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How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at CTU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

At the onset of a 12-hour shift, critical care nurses, must be able to anticipate all of the challenges that come their way on any given day. Their workload may range from evaluating a patient’s vital signs to determining emergency intervention or prioritizing care for those who are critically ill.1 The patients a critical care nurse encounters may face high-risk or life-threatening conditions and injuries requiring immediate attention, stabilization or round-the-clock assessment.

Critical care nurses generally provide advanced nursing care to patients suffering life-threatening conditions in emergency, intensive care and cardiac care settings for both pediatric and adult patients.1 Given the variety of patients and situations that a critical care nurse may encounter, those going into this type of professional specialty may want to develop a diverse skill set as well as particular personal qualities.

Skills and Characteristics

Individuals interested in becoming a critical care nurse should ideally possess the following general characteristics and aptitudes:

  • Enjoy fast-paced, multifaceted work
  • Ability to quickly assess the seriousness of injuries
  • Willingness to perform any and all life-saving procedures
  • Good active listening and communication skills
  • Maintain emotional stability and physical stamina
  • Complex problem-solving and critical thinking1, 2

More advanced skills often desired in a critical care nurse include:

  • Experienced in performing diagnostic or therapeutic procedures such as recognizing acute or chronic conditions which could result in life-threatening instability
  • Trained to operate complex monitoring units or accessories such as ventilators, tracheal suctioning equipment, pulmonary artery catheters, angiocaths, ventilators and Doppler ultrasound equipment
  • Ability to prioritize care for current caseload based on a patient’s level of critical illness and assessment data1

Required Education

Critical care educational requirements are similar to those of other RNs. First, a student must obtain a diploma from an approved nursing program, an associate’s degree or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Nurses can obtain the specialized skills required for critical care in the field or on the job or through a certification program. Pursuing a graduate degree is another way to obtain the necessary training and experience.2

Certifications and Licenses

Like all RNs, critical care nurses must pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) to practice. Nurses may also need to satisfy additional state licensing requirements to earn specialty certifications, although this varies by state. Prospective nurses can check with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing to determine their state’s requirements.2

Nurses can obtain a variety of additional, specialized credentials, including tele-ICU, pediatric, neonatal or other subspecialties, through professional organizations such as the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). The AACN offers a critical care nursing designation for RNs as well as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).3 Nurses have the option of additional certification to demonstrate adherence to more rigorous, national standards; however, some employers can require it.2

Job Market for Critical Care Nurses

In 2014, the number of registered nursing jobs reached 2.751 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).4 As of May 2016, the five states that have the highest published employment of registered nurses include California, Texas, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania.5

The BLS also forecasts a bright outlook for this rapidly-growing field in the coming years.4 More than 5.7 million patients are admitted annually to ICUs,6 and given the specialized skills needed to treat the nation’s aging population, the demand for critical care nurses is projected to increase 16% (or much faster than average) through 2024.4

What to Expect on a Day-to-Day Basis

In addition to intensive patient monitoring and performing the specialized skills and tasks listed above, daily duties may range from handling urgent and emergency situations such as identifying abnormal respiratory patterns, to more routine tasks like administering intravenous medications, tending to wounds and documenting patient status and medical history. Other common responsibilities include compiling and analyzing test data, monitoring patient during medical procedures, assessing patient pain levels, and watching a patients’ fluid intake and output to detect emerging problems.1

Critical care nurses may need to serve as emotional advocates for families and loved ones forced to make difficult decisions about the treatment of a patient. Additionally, they can help ensure that patients and families are fully informed about health status and treatment options.1

While critical care nursing may be stressful, it can also be professionally and emotionally rewarding as these medical professionals help save lives and witness dramatic healing.

Pursue Your Nursing Education

If you are interested in pursuing your RN-BSN or MSN, Colorado Technical University offers multiple online nursing degree programs. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program at Colorado Technical University is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (

1. “Details Report for: 29-1141.03 - Critical Care Nurses." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/27/17).
2. "Registered Nurses: How to Become a Registered Nurse." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/27/17).
3. "Get Certified." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/27/17).
4. "Registered Nurses: Summary." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/27/17).
5. "Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015: 29-1141 Registered Nurses." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/27/17).
6. “Critical Care Statistics.” Retrieved from: (Visited 6/27/17).

For important information about the educational debt, earnings, and completion rates of students who attended this program, go to CTU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Financial aid is available for those who qualify. 1199549 7/17

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