How to Become a Critical Care Nurse in 7 Steps

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The seven steps of how to become a critical care nurse start with choosing a nursing program. Then you’ll need to meet requirements, apply, earn your degree, and take the NCLEX. Once you’re licensed, it’s time to get experience in the critical care unit, complete certification, and advance your career.

Nurse fixing patient oxygen mask

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more exciting and impactful career than critical care nursing. It’s a specialty where you’ll be at the top of your field, caring for high-risk patients daily. If you like a challenge and want to make a real difference in people’s lives, critical care nursing is a career path that’s worth considering.

Now let’s talk about how to become a critical care nurse — the process is more straightforward than you might think.

Through the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program at Concordia University, St. Paul, you can earn a nursing degree in as few as 16 months. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) that you earn can be used as the foundation for a career in critical care nursing.

To help inform your decision about this career path, we’ll discuss the seven steps of how to become a critical care nurse. But first, let’s discuss, what does a critical care nurse do?

What Is a Critical Care Nurse?

A critical care nurse, or an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse, works with the most severely ill patients in the hospital. These patients often have unstable conditions, have experienced serious trauma or have undergone surgery. They also frequently have complex health issues that require multitier treatments and interprofessional care.

Nurses in a critical care unit usually only treat one or two critically ill patients at a time, in order to give focused care to each patient. Patients receiving critical care treatment are sedated, and they may be receiving complex care such as multiple intravenous infusions to maintain perfusion and prevent pain, ventilators for oxygenation, and dialysis to maintain electrolyte balance. Patients and their families often feel vulnerable and scared, so empathy, excellent assessment and clinical reasoning skills and good communication are especially important for critical care nurses.

7 Steps to Becoming a Critical Care Nurse

Now that you know what a critical care nurse does, let’s cover how to become one. You might also be wondering how long it takes to become a critical care nurse. The answer is that it depends. The amount of time changes based on several factors, such as your educational background, whether you choose a traditional or accelerated nursing program, and how long it takes to be hired as a nurse in a critical care unit.

ICU nurse and doctor with patient in critical care

Here are the seven steps of how to become a critical care nurse. Use the following checkpoints to guide you on your career path.

1. Choose an ABSN Program

Choosing where you’ll earn a nursing degree is the first step to becoming a critical care nurse. If you have a prior non-nursing bachelor’s degree, or at least 54 non-nursing college credits, opt for an accelerated BSN program like ours at Concordia St. Paul. This will save you time compared to a traditional four-year BSN program.

It’s also helpful to choose a program with multiple start dates during the year, as well as one that uses a hybrid delivered nursing curriculum. Ensure that the program you select is accredited and state-approved, which is an indication of the quality of the program.

Online Learning: an integral part of the education landscape.

What is online learning like in nursing school? Discover the advantages of enrolling in an online-based ABSN program.

2. Complete the Admissions Requirements and Apply

Once you’ve identified the program you want to apply to, your next step is reaching out to an admissions counselor, who will talk you through any requirements you’ll need to fulfill before applying. Before you can start earning a degree, you’ll need to complete all admissions requirements.

Like most ABSN programs, Concordia St. Paul (CSP) requires prerequisite courses that must be completed before beginning nursing school. You’ll also need to meet minimum GPA requirements, as well as pass an entrance exam. Once you’ve completed these requirements, you’ll be ready to submit a nursing school application. If you have any questions about the admissions process, our admissions counselors are here to guide you every step of the way.

3. Graduate with a BSN

After you’re accepted into nursing school, it’s time to put in the work and earn your degree. The curriculum at CSP combines online classes, skills labs and clinical learning experiences. These three modes of learning give students a well-rounded education that effectively prepares them for a career in nursing.

Launch your career with an Accelerated Nursing program - two nurses working together

Want to learn more about how the ABSN program works? Find out what to expect in accelerated nursing school at CSP.

In an ABSN program, you’ll have to work hard to achieve results. After all, accelerated BSN programs like the one at CSP condense a traditional nursing curriculum into a shorter timeframe of 16 months. Expect to be busy and to have your studies be the primary focus for those 16 months. The hard work will pay off quickly, and you’ll be able to start your nursing career on the right foot.

Is accelerated nursing school worth it? Consider these six factors when deciding.

CSP ABSN student standing outside

4. Take the NCLEX and Get Licensed

With a BSN in hand, you’re almost ready to begin professional nursing practice. Passing the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN) is the next step. This test covers the entire nursing school curriculum and it takes practice to pass, because the questions are written in a unique way. You’ll need to be comfortable enough with the material to pick the best answer, even in cases when more than one answer may be technically correct.

Students generally spend a few months studying for the NCLEX, starting in the last semester of nursing school and then continuing to study full time for a month or two before taking the exam. Once you’ve passed the NCLEX, you’ve met all of the major milestones for licensing and should be eligible to receive your registered nurse license from your state.

5. Gain Critical Care Nursing Experience

It’s finally time to begin working as a nurse! Now you’re ready to get on-the-job experience. If you know you want to be a critical care nurse, you can apply for entry-level nursing jobs in critical care units. Keep in mind these jobs can be competitive, so you may need to work in a general hospital unit for a year or two before landing an ICU job.

Once you begin working in a critical care unit, focus on honing your skills and learning from more experienced nurses. This is a high-pressure environment, and the patients you’ll work with are complex. You’ll also need to master many challenging technical skills, which will take practice and time. As you gain experience in a critical care unit, you will become comfortable handling a variety of challenging scenarios.

6. Consider Certification

nurses wearing masks in classroom

After you’ve been working in a critical care unit for a few years, and you have mastered the intricacies of caring for high-need patients, you can pursue certification in a critical care specialty. While this is not required, many nurses seek certification as a way to distinguish themselves with credentials that match their level of experience.

A few of the critical care nurse certifications that are available include:

  • Acute/critical care nursing (adult, pediatric or neonatal).
  • Cardiac surgery.
  • Tele-ICU acute/critical care nursing.
  • Acute/critical care knowledge professional (adult, pediatric or neonatal).
  • Progressive care nursing.

If you have ambitious career goals, it may be worthwhile to get certified. A certification can bolster your experience and set you up for future leadership roles.

7. Advance Your Career

Once you have experience as a critical care nurse, you will be more than ready to take on a variety of higher-level roles. Critical care nursing is one of the most complex and challenging specialties, preparing you to take on leadership roles in a clinical environment.

For example, you could move into a nurse management role within a critical care unit, enter a healthcare administration role or broaden your specializations with additional certifications. If you aspire to have greater independence, you could also return to school for a master’s or doctorate degree. These advanced degrees can put you on a path to becoming a nurse practitioner or another type of advanced practice provider. For a nurse with experience in a critical care unit, the options are endless.

Start Your Nursing Journey at Concordia St. Paul

Now that you know how to become a critical care nurse, it’s time to get started on your journey. The ABSN program at Concordia St. Paul, with locations in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, can help you achieve your goal of being a critical care nurse in as few as 16 months.

CSP Nursing Program wall sign

If you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, or at least 54 non-nursing college credits, you may be eligible to apply to the ABSN program. We offer three start dates each year at both locations, so you can spend less time waiting and more time earning a degree that will help you reach your goal of becoming a critical care nurse.

Contact us today by filling out our online form, and an admissions counselor will get in touch with you. There’s no time like now to get started on your future!