Career Spotlight: ICU Nurse

Do you function well under pressure? Do you find that you thrive when the stakes are high and the life or death outcome is up to you? Then you may be the perfect fit for an ICU nurse.

Working with critical care patients is as exciting and stressful as it sounds. You get to save their lives every day, but it’s also challenging, overwhelming, and, at times, scary.

If you want to be a nurse but are looking for a little more challenge than being a regular RN, look into working in an ICU.

If we’ve spiked your interest, read below for some information on what a day in the life is like and how to become an ICU nurse below.

How to Become an ICU Nurse

There are a few differences when it comes to ICU nurses and regular RNs. Both need a nursing degree and both need to pass the NCLEX-RN.

You can work towards your nursing degree online and find specialized programs for working in the ICU. Once you have your RN license, you may find you’re more competitive as a potential employee if you get some more education.

Some nurses with the time and resources to complete more schooling get a masters in critical care. Others do well to find work in emergency rooms or urgent care, to build up their resume before applying to the ICU.

Certification wise, you’ll need to pass your nursing exam and a few assorted certifications for life support.

Who Makes a Good ICU Nurse?

Not everyone can handle the pressure, prioritizing, and chaos of the ICU. To succeed you need to have high personal organization skills.

Along with being able to organize yourself, you need to have high interpersonal communication skills. Working as a nurse means you’re part of a team of care. If you can’t or don’t communicate efficiently, mistakes will happen.

You also need to be highly empathetic and have good people skills. Many of the patients that come into the ICU won’t be conscious, but you’ll have to deal with worried families. No one wants to give bad news, but you also have to be truthful and not sugar coat diagnoses.

Performance wise, you’ll need to be able to prioritize. Making decisions that can change the course of someone’s life is part of your job. Critical thinking skills, planning, and the ability to multitask come in handy too.

Technical Skills

Along with the regular skills you learned in nursing school, ICU nurses need to be quick and efficient with procedures. That means catheters, traction equipment, and anything that goes with coding levels.

Up to date knowledge with data software, medical imaging devices and measurements are necessary as well.

Job Responsibilities

Now that you know a little bit more about the details, let’s look at the life of an ICU nurse. Shifts for ICU nurses are similar to other nurse shifts, which is to say long blocks of hours at a time.

Your responsibilities when on the job include patient intake from the emergency room or after surgery. If a patient in the other hospital wings codes and becomes higher need, then it’s your job to transition them into the ICU.

Along with intake, you’re responsible for daily patient care. This is anything a patient needs, from more medication to changing wound wraps. Some patients come into the ICU not because they’re in great distress, but because they need more hands-on care than other floors can provide.

It’s likely that you’ll handle codes and end of life issues on the floor as an ICU nurse. That means you’ll have to make split-second decisions and sometimes communicate dire news to families.

Finally, you’ll spend time communicating with doctors and other care professionals. Reading test results, taking notes from MD’s and ordering tests are all on the table as well.

Pros and Cons of Being an ICU Nurse

Being an ICU nurse is a high-stress job, but it’s also high-excitement and high-payoff. If you’re questioning if it’s for you, read the following comparison.


  • Never a dull moment
  • High employment stability
  • Reasonable-high wages
  • Saving lives
  • Seeing patients succeed


  • High stress
  • Chaotic
  • Long hours

If you think you can handle the chaos and sometimes stressful circumstances, you’ll find you also get an intense positive payoff. Many ICU nurses thrive on and love the challenges of providing critical care.

The best part of being an ICU nurse, for most, is when a patient is released from your care. Either they’re out of the hospital entirely, or you’ve cared for them enough that they’re able to go into non-ICU care.

You’ll save lives every day as an ICU RN.

The Details

Finally, let’s look at the details. You’ll spend about three years getting your nursing degree, then about two collecting critical care experience.

Once you’ve completed your education requirements, you can expect an above average paycheck. The average salary for ICU nurses in 2017 was $70,000.

Salaries range by state and hospital but stay around $65,000 at the lowest.

The job outlook for RN’s is great, with growth at about 15% higher than average. We expect around 500,000 general RN jobs to become available in the next 10 years.

Making Your Decision

When it comes to deciding what kind of RN you want to be, you have at least the first year of nursing school to figure it out. After you find your interest levels and pass your basic classes, you can look into more specializations.

Or, you can start looking from ICU Nurse programs from the beginning. It’s up to you, your motivation, and the level of faith you have in yourself.

If you’re chomping at the bit and ready to save lives, we have some great resources for you. Click here to learn about our ICU nurse education programs.

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