How To Become an ICU Nurse (Plus Areas for Specialization)

Updated June 24, 2022

In the medical field, there are many professionals who work to keep people healthy and help them recover from various conditions. An ICU nurse is an important type of nurse who provides life-saving services to their patients every day. If you're interested in a career as an ICU nurse, it's helpful to understand the steps and requirements to become one. In this article, we learn how to become an ICU nurse, including the definition of this type of nurse, the primary duties of this role and the specializations you can pursue.

What is an ICU nurse?

An ICU nurse is a healthcare professional who works in the ICU, or intensive care unit, of a health facility. They provide short- or long-term care to patients who are critically sick or injured. ICU nurses have specialized training to handle a variety of emergency situations and may specialize further in specific areas of intensive care, like those that handle injuries to certain parts of the body or specific age groups.

Related: 36 ICU Nursing Interview Questions (With Sample Answers)

What does an ICU nurse do?

ICU nurses perform several important duties to help health facilities run smoothly and take care of patients. Often, their work is fast-paced and involves supporting doctors and surgeons as they assist patients in emergency health situations. Here are some of the typical duties of an ICU nurse:

  • Provide resources about diagnoses for patients and families.

  • Maintain medical equipment and machinery.

  • Notice changes in a patient's condition.

  • Assess vital signs like heart rate.

  • Give prescription medications to patients.

  • Comfort patients and their families.

  • Complete paperwork like patient assessments.

  • Help create care plans for patients.

  • Perform lab work on patients.

  • Respond to emergencies in their facility.

Skills of an ICU nurse

There are many skills that can contribute to your success as an ICU nurse. Examine the following skills to see how they can be useful to the duties of this role:


Being compassionate is a vital skill for you to connect with and support your patients in the ICU. Compassion allows you to comfort your patients and help them recover by showing them you care about their wellness. This is also important to support the families of your patients as they wait for their loved one to recover.

Critical thinking

As an ICU nurse, good critical thinking skills can help you make quick decisions about treatment for patients in emergency situations. This is a valuable skill because the choices you make affect the well-being of patients and their families. Having critical thinking skills allows you to give patients thoughtful, quality care and ensure they have the best chance of recovery.


It's often important for you to be passionate about your career as an ICU nurse. If you're passionate about helping people and providing quality healthcare, you may feel more fulfilled in your job, which can improve your performance and satisfaction. When you perform well, your patients have a better chance of recovery from their illnesses and injuries, which makes this skill vital for success.


Your ability to work with a team may determine how well you can perform the duties of an ICU nurse. In the ICU, many nurses work together to treat patients efficiently, sometimes under the direction of a doctor or surgeon. Working well with your team helps you quickly provide patients with accurate treatment.


Another useful skill for your job as an ICU nurse is communication. You may need to communicate with colleagues, patients and families to discuss treatment plans, diagnoses and next steps. In addition, your job may require written reports about a patient's condition, which excellent communication skills can help you write clearly and accurately.

Read more: ICU Nursing Skills: Definition and Examples

How to become an ICU nurse

Consider the following steps to learn how to become an ICU nurse:

1. Get a nursing degree

The first step to becoming an ICU nurse is to get a bachelor's or associate degree in nursing. Getting this degree gives you the basic knowledge needed to perform nursing duties and understand medical terminology. It also allows you to practice your skills with actual patients while supervised by a healthcare professional.

Related: Nursing Training Programs and Requirements: Everything You Need To Know

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN

Passing the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses, or the NCLEX-RN, gives you the proper licensure to practice as a registered nurse. Since ICU nurses are a type of registered nurse, this step is necessary before you can work in an ICU. To take the NCLEX-RN, you must apply for licensure and registration through your local Nursing Regulatory Body, or NRB. Once the NRB approves your application, you can then register for the exam and take it.

3. Receive state licensure

Depending on where you work, your state might require licensure for practicing nurses. Local requirements vary, but typically include proof of a nursing degree and verification that you passed the NCLEX-RN. When you meet these requirements, apply to your state board of nursing and receive your license to work as a nurse.

4. Gain nursing experience

Gaining on-the-job experience is the next step to becoming an ICU nurse. Find a job as a registered nurse where you can help in the ICU or work with patients in emergency situations. Two to five years of working experience is typically necessary to become a certified ICU nurse, during which you gain important skills to help you treat patients and learn about traumatic illnesses and injuries.

5. Get an ICU nurse certification

There are a few options for ICU nurse certification, but many of them involve experience working directly with patients in critical condition and a valid nursing license. One option for certification is the Certification for Critical-Care Nurses, or CCRN, which involves an exam administered by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, or AACN. There are multiple versions of the CCRN for specialized areas of ICU nursing, like neonatal or cardiac medicine, which may have additional requirements.

6. Apply for ICU nursing jobs

With your certification, you can apply to jobs in an ICU at various healthcare facilities. If you chose a specialization, you may look for jobs in specific environments, like post-operative centers or cardiac catheter labs. However, many ICU nurses choose to work in departments within hospitals, like the ICU, NICU or surgical department.

Related: Resume for ICU Nurse: Crafting a High-Quality Resume

What specialties can ICU nurses pursue?

To help you understand the options available in this role, here are some specialties an ICU nurse can consider:

  • Cardiac: This area of healthcare involves heart-related emergencies, surgeries and catheterization. Duties include monitoring heart rate and vitals, using intracardiac devices and administering medications.

  • Neurological: A neurological specialty handles nervous system injuries, including brain and spinal cord trauma. Nurses in this focus may conduct motor function and cognitive assessments and use intracranial devices.

  • Medical: The medical area of intensive care involves patients with emergency infections, illnesses or withdrawal symptoms. This specialization requires the use of ventilators, medication and intravenous fluids.

  • Trauma: Patients in the trauma area of healthcare may have critical injuries that require immediate attention. Trauma ICU nurses may perform quick assessments of patient conditions and have a broad knowledge of many different injuries.

  • Neonatal: The neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, cares for newborns with critical injuries or illnesses. Responsibilities for this role include monitoring, feeding and medicating babies as well as updating parents.

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