NICU Career Information: Job Options and Education Requirements

Sep 26, 2019

The NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit, is where infants born prematurely or with health conditions are cared for. A team of medical practitioners works in the NICU, and NICU provides a variety of career opportunities for different jobs. Job options in the NICU include neonatologist, nurse, occupational therapist, dietitian, respiratory therapist or physical therapist. Each of these jobs have very different duties and education prerequisites. This article provides an overview of each of these career options in the NICU.

Essential Information

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a special division within a hospital that that provides care for infants that were born prematurely or have health issues, such as respiratory or cardiovascular conditions. There are many different types of people who work in a NICU, including neonatologists, nurses, occupational therapists, dietitians, respiratory therapists and physical therapists. Degree requirements among these occupations range from an associate's degree to medical school, and all have licensing requirements.

Neonatologist Nurse Occupational Therapist Dietitian Respiratory Therapist Physical Therapist
Education Requirements Medical school, pediatric residency and neonatal fellowship Associate's or bachelor's degree Master's degree Bachelor's degree Associate's degree Master's degree
Other Requirements Medical license Registered nursing license Occupational therapy license from state in which they practice 46 states require person be licensed, certified or registered Licensing requirements set by state Pass the National Physical Therapy exam and meet requirements set by the state licensing board
Projected Job Growth (2018 to 2028) 7%* for all physicians and surgeons 12%* 18%* 11%* 21%* 22%*
Mean Salary (2018) $203,880* $75,510* $85,350* $61,210* $62,500* $88,880*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Neonatologists are pediatricians with specific training in the care of infants with special medical needs. There are usually several of these doctors working in a NICU, one of which is often the supervisor of the rest of the NICU staff.

Career Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 467,400 jobs were held by physicians and surgeons, including neonatologists, in 2018, and this number is projected to grow fatser than average by 7% from 2018-2028. Physicians and surgeons in general earned an average salary of $203,880 in 2018, according to the BLS.

Education Requirements

A neonatologist must complete 14 years of training that includes four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, a pediatric residency and a neonatology fellowship. Graduates must also become licensed as a medical doctor, which is done through the state medical board and requires passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination.

NICU Nurses

The nursing staff in the NICU consists of several different types of registered nurses that have had advanced education or training in treating infants with special medical needs. Job titles include neonatal clinical nurse specialist and neonatal nurse practitioner.

Career Information

In 2018, registered nurses held about 3 million jobs in the United States, according to the BLS. The BLS projects that jobs for RNs will grow 12% from 2018 to 2028. The average annual wage for registered nurses was $75,510 as of May 2018.

Education Requirements

A registered nurse that wishes to specialize in neonatology must start with an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing and pass the National Council Licensure Examination - Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN). Neonatal clinical nurse specialists then typically receive advanced job training in the area of neonatology and neonatal nurse practitioner must earn a master's degree in nursing.

NICU Occupational Therapist

Within the NICU, an occupational therapist monitors the development central nervous systems of the infants and provides therapy if the infant is at risk of having developmental delays. Occupational therapists also monitor activities such as eating and movement of the legs and arms to determine neurosensory development.

Career Information

The BLS reported in 2018 that 133,000 jobs were held by occupational therapists and this number is projected to grow 18% between 2018 and 2028. The mean annual salary range for this profession, according to the BLS, was $85,350 in May 2018.

Education Requirements

Occupational therapists are required to have a master's degree or higher in occupational therapy. In the United States, an occupational therapist must also be licensed by the state in which they practice; many also choose to become certified through the national certification examination and be an Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR), but certification is not mandatory in every state.

NICU Physical Therapist

A physical therapist in the NICU works with the infants to reach physical milestones, such as rolling over, standing and walking. The NICU physical therapist also works with infants to develop the coordination and strength needed to reach these milestones.

Career Information

About 247,700 jobs were held by physical therapists in 2018, according to the BLS. The BLS projected a much faster than average job growth for physical therapists to be 22% during the 2018-2028 decade. As of May 2018, the BLS reported that the average annual salary for all physical therapists was $88,880.

Education Requirements

Physical therapists typically must have a graduate degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is a requirement for mandatory licensing in the United States. Additional requirements for licensing include passing the National Physical Therapy Examination and meeting specific requirements set by the state licensing board.

NICU Respiratory Therapist

A respiratory therapist administers breathing therapy to infants in the NICU. They typically must receive specialized training in caring for infants with breathing problems and using pediatric respiratory equipment.

Career Information

According to the BLS, in 2018 there were 134,000 jobs for respiratory therapists. The BLS projected that between 2018 and 2028 this occupation would see a 21% job growth. The average annual salary of all reparatory therapists, according to the BLS, was $62,500 in May 2018.

Education Requirements

A respiratory therapist in the NICU needs at least an associate degree in respiratory therapy. In the United States, respiratory therapists are required to be licensed in most states; licensing requirements are set at the state levels. Bachelor's and master's degrees are also available in respiratory for individuals who wish to advance in their careers.

NICU Registered Dietitian

A registered dietitian in the NICU is responsible for ensuring that babies get the proper nutrition. The dietitian works with the rest of the neonatal team to create a nutrition plan that helps infants grow and stay healthy.

Career Information

The BLS reported that there were 70,900 jobs held by dietitians and nutritionists in 2018 and projected a much faster-than-average job growth of 16% for this field during the 2018-2028 decade. The mean annual wage for dietitians and nutritionists was $61,210, as of May 2018.

Education Requirements

A registered dietitian needs a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a field related to nutrition. Dietitians are required to be licensed, certified or registered in 46 states within the United States. NICU dietitians must typically receive additional training in nutrition for children and infants.

While the NICU affords opportunities for careers in different medical fields, including different kinds of therapy, nursing and working as a physician or dietitian, all of these positions require significant education, and further specialized knowledge of the NICU and its infant patient's needs. All of these careers have above average job growth for the next ten years, indicating demand for NICU specialists.

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