North Carolina Central University Blog

Trending Topics at NCCU Online

ICU Nurse Salary and Job Description

Written by: North Carolina Central University   •  May 30, 2024

An ICU nurse inspects an IV drip bag.

ICU Nurse Salary and Job Description

Patients who are critically ill or injured may be admitted into a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU), where they receive around-the-clock care from a team of dedicated doctors and nurses. The ICU is a high-stakes, fast-moving, potentially stressful environment. It’s also an environment where many nurses find immense personal and professional fulfillment.

Those who have a background in nursing and are interested in exploring this particular discipline should consider the typical ICU nurse salary as well as the basic job description. Learning more about the position can be an important first step toward choosing a career in this critically important nursing field.

What Is an ICU Nurse?

An ICU nurse is any nurse who works predominantly in a hospital’s ICU (sometimes called the critical care unit). Here, care is provided on a 24/7 basis to patients whose conditions are most vulnerable and whose health is most at risk. ICU nurses keep careful watch over these patients at all times, ensuring that their conditions don’t worsen.

In many ways, the responsibilities of an ICU nurse are similar to those of nurses in other departments. The major difference is that ICU nurses have the added pressure of working in a high-stakes environment. ICU nurses may also need to gain familiarity with lifesaving interventions, including equipment that’s not widely used in other parts of the hospital. For example, ICU nurses may need a higher level of familiarity with “crash carts” and other lifesaving equipment, as they may see more patients whose conditions are unstable.

ICU Nurse Job Description

ICU nurses typically have advanced training to provide high standards of care for patients who’ve suffered from a stroke, a heart attack, a traumatic accident, or invasive surgery. These nurses must be prepared to perform diagnostic tests, monitor patient vital signs, and administer treatments to help stave off infection and promote recovery.

The duties and responsibilities of an ICU nurse may include the following:

  • Evaluating patient progress
  • Identifying changes in patient condition
  • Providing regular updates to doctors and family members
  • Administering medications and other interventions, including pharmaceutical interventions, at appropriate doses
  • Responding appropriately to medical emergencies; calling the doctor as needed

What’s the Typical ICU Nurse Salary?

The median annual ICU nurse salary was approximately $77,670 as of May 2024, according to Payscale data. Many factors can affect salary, including level of education, years of experience, and geographic location. The top 10% of earners made more than $116,000.

How to Become an ICU Nurse

Becoming an ICU nurse means honing the clinical skills and leadership competencies needed to maintain high levels of care in a hectic work environment. Cultivating these skills means achieving a combination of classroom success as well as on-the-job experience. Note that the field of ICU nursing draws from a diverse set of professional experiences, with some nurses choosing it later in their careers and others pursuing it earlier.

Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

Success as an ICU nurse means seeking registered nurse (RN) status and completing an undergraduate degree program. Doing so is essential for honing the clinical aptitude and technological skills needed to thrive in the ICU environment. An RN typically needs a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), though an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) may be accepted in some states; after completing their degree, an aspiring nurse must pass a licensure exam administered by their state’s nursing board.

Step 2: Accumulate Experience

Before becoming a full-time ICU nurse, it’s helpful to gain experience in the ICU environment. Some ICUs offer entry-level rotations. Alternatively, seeking experience in a medical-surgical unit or an intermediate care unit is useful. This experience can be valuable when seeking ICU roles.

Step 3: Obtain Certification

ICU nursing requires a high level of competence, and hospitals naturally want to ensure that they’re hiring the most qualified people. To get the best roles and to earn the highest ICU nurse salary level, it can be helpful to complete certificate programs. Common credentials include the following:

  • Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN) – Adult
  • CRRN – Pediatric
  • CRRN – Neonatal
  • Cardiac Medicine Certification (CMC) 

Step 4: Develop Essential Skills

Through this combination of classroom learning and on-the-job experience, potential ICU nurses can focus on a range of essential skills. The skills that are most important for success in the field include the following:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Clinical acumen
  • Technological literacy

Explore Opportunities in the ICU

Often, the most vulnerable patients end up in the ICU. Nurses working in this field may encounter difficult circumstances, but they may also experience the reward of seeing at-risk patients mount significant recoveries. Their work is essential for ensuring health equity throughout different communities and for promoting the best patient outcomes.

To prepare for work in this specialized field and establish the foundation for a competitive ICU nurse salary, nurses should seek an education that focuses on clinical skill formation. North Carolina Central University’s online RN to BSN can help nurses who are currently working build out a broad skill set that translates into professional success and superior patient outcomes. 

Find out more about how the program equips aspiring ICU nurses to maintain high standards of care even in stressful situations.

Recommended Readings

Perioperative Nurse Career Overview

What Does a Pediatric Nurse Do?

How Nurse Advocates Protect Patient Health


Betterteam, ICU Nurse Job Description

Incredible Health, Pursuing a Career as an ICU Nurse

Indeed, ICU Nurse Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, ICU Nursing Skills: Definition and Examples

Payscale, Average Nurse, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Hourly Pay

Request Info