Career Spotlight: Critical Care RN

Often times in the media, television or movies the glory goes to the surgeons, but you never really wanted to be a surgeon–you wanted to be a nurse.

And that’s a big deal because nurses are vital to the healthcare system.

As a critical care RN, you’ll be caring for patients at major moments in their lives. It’s a hard job, but it’s also rewarding to be the person a patient and family can rely upon. That’s why we’re breaking down everything you need to know about becoming a critical care nurse, from what they do to how to become one.

What is a Critical Care RN?

First, you need to understand what a critical care RN is.

Often referred to as an ICU nurse, a critical care nurse is a type of nurse providing care to patients in critical condition due to injuries or severe illness.

They may care for adults or children, depending on where they work or their specialty. Some CCRNs work in units or wards caring for patients with specific medical problems, like a burn unit.

Responsibilities of a Critical Care Nurse

And, what does a critical care nurse actually do?

That often depends on the nurse. You could say that they combine the duties of a traditional nurse and emergency nurse, in that they administer basic patient care while also tending to emergency medical situations.

What it boils down to is that you’ll be responsible for the care of critical patients, often individuals who are toeing the line between life and death. As such, you’ll have to carefully monitor any changes so that you can continue to treat them properly.

Common duties of a CCRN include:

  • Assessing a patient’s condition in order to implement patient care plans
  • Providing advanced life support
  • Treating wounds
  • Observing and recording vital signs
  • Ensuring that monitors, ventilators, and other equipment are functioning properly
  • Ordering diagnostic tests
  • Assisting physicians with procedures
  • Responding to life-threatening situations using appropriate nursing protocol

In addition, you’ll collaborate with a patient’s critical care team in order to discern how best to treat a patient. You’ll also act as a key advocate for the patient, as well as a support system and educator for the patient’s family.

Where They Work

In terms of where critical care nurses work, the name says it all.

Most of the time, critical care nurses work in hospitals with critical or intensive care units, sometimes in units with a specific focus like:

  • Burn units
  • Neonatal intensive care
  • Trauma
  • Psychiatric intensive care wards
  • Medical ICU
  • Surgical ICU
  • Neurological ICU
  • Pediatric ICU
  • Transplant ICU
  • Coronary ICU
  • Cardiovascular ICU

Typically, nurses receive specialized training in order to work in a specialized unit.

That said, not all CCRNs work in hospitals–some work as transport nurses, accompanying critical patients to facilities that are better equipped to treat them.

What They Earn

Given the intensity of their jobs–long hours in physically and mentally demanding situations–critical care nurses are generally well paid for their work.

The national average CCRN salary is around $75,832 per year, with the lowest-earning nurses bringing in about $63K per year and the highest-earning nurses bringing in $93K.

Keep in mind that salaries will vary based on your experience level, specialized training, work environment, and what state you live in. For a closer look at ICU nurse salaries by region, click here.

Job Outlook

Employment for registered nurses is expected to grow 15% from 2016 to 2026, much higher than the national average.

This is likely due to the aging population of Baby Boomers, given that older people typically have more medical problems than younger people. The demand for nurses who can care for chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease will be especially high.

How to Become a Critical Care RN

If all of this sounds exciting to you, maybe you should think about becoming a critical care nurse. Here’s how to do it.

Personal Qualities

Before you start pursuing education, you should first assess whether you have the qualities that make a successful critical care nurse.

First and foremost, you should have compassion. You’re going to spend long hours caring for the sick and injured, which means you should need to be able to empathize with a patient’s pain and be strongly driven to make their hospital experience as positive as possible.

You’ll also need strong critical thinking skills and attention to detail. Your decisions as a nurse can have far-reaching consequences, and you’ll be asked to make major decisions on a daily basis. Even the smallest error can have tragic results, so you need to be adept at quickly seeing the big picture 24/7.

CCRNs also need to be learners. Most RNs are exposed to critical care units in nursing school, but the real learning comes later when you’re on the job and caring for patients in real time.


If that sounds like you, it’s time to think about what kind of education you need to pursue your career.

You’ll first need to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. A degree in the sciences, medicine, or public health will often serve you well here. From there, most CCRNs attend nursing school so that they can pursue professional certification.

CCRN Certification

Once you’ve completed nursing school, you can start pursuing your CCRN certification.

To do this, you’ll need a current RN license in good standing as well as one of the two following practice requirements:

  1. Practice as an RN or APRN for 1,750 hours in the direct care of critically ill adult patients over the past two years
  2. Practice as an RN or APRN for at least five years with a minimum of 2,000 hours in the direct care of critically ill adult patients

These hours must be completed in an American or Canadian care facility in order to qualify for the US standard.

Ready to Become a Critical Care RN?

Think you’re ready to launch your career as a critical care RN?

We’re here to help you do it.

Click here to check out education options. If you’ve already completed your education and are looking for a job, check out our Find a Job tool.

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