Critical Care Nursing Salary

Critical Care Nursing Salary

If there is one career that has the propensity to continue growing and to allow individuals to challenge themselves, it’s nursing. There are dozens of types of nurses, and nurses are always in demand. They help care for patients, work with doctors and surgeons, and provide a source of comfort.

This career path is expected to continue growing over the next several years as Baby Boomers age and the current nursing population reaches retirement. With a large aging population, this is the perfect storm for creating the need for hundreds of thousands of nursing jobs.

Working in nursing, you should expect to perform professional tasks that will differ depending on the career path you choose and where you work. Some of the tasks that you might complete as a nurse include:

  • Research
  • Performing physical examinations
  • Taking health histories and medical records
  • Providing patients with counseling and education
  • Coordinating care with other members of a patient’s healthcare team
  • Supervising nursing assistants and LPNs
  • Being a part of the decision-making process
  • Administering medications
  • Applying first aid and wound care
  • Helping with other types of health interventions

Nursing itself is a wide-ranging career, and not all nurses are the same. There are over 100 nursing specialties, one of which is critical care. Critical care nursing breaks down further into other specialties as well.

Some specialties that you may be interested in include:

  • Labor and delivery
  • Flight/transport
  • Burn care
  • Medical surgical care
  • Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
  • Trauma
  • Psychiatric care

Remember that some specialties will require additional education. For example, you may need your Bachelors of Science in Nursing as well as certifications in the specialties you’re interested in.

When you select a specialty, remember to look at how that specialty affects your wages and likelihood of finding a job. A critical care nurse is the basic specialty in critical care, but you may want to expand your education into emergency psychiatric care, trauma-unit care, pediatric acute care, or other specific fields that suit your personality and career path.

What is critical care nursing?

A critical care nurse is a nurse who provides specialized care for patients who have life-threatening illnesses or injuries. They care for patients who are in ICUs, emergency rooms, pediatric ICUs, cardiac care units, telemetry units, recovery rooms, progressive units, and neonatal ICUs.

An unspecialized critical care nurse is one who works with most patients. Certifications are added on to allow a more specialized focus, such as working specifically in the neonatal ICU or being placed in the trauma unit of a burn unit.

How long does it take to become a nurse?

To become a registered nurse, you need to take a minimum of two years of schooling to obtain an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). Many people today opt for a bachelor’s degree instead, because employers want to hire those with higher education levels. The demand for nurses with a BSN continues to grow due to the extra education and experience that a BSN degree provides.

Regardless of the educational path chosen, you’ll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to receive your license.

ICU nurse education requirements

The first step to becoming a critical care nurse is to find the right program. To become a critical care nurse, candidates need to earn a license as a registered nurse first. This requires either an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

While an associate degree in nursing is enough to start on the path to becoming a critical care nurse, most employers will prefer candidates that have a BSN. Employers also look for candidates who have taken nursing internships or extensions, so that they already assisted in critical care or intensive care settings.

When you look for a college or university, it’s a good idea to find one that offers specialized training for nursing students. You may want to look into courses with specialized training in critical care.

Once you finish your courses, you’ll need to take the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain your RN license. Following this, you’re able to seek specialty certifications through the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. For instance, you may opt to seek certification in neonatal care, pediatric care, Tele-ICU, progressive care nursing, or others.

Remember that you will need to complete contact hours before you can renew your CCRN certification, and renewals may cost up to $200. There are times when you may need to retake your examinations or complete Synergy CERPs. Doing these things, however, shows that you are competent in the field and will assist you in standing out against other candidates.

Job outlook for critical care nurses

If you are interested in working in critical care as a nurse, you’ll want to know what the job outlook is in the coming years. That way, you can plan the right specialties and certifications to help you find a good job.

The good news about working in critical care is that the field of nursing desperately needs new nurses. In the United States, as of 2021, there is a shortage of nurses. Between 2014 and 2022, it’s estimated that the field will grow by 16%, and it is only expected to continue to grow. Cautious estimates believe that the shortage will continue through 2025, though it may extend beyond.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics believes that the job outlook is good as well. Data shows that this field is expected to grow by around 7% between 2019 and 2029, so for students who are just getting started today, it’s likely that there will still be job growth once they graduate. There are expected to be another 221,900 jobs in the field by 2029. This is much faster than average.

The nursing shortage

The American Association of College of Nursing (AACN) is currently working with policymakers, schools, the media, and nursing organizations to try to address the shortage in the field. It is expected that the shortage of nursing staff will increase and remain as the Baby Boomer population ages and their need for care grows. Additionally, since nursing schools aren’t always able to expand their capacities, there are a limited number of graduates.

That’s good news for people who graduate now, though, since there is an open field with many jobs available. This gives them more opportunities to find jobs that are paid highly and to negotiate better starting salaries, such as becoming a nurse practitioner.

For new students going into the field, it’s a good idea to apply to multiple programs. They may fill quickly, so having first, second, and even third-choice schools in mind could help you get started. If no four-year programs are available, taking a two-year program and transferring to a four-year university may be another option.

What are the factors that contribute to the nursing shortage?

There are four main factors that are affecting the ratio of nurses to patients. The shortage may be caused by schooling issues, retirement, a growing population of elderly individuals, and high turnover rates.


There has been a 5.1% increase in enrollment into entry-level BS programs as of 2019, but that is still short of eliminating the gap in nurses available to meet the growing demand in the field. Between 2019 and 2020, AACN’s data showed that 80,407 people, all qualified applicants, were turned away from graduate and baccalaureate nursing programs. They were turned away because there was not enough staff, classroom space, or budget to assist those students. Additionally, not having access to clinical sites or not having clinical preceptors also played a role in turning down those students.


It’s notable that a large portion of the current nursing population is getting close to retirement age, too. As of 2018, the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses found that the average age of an RN was 50. This could mean a large drop in available nurses within the next 15 years. At the same time, those retirees will need care, so new nurses do need to come into the positions and fill those roles.

Retirement and schooling aren’t the only problems. There are also changing demographics to consider.

An aging population

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of US residents who are 65 years old or older is expected to reach 82 million by 2030. There is expected to be a need for care in geriatrics and for those with comorbidities and chronic diseases. Nurses who are comfortable in those specialties may find better job opportunities.

Turnover rates

Finally, the field of nursing does have a high turnover rate. In one study, it was discovered that 13% of RNs with recent licensing had changed their principal job within a year. Another 37% admitted that they were ready to move on to a different role.

How is the nursing shortage being addressed?

The nursing shortage is being addressed with state initiatives to encourage students to consider nursing, first and foremost. Nursing schools are also starting to form partnerships and looking for support to expand their student populations.

The AACN expanded NursingCAS, which is a centralized application service for Registered Nurse programs. This helps make sure that no seats are vacant in any of the available programs.

Finally, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Johnson & Johnson have campaigns to promote careers in nursing. The RWJF campaign also encourages new nurses to take the BSN degree program within 10 years of their initial licensure, so they move forward in their careers.

What kinds of critical-care nurses are the most in-demand?

Did you know that there are over 25 kinds of nurses? Not all types of nurses are paid the same or in demand in the same amounts.

There are several levels of nursing including:

  • Nursing aid and assistant
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA)
  • Licensed professional nurse/licensed vocational nurse (LPN/LVN)
  • Registered nurse
  • Registered nurse with BSN
  • Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)
  • Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)

Registered nurses are in the highest demand. They make up the largest group of nurses in the country, yet they are still expected to see the demand for nurses grow.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the need for RNs to continue to rise by around 12% between 2018 and 2028, which makes now a good time for students to opt into a registered nursing career.

Registered nurses are able to swiftly change fields or specialties, which makes the career flexible.

Following the standard registered nursing degree, the next in-demand specialty is pediatrics. Pediatric nursing usually requires an AND or BSN (preferred). In this specialty, nurses work with toddlers and teens, usually working with patients between around 2 to 3 years old up to 17. These nurses are also expected to educate parents and caretakers about the children’s needs.

Beyond pediatrics, there is also a high demand for emergency room nurses. Similar to a pediatric nurse, the nurse needs to have an AND or BSN, with most employers preferring the BSN.

Nurses working in the emergency room are in charge of treating patients as they arrive at the hospital. They may work in triage and should expect to work unpredictable shifts. They often see trauma and severe illness, women in labor, gunshot wounds, and other serious conditions. This is a high-pressure position, but those who enjoy unpredictability can do well in it.

Another specialty that is in high demand is the ICU nurse. Again, this nurse will need an ADN or BSN, and the BSN is preferred. ICU nurses need to have good attention to detail and to thrive in an environment where monitoring and planning are key to a patient’s survival. Typically, patients under an ICU nurse’s care are in critical condition and have to have structured, regulated care.

It’s typical for ICU nurses to work with patients who are on ventilators, who are intubated, or who may need specific medications delivered exactly on time to help them survive. This is a rigorous, structured shift for any nurse, so those who thrive on discipline and structure will enjoy it.

Skills that could affect a critical-care nurse’s salary

There are many skills that can affect how much you earn as a critical care nurse. These include skills in:

  • Critical care
  • Intensive care unit
  • Emergency/trauma
  • Open heart
  • Labor, delivery, and birthing
  • Neuroscience
  • Coronary intensive care
  • Surgery intensive care
  • Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU)
  • Trauma Intensive Care Unit (TICU)
  • Psychiatric Intensive Care Units (PICUs)

Each of these skills has the potential to increase your starting salary.

There is also a potential to continue on your career path. For example, if you start out as a registered nurse in acute care, you may opt to become an RN and move specifically into critical care for the remainder of your career, move to become a nurse practitioner, or become a staff nurse. Others may opt to go from an RN position to become a family nurse practitioner directly. You could also opt to become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNP).

Does it matter where you get your degree?

The name on your degree may matter in the short-term, but it’s unlikely to mean much after your first few years on the job. However, if you want to start out in a better role or with higher pay, it’s worth selecting a program with a high NCLEX pass rate. It’s not a good idea to take any program with an NCLEX pass rate below 85%, since the program may not be thorough enough to help you pass your NCLEX-RN licensure examination.

Another reason that it may matter where you get your degree is because of the networking that you could do to find a job. One of the best ways to build your network is to have clinical experience through your school. You want to find a program that offers clinical rounds and support finding a job. If you want to know which schools are preferred locally, you can go to a local clinic or hospital and ask where those individuals went to school. You may be surprised to find that most hospitals do have schools that they prefer and trust. That doesn’t mean the school will be a big name brand, but it may mean that there are specific programs or teachers that the hospital recognizes as being excellent.

Once you go through school and pass the NCLEX, where you got your degree may not matter as much as your score. That’s why there is a heavy focus on studying for this examination.

Are there continuing education requirements for continuing care nurses?

Yes, and you need to keep up on them to keep your license in good standing. The requirements are set by your state, so you should look them up specifically. Most RNs need around 24 to 30 contact hours completed every two years to maintain their licenses. Some of those hours may be independent study hours, depending on the state.

What specific certifications can you earn in critical care?

Nurses who want to stand out and establish themselves as providers of critical care should pursue certifications through the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. These certifications include:

  • Neonatal acute care
  • Pediatric acute care
  • Acute care NP
  • Cardiac surgery
  • Adult-gerontology acute care
  • Adult cardiac medicine
  • Progressive care knowledge professional
  • Progressive care nursing
  • Tele-ICU acute/critical care nursing
  • Acute/critical care knowledge professional (adult, pediatric, or neonatal)

There may also be several others.

What’s the difference between licensure and certification?

To work in the field of nursing, you will need to have a license. Certifications are often granted in specific specialties, but you will need a license to use them.

Certifications could help you switch careers

Remember, if you’re not sure which kind of nurse you want to be, certifications can help you change your career path. If you start in neonatal care and don’t enjoy it, getting a certification in cardiac medicine or adult acute care may help you switch to a different role with different pay opportunities.

Starting salaries for critical-care nurses

The average starting salary for an entry-level registered nurse is between $23 and $34 per hour.

How to increase your starting salary as a critical care nurse

The more time you have with learning experience, the better. Any entry-level Registered Nurse with less than a year of experience can expect the lowest starting compensation. Comparatively, a nurse with more than one year is considered an early career Registered Nurse and may earn several dollars more per hour. Similarly, someone who started as a certified nursing assistant but took classes to become an RN may have more time in the field and a higher starting salary.

To increase your starting salary, you should also think carefully about where you’d like to work. The starting salary of a critical care nurse varies by state and by where they work.

There are also some additional steps you can take to increase your salary in terms of your willingness to work. For example, you may increase your earnings if:

  • You choose to work overnights, on-call shifts, or overtime
  • You become a nurse educator
  • You are willing to move to higher-paying states
  • You work in higher-paying specialties and are willing to continue your education to obtain further certifications, not just recertification

Certifications influence your starting salary significantly

Certifications do influence your starting salary. For example, those with focus their skills in labor, delivery, and birthing are likely to increase their starting salaries by around 14%. Those with simple critical care training to work with a critically ill patient or work in a critical care unit see a 1% salary range increase over typical Registered Nurse training without a specialty.

Taking online MSN programs or becoming an informatics nurse, for example, may both help you boost your career and opportunities for a higher income.

Average critical-care nursing salaries

The average starting salary for an entry-level registered nurse is between $23 and $34 per hour, which equates to between $48,000 and $72,000. Early-career nurses see that increase to between $50,000 and $83,000 annually. Mid-career nurses earn, on average, between $56,000 and $96,000. Experienced nurses earn an average of $61,000 to $108,000 annually. Late-career nurses may expect between $66,000 annually to $118,000.

Which states offer the highest critical-care nursing salaries?

Critical care nursing is a specialty for registered nurses. While the national median may seem low, where you live does play a role in how much you can earn. States like California and Texas offer the highest pay for critical care nurses at $108,000 or more in California and $81,000 or more on average in Texas.

Which states offer the lowest salaries for ICU nurses?

States that offer the lowest salaries for ICU nurses include South Dakota ($58,340) and Mississippi ($58,490).

Average critical-care nursing salaries for ICU nurses

The average salary of a critical care nurse is $75,119, according to Salary.com. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay is $75,330 for an entry-level registered nurse.

Starting salary: critical care

In a critical care setting, entry-level nurses earn between $23 and $34 an hour. This is the typical pay for nurses within their first year on the job, which increases within the next few years.

Starting salary: intensive care unit

The average annual salary for ICU nurses is $101,374. The highest pay is available in states like New Hampshire or New York. ICU nursing duties are difficult and often traumatic, which is why this is one of the highest-paid roles.

Starting salary: emergency/trauma

The average emergency room/trauma nurse earns around $101,533 per year based on pay throughout the U.S.

Starting salary: open heart

An average operating room RN with open heart skills earns between $54,000 and $107,000. Typical hourly rates for a cardiac nurse are $34.36 per hour, on average.

Starting salary: labor, delivery, and birthing

A nurse-midwife has an average starting salary of $112,158 depending on location in the United States.

Starting salary: neuroscience

Neuro nursing pays approximately $50 to $60 an hour.

Starting salary: coronary intensive care

In the cardiac care unit, nurses can expect to earn between $49,000 and $86,000.

Starting salary: surgery intensive care

Surgery intensive care nurses earn between $52,000 and $107,000, depending on their experience.

Starting salary: pediatric intensive care unit (PICU)

A pediatric nurse practitioner earns an average of $72,800 in the United States. The salary range is between $66,000 and $83,400.

Starting salary: trauma intensive care unit (TICU)

The salary for a trauma intensive care unit nurse is approximately $88,859 annually.

Starting salary: psychiatric intensive care units (PICUs)

A psychiatric nurse practitioner may earn around $76,983 per year on average.

Starting salary: nurse anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists have specialized schooling and typically earn around $158,616 annually. This is among the highest-paid nursing degrees and specialties.

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