Be a Critical Care Unit Nurse: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Mar 04, 2020

Learn how to become a critical care unit nurse. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career as a critical care nurse.

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Should I Become a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses provide direct nursing care for patients who are critically ill. This care is provided in hospital intensive care units (ICUs), specialized critical care units, emergency departments, and in emergency transport. Specialized critical care units can be for patients who need respiratory, surgical, cardiac, neurology, or neonatal care. These medical professionals often spend many hours standing and they might need to move or lift patients.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate's or bachelor's degree
Degree Field Nursing
Experience Employers typically prefer 1-2 years of nursing experience
Licensure and Certification All registered nurses must be licensed in the state in which they practice; certification in critical care nursing is available
Key Skills Expert nursing skills and the ability to use specialized medical equipment, such as IV infusion pumps, cardiac monitors, and mechanical ventilation devices
Salary $91,000 (median annual salary for critical care registered nurses)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)

Steps to Become a Critical Care Nurse

Let's take a look at the steps needed to become a critical care nurse.

Step 1: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree in Nursing

A prospective critical care nurse needs first to become a registered nurse (RN). This begins with completing either a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Associate of Science in Nursing, or nursing diploma program. Options for career advancement may be more limited for graduates of associate's degree or diploma programs. Each of these nursing programs includes coursework in anatomy, pharmacology, patient care techniques, critical care procedures, and pathophysiology. Student nurses also serve several supervised clinical rotations to obtain hands-on experience before graduation.

For higher chances of success, obtain advanced life support certifications. Many employers require that critical care nurses hold current certifications in Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS). Specialized units may require certification in advanced life support techniques relevant to the patient population being treated, such as infants.

Step 2: Obtain a State License as a Registered Nurse

All nurses are required to be licensed by the state in which they work. To do so, candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Additional requirements vary by state. Nurses who are licensed in one jurisdiction typically can apply for an RN license by endorsement in another state.

Step 3: Gain Nursing Experience

Entry-level registered nurses may be able to find employment as an RN in the critical care unit of a hospital or trauma center. However, some employers prefer job candidates with prior nursing experience. Critical care nurses often provide advanced or specialized care for the patients. This may involve administering intravenous medications, nutrition via feeding tubes, catheters, and wound care. They also monitor patients on ventilators and check vital signs on a regular basis.

Step 4: Move Your Career Ahead With Certification

Experienced critical care nurses can seek voluntary certification from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). This professional organization awards the adult, pediatric, and neonatal critical care nurse (CCRN) credentials. To qualify for the computer-based certification exam, applicants must hold a current RN license and have worked 1,750 hours providing direct bedside care for critically ill patients.

Success tip

Maintain certification and licensure. At the end of the 3-year certification cycle, CCRNs must apply for re-certification. Candidates are required to acquire a minimum of 100 Continuing Education Recognition Points (CERPs) and to have performed at least 432 hours of direct bedside critical nursing care. Alternatively, CCRNs can re-certify by taking the certification examination. The candidate also must have maintained his or her RN license. Requirements for maintaining RN licensure vary from state to state.

In review, an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing is required, as well as obtaining a state license and gaining experience in the field, for critical care nurses.

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