How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

Critical care nurses work in high-pressure environments to treat critically ill patients. Learn how to become a critical care nurse.

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by Christina Payne

Published August 12, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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How to Become a Critical Care Nurse
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Critical care nurses provide treatment and care to critically ill patients. These professionals work in a high-pressure setting. Their duties include monitoring symptoms, administering medication, and communicating with patients and families.

Critical care nurses must meet educational and professional standards set by each state to practice in their field. Salaries for a critical care nurse can range from $75,370-$105,510, depending on their education and experience level. Discover how to become a critical care nurse and how to get a critical care nurse license.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

When making a career change into critical care nursing, readers should consider what a critical care nurse does.

Critical care nurses work with patients who have life-threatening or severe injuries and illnesses. These nurses often receive access to cutting-edge medical technology and training.

Critical care nurses can advance their careers by specializing in fields like cardiac or neonatal care. Nurses who pursue graduate degrees can find higher-paying positions as critical care nurse practitioners.

Critical Care Nurse Responsibilities

  • Assess and treat patient needs quickly and accurately.
  • Provide care for critically ill patients as a central part of the treatment team.
  • Communicate diagnosis and treatment plans with patients and family members.
  • Manage long, physically and emotionally demanding shifts.

Critical Care Nurse Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Critical Care Nurse?

Becoming a critical care nurse takes time and money. In the following sections, readers can discover the educational and professional requirements for learning how to become a licensed critical care nurse. Both current nursing professionals and non-nursing professionals can learn what requirements they need to fulfill for this career.

Step 1: Earn an ADN or BSN

Critical care nurses need either an associate in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's in nursing (BSN). While BSNs are not required, many hospitals prefer hiring nurses with a bachelor's degree.

Registered nurses without a bachelor's degree can also complete an RN-to-BSN program. Degree programs in nursing teach students skills in critical and analytical thinking, patient diagnosis and care, and communication and leadership.

College students can speak to a career counselor about the best majors and specializations for this field.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX Exam

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) allows nurses to earn licensure. Test-takers have five hours to complete the exam and may see 60-145 questions.

All questions are divided into four main categories and several sub-categories:

  • Safe and effective care environment
    • Management of care
    • Safety and infection control
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychological integrity
  • Physiological integrity
    • Basic care and comfort
    • Pharmacological and parenteral therapies
    • Reduction of risk potential
    • Physiological adaptation

Test-takers must meet a minimum competency threshold to pass the exam. This means test-takers must correctly answer enough questions to stay above the passing line with a 95% confidence interval.

Step 3: Obtain RN Licensure

Each state sets its own mandatory RN licensure requirements. However, many states require nurses to graduate from an accredited school and pass the NCLEX exam. Including educational and testing requirements, it can take people 2-4 years to become registered nurses. Many states require RN candidates to pay a fee to earn their licensure.

Critical care nurses need RN licensure to practice and advance in the critical care field.

Step 4: Get a Job in a Critical Care Setting

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that the median salary for registered nurses was $77,600 in 2021. RNs can find entry-level positions in critical care, such as starting an ICU nursing career right out of college. During this time, RNs can build important critical care skills in patient diagnosis and treatment while gaining experience with advanced medical equipment.

After 1-3 years, RNs can become certified critical care nurses, preparing them for more advanced positions and specializations.

Step 4: Apply for Critical Care Certification

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) offers certification for critical care nurses looking to take the next step in their careers. Some certification specializations include adult, pediatric, and neonatal.

Certification prices for members range from $135-$260. Prices for nonmembers range from $260-$375. Applicants need a current RN license to earn certification and must complete a minimum requirement of hours working as a critical care nurse. All requirements differ depending on the certification.

What to Know Before Becoming a Critical Care Nurse

Accreditation

College accreditation ensures that universities meet certain academic standards. These standards are set and monitored by independent monitoring agencies. Colleges can earn accreditation at the institutional and programmatic levels.

Most RN state licensure boards require students to attend an accredited nursing program. This ensures that aspiring nurses meet verified education standards.

Cost

According to a BestColleges data report, the average cost of tuition and fees at two-year public schools was $3,501 in 2020-2021. The average cost of tuition and fees at four-year schools was $19,020 per year for the same academic year. However, total education costs vary by the following factors:

Readers can reduce these costs by choosing an online program instead of an in-person program. Online program costs are often lower, though readers should factor in hidden college costs.

Salary

A critical care nurse's salary has the potential to grow with experience and education. According to June 2022 Payscale data, the average annual salary for a critical care nurse was $75,370. Nurses with a master's in nursing made an average annual salary of $98,000 as of July 2022 Payscale data.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Critical Care Nurse

What qualifications do you need to become a critical care nurse?

Critical care nurses must meet the following educational and professional requirements:

Critical care nurses provide care to critically ill and unstable patients. As such, state medical boards require a high level of education and training for professionals in this field.

Nurses can earn advancement in this field by gaining experience or earning a graduate degree, such as a master's in nursing.

What is the fastest way to become a critical care nurse?

The fastest way to become a critical care nurse is to earn an associate degree, which takes about two years to complete. After earning their degree, graduates must pass the NCLEX exam to receive RN licensure.

Licensed RNs can often find entry-level work in the ICU to begin earning experience as a critical care nurse.

What are three important skills for a critical care nurse?

Three important skills for critical care nurses include the ability to:

Critical care nurses must quickly and accurately make decisions about patient healthcare that can immediately impact a patient's recovery. Aspiring nurses must be able to work in a high-stress environment.

Can I become a critical care nurse with an online degree?

Yes, you can become a critical care nurse with an online degree. Most state medical boards require nurses to receive an ADN or BSN from an accredited institution. Online degree programs, as long as they are accredited, should meet this requirement.

Readers considering an online degree should still look at in-state programs. Online students who meet residency requirements may still receive in-state tuition for their online program.

How much money can I make as a critical care nurse?

According to Payscale, critical care nurses earned an hourly wage of $34.81 as of June 2022. These professionals can earn higher salaries through more work experience and education. For example, a critical care nurse with over twenty years of experience can make nearly $42 per hour on average.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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