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The Résumé Rx

ICU Nurse Career Guide: Duties, Requirements, Salary, and More!

Amanda Guarniere

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become an ICU nurse? An ICU nurse is a specialized registered nurse overseeing critically-ill patients in the intensive care unit, commonly called the “ICU.” While an ICU nurse’s job scope can vary depending on where they work, they still play a huge role in saving lives

In this article, we have researched and compiled everything you need to know about ICU nurses, including ICU nurse salary expectations and requirements for working in these positions.

Table of Contents

Types of Intensive Care Nurses: A Quick Overview

While “ICU nurse” is a unique profession, there are several types of ICUs. Therefore, there are several types of ICU nurses. Each has specialized skills and responsibilities within the intensive care field.

The most common types of ICU nurses include: 

  • Medical Intensive Care (MICU) Nurse: These nurses work in general ICU settings, providing care to patients with a variety of critical conditions.
  • Pediatric Intensive Care (PICU) Nurse: Nurses working in pediatric intensive care units specialize in the care of children, usually newborns to 16 or 18 years old. 
  • Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) Nurse: While most children are covered in pediatrics, neonatal care is for babies ranging from immediately after birth to a year old. Neonatal intensive care unit nurses specialize in these extremely vulnerable patients. 
  • Cardiovascular Care Unit (CVICU) Nurse: A nurse in a cardiovascular care unit is specially trained to deal with serious heart conditions and emergencies such as heart attacks. 
  • Surgical Intensive Care (SICU) Nurse: Recovery from invasive surgeries is often extremely difficult, but nurses in surgical intensive care units help people return to full health as quickly as possible. 
  • Neuro Care Nurse: Neurological problems are issues affecting the nervous system. In neurological care units, people receive treatment for issues such as strokes, brain injuries, spinal trauma, and infections in the central nervous system.
  • Burn Intensive Care (BICU) Nurse: A registered nurse in a burn intensive care unit helps people recover from serious burn injuries. 

While medical intensive care units provide support for all types of people suffering from different injuries and illnesses, others specialize in a specific niche.

Duties and Responsibilities of ICU Nurses

The exact ICU nurse duties will vary depending on the ICU department you’re working in but there are general, universal responsibilities. 

Overall, an ICU nurse in any type of unit is responsible for monitoring the patient and making sure they are staying as healthy as possible. Common duties include monitoring patients’ vital signs, administering medications, and providing direct patient care. You may need to manage ventilators, perform critical procedures, and collaborate with a healthcare team. 

You will also provide regular updates to doctors, surgeons, and medical specialists, as well as patients and their families. When needed, you will respond to medical emergencies, such as drops or extreme increases in heart rate, or when the patient is having difficulty breathing. Nurses also need to maintain medical records and complete the necessary paperwork. 

Specialized ICU nurses will have specific duties unique to that ward. To understand the differences, let’s look at the responsibilities of two different types of ICU nurses:

  • Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse: Roles in this position center around the care of a vulnerable infant. Duties may include rotating and repositioning the baby, administering medication specific to the baby’s small body, performing immediate infant CPR, and monitoring a baby’s oxygen level. 
  • Burn Intensive Care Nurses: Working with burn victims requires a subtle, gentle approach and a deep understanding of burn wounds and how they heal. Burn unit nurses may need to stabilize burn victims, assess and dress wounds, change bandages, assess pain levels, and educate the patient and their families about ongoing burn care. 

Requirements to Become an ICU Nurse

To become an ICU nurse, you need specific skills that help you provide outstanding care. You’ll have to meet educational qualifications and become an RN, in addition to having specialized training and certifications.

Here is the typical process for becoming an ICU nurse…

  1. Become an RN: The first step in your journey is to become a registered nurse. This requires a nursing degree, either an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) from an accredited school. After graduation, you must complete the NCLEX-RN exam.
  2. Work as an RN for 2 Years or More: Once you have the education and pass the exam, you can take your first role as a registered nurse. You must work for two years in an RN position before you can complete most specialized ICU nurse certifications. For example, the Critical-Care Registered Nurse (CCRN) certification from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses requires at least 1,750 hours of direct care of “acutely/critically ill adult patients” within the last two years or 2,000 hours in the previous five years.
  3. Complete ICU Certification: Now you can now enroll for the certification exam of your choice. There will be a cost; for example, the CCRN costs $365 for non-members.

Continuing education is important for all medical professionals, including ICU nurses. ICU nurse responsibilities are constantly changing, so you need to stay up-to-date on the latest medical advancements. 

Salary for ICU Nurses

Registered nurses (all types of RNs, including ICU nurses) can expect a strong salary. The median salary for these professionals, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $77,600 in May of 2021. 

The expected ICU nurse salary, however, can be even higher. Indeed, a massive hiring and jobs platform, says the average base salary for a registered nurse (based on reported salaries from their site) was $93,862. That’s already a strong salary, but their information also states that a “registered nurse – ICU” makes an average of $127,825. 

Challenges of Becoming an ICU Nurse and How to Overcome Them

There are many, but here are three of the most common challenges faced by ICU nurses, as well as practical ways to overcome these issues…

1. The Steep Learning Curve
No matter how much experience you have or what type of ICU you enter, there will be a steep learning curve. There will be a lot to learn even after a thorough education, RN experience, and specialized certification. 

How to Deal with a Steep Learning Curve
The biggest things are to give yourself time and grace and to rely on your fellow medical professionals. You don’t have to be and aren’t expected to be, a master from the beginning. In my experience, nursing provides a supportive environment; ask questions, take your time, and don’t be afraid to keep learning.

2. Long, Irregular Shifts
ICU nurses, like many nurses across the country, have to work long shifts. It’s not uncommon for critical care nurses to work exhausting 12-hour shifts, and they often need to work on weekends, holidays, and nights. 

How to Deal with Long, Irregular Shifts
To deal with the long and irregular shifts, start by thinking about the positives. If you work four 10-hour shifts, remember that you get a day off, a day when most regular “9 to 5”  workers have to be on the job. If you work weekends, take advantage of those middle-of-the-week off days. Maintain a regular sleep schedule and take care of your physical health to make it through the challenges of long nursing shifts.

3. High-Stress Working Environment
ICU nurses have to deal with trauma, massive injury, and even death. The stakes are high, which means the stress can be high as well. “Nurse burnout” is so common that it’s even been studied by scientific organizations. 

How to Deal with the Stress of ICU Nursing
Nursejournal.org recommends a variety of coping strategies to overcome your nursing stress. These include journaling, breathing techniques, spending quality time with pets (which can lower blood pressure), and prioritizing self-care through healthy eating, exercise, and more.

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