Critical Care Nurse Careers and Salary Outlook

November 12, 2021 · 5 Min Read

Critical care nurses are instrumental in providing patient care in a variety of healthcare settings. Find out how to be a critical care nurse and learn about salary and job growth for this career.

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Critical care nursing is a challenging, fast-paced specialization within the larger nursing profession. This page explores key information pertaining to this career, from critical care nurse salary potential to crucial professional skills. Keep reading to learn more about what critical care nurses do, where they work, and their educational requirements.

What is a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses provide aid and support for patients experiencing life-threatening injuries and medical conditions. Boasting a specialized technical skill set, these nurses often work with particular patient populations, including neonatal infants, children, and senior citizens. Working to maintain or restore patients' health, critical care nurses must carefully manage and communicate their decisions and health plan ideas to patients, fellow healthcare professionals, and their families.
What Do Critical Care Nurses Do? A critical care nurse holds very similar educational standards as a registered nurse. They can work in all of the same fields as RNs but require additional advanced training within certain life-saving categories. This field of nursing focuses on high-risk injuries and illnesses that require immediate and intensive care. These nurses are trained to remain composed in situations that other nurses may not be equipped to handle. While critical care nursing is a high-stress field, it is also highly emotionally and mentally rewarding, making it a popular specialty in the nursing industry. These nurses are in high demand, as emergency situations are commonplace and some form of critical care aid will always be required in hospitals and medical facilities. Critical care nurses carry out a variety of tasks that depend largely on the patient population they work with. Nurses typically work as part of an interdisciplinary team to create effective, stabilizing patient care plans. These nurses regularly administer different treatments to save lives. Critical care nurses are responsible for monitoring patients and closely documenting patient care plans, incorporating medical resources and specific needs. They may provide end-of-life care, easing patients into comfort care settings, and identify patient and family educational needs pertaining to healthcare.
Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work? Critical care nurses typically work in intensive care units at a variety of medical facilities, including large hospitals, teaching facilities, and centralized hospitals. Hospitals that do not have their own critical care facilities typically feature transfer agreements with the closest intensive care units. Although critical care nurses working in intensive care units often remain exclusive to their unit, they sometimes help at other facilities and involve themselves in hospital outreach opportunities. Critical care nurses may also specialize in different areas of intensive care, including neurology, cardiac, trauma and burn units, transplants, and pediatric and neonatal clinics.
Skills That Could Affect Critical Care Nurse Salaries Professionals need a variety of hard and soft skills to thrive as critical care nurses. They must actively communicate with their healthcare team in order to provide quality patient care. They must also clearly and compassionately communicate with patients and their families to explain each diagnosis, patient health status, and progress reports. Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills are particularly beneficial in the discipline. Many patients in critical care settings are involved in life-threatening situations that require quick thinking and creative solutions. Critical care nurses should also demonstrate a strong sense of compassion and be able to understand and empathize with their patients and their families.

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How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

Depending on their preferred pathway, prospective critical care nurses may begin their career by earning an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor of science in nursing. After earning a degree, graduates may sit for the NCLEX-RN exam and pursue registered nurse (RN) licensure. Candidates who pass the NCLEX-RN exam can then explore certification opportunities in critical care and seek specialized job opportunities. Nurses interested in managing and detailing patient outcomes and conditions typically excel in critical care settings. Compassionate individuals willing to advocate for their patients and families also thrive as critical care nurses.


Candidates must earn an RN license before pursuing a career as a critical care nurse. While national educational requirements for licensure include either an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor's degree in nursing, many employers prefer candidates who hold a BSN. During their degree program, learners should seek a nursing student extension or internship opportunity allowing them to assist registered nurses working in critical care or intensive care units. Many colleges and universities offer specialization opportunities for nursing students, allowing them to complete specialized coursework to prepare them for careers in critical care nursing. Typically, completion of a bachelor's degree takes students four years if they enroll full-time.

Training and Certification

Before professionals can begin their critical care nursing careers, they must obtain RN licensure which entails earning an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor of science in nursing along with passing the NCLEX-RN exam. In addition to obtaining RN licensure, professionals can seek a variety of specialty certifications through the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. Adult critical care nurses can seek certification for acute/critical care and explore extra modules focused on neonatal care and pediatrics. Professionals must complete contact hours to renew the CCRN certification. This may entail retaking the exam or completing Synergy CERPs in required areas. Renewal fees cost up to $200, and all certified individuals must maintain their unencumbered registered nurse license. Obtaining critical care nursing certification allows professionals to demonstrate their competencies and skills to potential employers. Nurses who hold specialty certifications also stand out among other job candidates.

Critical Care Nurse Salaries and Job Growth

Geographic location and experience level can both impact critical care nurse salary potential. The median annual salary for critical care nurses is $72,541, and the nation's highest-paying location is Los Angeles, California, where nurses enjoy an average salary of $108,811 a year. Other top-paying areas for the occupation include Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix, with salaries ranging from $76,168 to $81,971. Professional experience also influences earning power. Entry-level critical care nurses draw an average annual salary of $58,383, while those in their late career make, on average, $83,882 each year. Critical care nursing is a specialty for registered nurses, who command an average annual salary of $63,263. RNs typically find the most lucrative job opportunities in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry. California offers both the highest salaries and the highest employment levels for RNs, while South Dakota features the highest concentration of registered nursing jobs.
Highest Salary Locations for Critical Care Nurses
National Median $72,541
Los Angeles, California $108,811
Houston, Texas $81,971
Atlanta, Georgia $77,618
Dallas, Texas $76,168
Phoenix, Arizona $76,168

Source: PayScale

Median Salary for Critical Care Nurses by Career Experience

  • Entry Level: $58,383
  • Early Career: $63,958
  • Mid Career: $71,751
  • Experienced: $79,032
  • Late Career: $83,882

Source: PayScale

Related Job Salaries
Registered Nurse (RN) Certified Nurse Assistant Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Registered Nurse (RN), Emergency Room Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)
$63,263 $27,818 $43,491 $66,292 $46,846

Source: PayScale

Critical Care Nurse Resources

  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses AACCN is the world's largest specialty nursing organization. A nonprofit association, AACCN aims to help professionals provide the highest quality of care in critical situations. Dedicated to cultivating a healthcare system motivated by patient and family needs, the organization provides members with personal and professional support.
  • World Federation of Critical Care Nurses The WFCCN unites critical care nurses and nursing associations around the world, supporting and strengthening the critical care nursing specialty on an international level. The federation advocates for critical care nurses and facilitates cooperation between institutions in the healthcare industry, health professionals, and agencies.
  • Society of Critical Care Medicine SCCM is the largest nonprofit medical organization dedicated to promoting excellence and consistency in critical care practice. It is the only organization representing all professional components of critical care teams and strives to promote quality patient care, advocacy, research, and education.
  • Job Search This website's job search function allows nurses to explore employment opportunities in a certain location, applying distance components to ensure they only see job openings within a certain distance from their desired location. Users can also input specific job titles, or they can search for jobs according to their desired specialty.
  • American Nurses Association Dedicated to advancing and protecting the nursing profession, ANA represents registered nurses in the U.S. through 54 constituent member associations. ANA defines nursing as the promotion, protection, and optimization of health and abilities, establishing standards for nursing practice. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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