September 1, 2015

ICU Nurse Salary and Career Opportunities

ICU Nurse Salary and Career Opportunities

Salary Overview

Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses are specialists also known as critical care nurses. They are responsible for making sure that acutely and critically ill individuals and their families receive the best care possible. These nurses have very specialized skills and are technologically savvy. While most work in hospitals, other workplaces include nursing homes, flights units, and outpatient facilities. 

All ICU nurses are registered nurses (RNs). Many are advanced practice nurses. The median pay for RNs in 2012 was $65,470 a year, or $31.48 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) . PayScale indicates an hourly rate of up to $40.86 for an ICU nurse for a regular shift and as much as $60.52 for overtime. With a bonus and profit sharing, annual compensation could reach $90,874, the site says. BLS shows median pay for advanced practice nurses as $96,460 a year, or $46.37 per hour. 

This agency predicts RN job growth at 19 percent, which is faster than average, between 2012 and 2022. ICU nurse job growth could be even greater, given the graying of America and the rising number of patients who are seniors.

Paths to Increase ICU Nurse Salary

An ICU nursing career starts with earning an RN credential. This requires completing a training program in a hospital, an associate’s degree in nursing, or a bachelor’s degree in nursing. To be eligible for licensing as an RN in the state where they want to work, graduates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), the Campaign for Nursing’s Future indicates. 

According to Villanova University , many employers prefer to hire ICU nurses who have a bachelor’s degree. In order to advance their careers and compensation, many opt to become certified after working at least two years in critical care. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) offers the certified critical care nurse (CCRN) designation, along with certifications in tele-ICU acute care nursing and several other subspecialties. Certified nurses typically fill slots as charge nurses, case managers, and nursing manager and enjoy commensurate salaries.

Nurses can also boost their income by achieving advanced practice status after earning a master’s degree or a doctorate in nursing. Some work in hospitals as ICU nurse practitioners, while others choose to open their own practices or become nursing educators. Some enter ICU subspecialties such as a pediatric or a cardiac ICU nurse. The AACN indicates that ICU nurses treat patients who would never have survived in the past, making the need to master constantly evolving technology crucial.

For some ICU nurses, working as a per diem or a travel nurse is a way to increase compensation. Employers are often willing to financially assist these nurses with relocation and housing expenses.

See open positions for ICU Nurses near you.

Related Specialties

ICU nurses might have an interest in using their skills in these specialties: 

  • Flight/surface transport nurses accompany patients from one treatment site to another. Their experience with critically ill individuals and their familiarity with monitoring technology are valuable resources.
  • Emergency room nurses treat patients with acute problems for short periods. The rapid pace of ICU nurses and their mastery of technology make them ideal emergency room nurses.
  • Nurse informatics is an interesting option for critical care nurses who have practiced telemetry nursing. This specialty combines nursing, communications, and information science knowledge to manage and disseminate data.

Further Your Career

Nurses who enjoy fast-paced, multifaceted work that is typically highly structured could find an ICU nursing career attractive. The demand for these specialists is high. Job boards show that vacancies and advancement opportunities are plentiful, making the outlook for this life-saving career a very rosy one.

Find open positions for ICU nurses near you.

Vonda J. Sines is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area. She specializes in health/medical, career, and pet topics and writes extensively about Crohn's disease. Her work has been published at EverydayHealth, Lifescript,, Yahoo! Health, Catholic Digest, Angie's List Health, and on many more sites.

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