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How do I Become an ICU Nurse?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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To become an ICU nurse, people will need to complete traditional academic studies and they’ll require either further study or on the job training. ICU (intensive care unit) nursing is usually classified as a subset of critical care nursing. The recommendations for becoming a critical care nurse apply just as strongly to anyone who wishes to focus on working in an ICU.

The first step to become an ICU nurse is to receive a bachelor’s degree in registered nursing, and then taking any exams or applying to be licensed in particular region by the nursing board of that region. In places like the US, this is usually done by state, and requirements on what is required to get a license may vary slightly. The bachelor’s degree, though, is mandatory. It can help while studying for this degree during practicum to take advantage of any training offered on ICU or critical care, since building expertise in this area is vital.

There are actually different paths people take to become an ICU nurse. Sometimes upon graduating nursing school and getting a license, people find immediate employment in this area. Most hospitals, unless they are severely understaffed, are disinclined to hire an inexperienced nurse for any type of critical care job. This may lead to two different tactics in hiring practices.

One practice is to only hire nurses who have at least a year or two of experience working in a hospital. Alternately, some hospitals have training programs for a person who wants to become an ICU nurse. People would join these programs and get paid to work, generally, while they are under supervision of more experienced critical care nurses. Provided their skills represent a certain level of competency, in a year or two years’ time, these training nurses would then be reclassified as ICU or critical care nurse.

While gaining this experience, the person wishing to be an ICU nurse may also look to requirements to take certification examinations in critical care. Though it may require some extra money to take a test and some extra time to study, this certification is often perceived with favor by hospitals and may make easier to obtain jobs in the future. Some nurses also decide they want to specialize in critical care, and they get either a master’s degree and become advanced practice nurses, or they get a doctorate and become nurse practitioners.

These last two steps aren’t necessary for most people who would like to become an ICU nurse. Yet they can be attractive because they raise base level of pay, give the nurse greater responsibility in the ICU setting, and open up possibility of jobs in nursing management. Nurse practitioners can additionally diagnose and prescribe. Ultimately, the most important part is to begin with nursing studies leading to an RN, after which nurses will have numerous ways to develop their careers in intensive care.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By GravCat — On Apr 29, 2014

As a senior nursing student, I am currently trying to decide whether I want to continue my studies to become an ICU nurse.

Based on my research, I am finding that there is a high job demand for ICU nurses since it is considered to be a specialty nursing field.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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