level of education, a nursing license, a certain number of hours of work with acutely ill patients, and a passing score on an exam.

Let's review. Critical care nurses earned a median annual salary of $67,490 in May 2015. To become one, you'll need a degree or a diploma and a state license, which requires passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

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