9 Critical Care Nursing Jobs

Critical care nurses work in fast-paced, high-pressure settings. Learn more about critical care nursing jobs, including job duties and salary data.

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by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published August 24, 2022

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

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9 Critical Care Nursing Jobs
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Critical care nurses work in high-pressure settings where they care for critically ill patients. With a nursing degree and strong clinical skills, registered nurses (RNs) can work in critical care settings.

But what kinds of critical care nursing jobs exist? Within the nursing field, critical care nurses may work in intensive care units (ICUs), trauma centers, emergency centers, and outpatient care centers. Our guide introduces different types of jobs for critical care nurses, including the earning potential and job outlook.

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Types of Jobs for Critical Care Nurses

ICU Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of July 2022): $72,790
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

In intensive care units, ICU nurses treat patients with critical illnesses. These nurses conduct health assessments and act quickly to treat patients with worsening conditions. ICU nurses evaluate vital signs, administer treatments, and monitor specialized medical equipment. They also communicate with patients and their families.

ICU nurses often hold a bachelor's degree and bring clinical experience in critical care. These roles require long hours in a hospital setting. The ICU also subjects nurses to stressful conditions, which require strong decision-making skills.


Emergency Room Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of August 2022): $73,510
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

Emergency room (ER) nurses work in hospital settings where they are the first to care for patients with critical injuries or medical conditions. These nurses conduct health assessments to prioritize patient treatment. They also conduct tests, insert IVs, and communicate with patients and other members of the emergency medical team.

Like other critical care settings, an ER requires quick decision-making skills and the ability to work under pressure. These nurses also often hold a bachelor's degree.


Cardiovascular ICU Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of August 2022): $74,480
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

Cardiovascular ICU (CVICU) nurses specialize in working with patients with critical heart conditions. They monitor patients, operate heart equipment, and administer medications. These nurses may also care for patients recovering from heart surgery.

During emergencies, CVICU nurses may operate defibrillators or other medical equipment. These nurses require both cardiology and ICU skills, so the role may require prior experience in critical care or cardiology.


NICU Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of July 2022): $70,920
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

Nurses working in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) care for newborns with medical conditions, premature babies, and older infants up to age 2 who require ongoing critical support. NICU nurses administer treatments and monitor their patients. They also communicate with family members.

These nurses work in a high-pressure setting that requires irregular hours and long shifts. NICU nurses typically hold a bachelor's degree and bring experience in other areas of critical care or neonatal care.


Travel Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of August 2022): $80,970
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

Travel nurses work temporarily in hospitals experiencing a staffing shortage. They work in several specialties, including critical care. For example, travel nurses may help staff ICUs with a nursing shortage.

These nurses bring strong clinical skills. They must also adapt to new procedures and teams. Travel nurses typically hold a bachelor's degree and need an RN license. Most travel nurse positions last around 13 weeks.


PICU Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of July 2022): $81,460
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

Nurses working in pediatric intensive care units (PICUs) treat critically ill or injured children. PICU nurses assess patients, administer treatments, and operate medical equipment. For example, they may insert IV lines, administer infusion therapy, or provide emergency care.

PICU staff need strong communication and collaboration skills. These nurses advocate for their patients and communicate with family members. They also work on a team of PICU specialists.


Critical Care Nurse Practitioner

  • Median Annual Salary (as of May 2021): $120,680
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 45%
  • Required Education: Master's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Nurse Practitioner License

Critical care nurse practitioners treat critically ill patients. As nurse practitioners, they can diagnose medical conditions, order treatments, and often prescribe medications. Critical care nurse practitioners often work in ICUs where they assess and treat patients. They also interpret diagnostic tests and create treatment plans.

These nurse practitioners need a graduate degree with clinical hours, and many critical care nurse practitioners bring a background as critical care nurses.


Progressive Care Nurse

  • Average Annual Salary (as of August 2022): $75,000
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 9%
  • Required Education: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Registered Nurse License

Progressive care nurses specialize in caring for ill patients who do not require ICU-level care. Also called intermediate care or step-down care, this specialty focuses on patients released from the ICU, recovering from surgery, or who otherwise require close attention while still moderately stable.

These nurses bring strong assessment skills and the ability to closely monitor and treat patients. As the bridge between critical care and acute care, these nurses also require broad clinical skills.


Nurse Anesthetist

  • Median Annual Salary (as of May 2021): $195,610
  • Projected Job Growth Outlook (2020-2030): 45%
  • Required Education: Master's Degree in Nursing
  • Licenses/Certifications: Nurse Anesthetist License

Nurse anesthetists provide pain management treatments for patients undergoing surgical or obstetric procedures. They discuss anesthesia needs with patients before a procedure and administer anesthesia. Nurse anesthetists then monitor patients while under anesthesia and adjust medications if necessary.

As advanced practice registered nurses, nurse anesthetists must hold a graduate degree. Many also bring several years of experience as a critical care nurse.

How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

Critical care nurses need a nursing degree that provides clinical training in critical care. The steps in how to become a critical care nurse include:

  1. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree: Critical care nurses generally need a bachelor's degree. More than 3 in 4 employers prefer to hire RNs with a BSN, according to a 2021 survey from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Earning a BSN generally takes four years.
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam: Registered nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive a license in their state.
  3. Apply for an RN License: Nurses apply for an RN license in their state. The process varies, but most states require a nursing degree from an approved nursing school and passing scores on the NCLEX-RN exam.
  4. Apply for Nursing Jobs: After receiving an RN license, nurses can apply for jobs as a critical care nurse.

RNs with an associate degree can return to college for an RN-to-BSN program. Critical care nurses can also increase their responsibilities and earning potential with a graduate degree.

Critical Care Nursing Salary

What's the average critical care nurse salary? Salaries range widely, with the lowest-paid critical care nurses making around $59,000 while the top paid earn $122,000, according to August 2022 data from Payscale.

Critical care nurses may see their earning potential grow with experience.

How to Find a Critical Care Nursing Job

How do nurses find critical care nursing jobs? The process starts during nursing school.

While enrolled in a nursing program, students complete clinical requirements that expand their network. Nursing students also participate in career development events like career fairs. And nursing schools often connect graduates with recruiters and local employers.

In addition to building a professional network, nurses can prepare for critical care roles by joining a critical care nursing organization. Many of these organizations offer job support. For example, the Society of Critical Care Medicine offers a career center with job resources. And the American Nurses Association runs a job board with postings from over 8,500 employers.

By focusing on skill-building, networking, and professional development, nurses can find jobs as a critical care nurse.

Critical Care Nursing Professional Organizations

  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses: AACN represents critical care nurses. The organization offers education and clinical resources, along with certification options and a conference with networking opportunities.
  • Society of Critical Care Medicine: An organization dedicated to critical care professionals in diverse fields, SCCM emphasizes education, research, and patient care. The society provides clinical resources and educational tools.
  • American Nurses Association: The largest professional organization for nurses, ANA offers professional development tools, networking events, and resources on nursing specialties.

Frequently Asked Questions About Critical Care Nursing Jobs

What is the highest-paid critical care nursing job?

The highest-paid critical care nursing jobs include advanced practice roles like critical care nurse practitioner and nurse anesthetist. Nurse practitioners reported a median pay of $120,680 in May 2021, according to BLS data. And nurse anesthetists earned a median salary of $195,610, making it the highest paid nursing job.

Nurse anesthetists typically need several years of critical care experience before graduate school. For registered nurses, the highest-paid critical care nursing jobs include ICU nurse, travel nurse, and NICU nurse. Salaries vary by location, experience, and work setting.

Is critical care the same as ICU?

The ICU, or intensive care unit, represents one key site that provides critical care. And many hospitals operate different types of ICUs, including neonatal ICUs and pediatric ICUs.

Nurses who work in ICUs are critical care nurses. However, critical care covers other settings as well. For example, emergency trauma centers also qualify as critical care, along with progressive care, burn units, and step-down care. Many of these settings care for moderately stable patients who may require critical care.

Within the broad field of critical care, nurses work in diverse settings.

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

Yes, you can become a critical care nurse with an online degree. Critical care nurses typically hold a bachelor's degree in nursing. Prospective nurses can earn their BSN online. However, while taking online classes, nursing students must meet clinical requirements in their local area.

Critical care nurses can also enter the profession with an associate in nursing or a nursing diploma, which meet the requirements for an RN license.

Nurses interested in critical care roles often pursue their BSN by enrolling in an online RN-to-BSN program. Accredited online nursing schools meet the requirements for an RN license and jobs as a critical care nurse.

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

The earning potential as a critical care nurse depends on your degree, experience, location, and work setting.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that registered nurses earned a median annual salary of $77,600 in May 2021. The lowest-paid RNs made less than $60,000 per year, while the highest-paid earned over $120,000.

Salaries for critical care nurses also vary, with August 2022 data from Payscale showing an average annual salary range from $59,000-$122,000. Critical care nurses can increase their earning potential with experience or a graduate degree. Advanced practice RNs report the highest salaries in nursing.

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

You can become a critical care nurse in as little as two years. Nursing students who enroll in an associate in nursing program complete coursework and meet clinical requirements. After earning an associate degree, they take the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for an RN license. These nurses can then apply for critical care nursing jobs.

However, many employers prefer to hire nurses with a bachelor's degree, according to a 2021 survey from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Earning a BSN degree typically takes four years. RNs can advance their education with an RN-to-BSN program.

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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