How to Become an Emergency Trauma Nurse

Updated May 6, 2022

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Trauma nurses admit and treat patients who are in need of emergency assistance. On this page, we cover how to become a trauma nurse and earn trauma nurse certification.

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How to Become an Emergency Trauma Nurse
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If you want an exciting career as part of a team that saves lives, trauma nursing can be an emotionally and financially rewarding choice. Trauma nurses provide nursing care in emergency departments and other emergency care settings.

This guide describes how to become a trauma nurse and how to earn your trauma nurse certification.

What Is a Trauma Nurse?

Trauma nurses provide lifesaving care during emergencies. While most trauma nurses work in hospital emergency departments, they also work as part of first responder teams, natural or human-made disaster relief units, and in standalone emergency departments. In a large hospital, they may also work in specialized emergency services, such as burn units.

To be a trauma nurse, you must be able to think quickly during a crisis, work as part of a team, and have exceptional observation skills.

While trauma nurse certification isn't legally required to work as a trauma nurse, many employers require or strongly prefer it, especially for higher-level positions. The average annual salary for a trauma nurse, according to ZipRecruiter in February 2022, is $91,030, making it one of the higher-paying nursing specialties.

Steps to Becoming an Emergency Trauma Nurse

You must first earn a nursing license to become an emergency trauma nurse. Check your state's nursing license requirements for details, as these vary by state. You can earn either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), but many employers prefer a BSN for higher-level or administrative roles.

A BSN also makes it easier to earn a master's and become an emergency nurse practitioner.

  • 1. Earn an ADN or a BSN

An ADN takes two years and focuses on practical nursing, while a BSN, which takes four years, includes more advanced courses and conceptual courses related to nursing leadership.

  • 2. Pass the NCLEX exam

The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is a multiple-choice exam on nursing skills, hygiene and infection prevention, communications, and legal/ethical aspects of nursing.

When deciding how to become a trauma nurse, consider the school's NCLEX-RN pass rate and its graduation rate.

  • 3. Gain experience in emergency or trauma nursing

Like all entry-level nursing jobs, your first job in emergency or trauma nursing provides you with on-the-job training. You can gain this experience in many different settings, such as an emergency department, intensive care unit (ICU), burn unit, or other emergency unit.

  • 4. Consider becoming a trauma certified registered nurse (TCRN)

The Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) offers TCRN certification. To be eligible, you must have a current and unencumbered nursing license and pass the examination. The BCEN recommends but does not require two years of experience as a trauma nurse.

  • 5. Find employment

Trauma nurses are in demand in a variety of hospital and emergency care settings. You can find jobs through professional nursing association job boards or networking opportunities (the Emergency Nurses Association is the largest association), general job boards, or nursing recruiters.

Most hospitals have trauma nurse openings or accept resumes in anticipation of future needs.

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Emergency Trauma Nurse Education

You can become a trauma nurse and earn trauma nurse certification with either an ADN or a a BSN degree. However, some employers prefer or require a BSN. A BSN also prepares you to enter a master's nursing program to become an emergency nurse practitioner, if you are interested in a higher salary and more professional autonomy.

ADN Degree

An ADN degree takes two years, compared to four years for a BSN. Tuition costs and entry requirements for an ADN are generally lower than for BSN programs.

This degree is best suited for those who want to start work as a nurse as soon as possible or whose academic record doesn't necessarily reflect their nursing potential. However, a BSN degree is more valuable if you want a higher-level position, to work at an academic medical center, or earn a master of science in nursing (MSN).

  • Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED, typically with a 2.0 or higher GPA
  • Program Curriculum: Practical nursing skills, communication, legal and ethical aspects of nursing
  • Time to Complete: Two years of full-time study
  • Skills Learned: Running medical tests, monitoring vital signs (such as blood pressure and blood oxygen levels), maintaining a hygienic environment, drawing blood, administering medication, wound cleansing and treatment, using medical equipment, collaborating with healthcare teams, and more

BSN Degree

A BSN degree is a four-year degree that covers more advanced topics and includes more leadership and administrative courses than an ADN. If you want to earn a master's or become a nurse practitioner, you will need a BSN or earn the equivalent through an RN-to-MSN program.

This degree is best suited for those who want to work as a manager or other nursing team leader, work at an academic medical center or other prestigious workplace, or want to become a nurse practitioner.

  • Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED, typically a 3.0 or higher GPA; may require courses in math, biology, and chemistry in high school
  • Program Curriculum: Practical nursing skills, communication, leadership, public health, the healthcare system, legal and ethical aspects of nursing
  • Time to Complete: Typically four years of full time study
  • Skills Learned: Running medical tests, monitoring vital signs like blood pressure and blood oxygen levels, drawing blood, administering medication, wound cleansing and treatment, using medical equipment, nurse leadership, healthcare management, and more

Emergency Trauma Nurse Licensure and Certification

Sometimes people ask how to become a trauma nurse without an RN license. This is not possible, since all states require a nursing license to practice nursing. If you want to work in emergency care without a nursing license, you could become an emergency medical technician or a certified nurse assistant.

RN Licensure

  • Is RN licensure required? All 50 states require an RN license.
  • How do you get RN licensure? You must earn a nursing degree, either an ADN or a BSN, and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Some states will not give you a license if you have certain criminal convictions. Check your state for the full requirements and necessary background checks.
  • How is licensure maintained? You maintain your RN license through a combination of ongoing work as a nurse, maintaining professional ethical standards, and continuing nursing education.

Trauma Nurse Certification

  • Is certification required? Certification, unlike licensing, is not legally required, but many employers require or prefer to hire and promote those with trauma nurse certification.
  • How do you get certification? The Board of Certified Emergency Nurses offers TCRN certification. You must have a current and unencumbered nursing license and pass the certification examination.
  • How is certification maintained? To maintain certification, you must take 100 hours of continuing education over a four-year period.

Working as an Emergency Trauma Nurse

Trauma nursing is a high-stress position. Learning how to become a trauma nurse includes learning how to manage stress and maintaining calm and resilience under pressure.

Because of COVID-19, trauma nurses are in especially high demand, both to cope with the pandemic and in response to many trauma nurses retiring because of the pandemic. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 9.0% growth between 2020 and 2030 for all nurses, trauma nurse jobs may grow faster.

The average annual salary for a trauma nurse, according to ZipRecruiter, as of February 2022, is $91,030, which reflects the high demand. You can find trauma nurse jobs through job boards, professional networking in nursing, recruiters, or applying directly to employers that interest you.

Trauma nurses work in several settings, including:

Hospital emergency departments

Trauma nurses stabilize patients for transfer to ICU or specialty care, provide emergency treatments, triage patients based on severity, and assist during emergency surgery.

Standalone emergency department

Trauma nurses provide emergency treatments, stabilize patients as needed for transportation to a hospital or specialty care, triage patients based on severity, and provide discharge education and support.

Emergency medical transportation

Trauma nurses travel as part of an emergency team on medical flights or in an ambulance, stabilize patients, and alert hospitals about patients' conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Emergency Trauma Nurse


How long does it take to become an emergency trauma nurse?

It takes at least two years to earn an ADN, but many emergency trauma nurses earn a BSN, which takes four years. The BCEN recommends but does not require two years of experience as an emergency trauma nurse for certification.

What is the difference between an emergency trauma nurse and a critical care nurse?

An emergency trauma nurse provides the nursing care needed to stabilize a patient, while a critical care nurse provides care once the patient is stabilized. Most critical care nurses work in an ICU, while emergency trauma nurses are more likely to work in an emergency department.

Do trauma nurses help in surgery?

Trauma nurses help surgeons during emergency surgeries, typically in the emergency department but sometimes in specialty units such as burn units. They monitor the patient's vital signs and provide other assistance during surgery. They also offer nursing care before and after the surgery.

What career advancement opportunities are available for emergency trauma nurses?

Emergency trauma nurses can become nursing team or nursing unit leaders or nurse administrators. Trauma nurse certification is very helpful for earning these promotions. They can also earn an MSN and become an emergency nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners enjoy higher salaries and more professional autonomy, but they have more responsibilities.

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Page last reviewed January 31, 2022

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