Is it possible for a new nurse to work in the ICU? Yes, but it is the exception and not the rule. I want to encourage all new nurses and nurse grads – if your goal is to work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), that it might be possible right away, but it’s not easy and not for everyone.

Can a New Nurse Work in the ICU?

Let’s look at what an ICU nurse is, and dig a little deeper into the challenges new grads face when they are trying to get a job as an ICU nurse.

What does an ICU Nurse do?

The very first thing you need is a real understanding of what an ICU nurse is and the responsibilities of this job. I explained this job in detail in my post “What do ICU Nurses Do?”

It’s a really in-depth look at what a normal shift is like for this job, from beginning to end.

Basically, a critical care nurse works in the Intensive Care Unit (also referred to as the Critical Care Unit). This person provides nursing care to critically ill patients. You are responsible for the direct bedside care, monitoring, and responding to changes in condition.

And there’s more to this job than just that. You are also communicating with providers and other healthcare team members, as well as families about their loved one and the patient themselves.

This communication can be stressful and tough. You will have to explain complex medical conditions to laypeople, many of whom have little experience or previous understanding of healthcare.

ICU Nurse Responsibilities

As opposed to floor nurses, ICU nurses normally only care for one or two patients since they require almost constant care.

The responsibilities of an ICU nurse include:

  • Monitor the patient’s condition, which becomes very complex as patients become more unstable
  • Oversee and provide care to the patient
  • Communicate with the patient and family and provide support them
  • Assess the patient’s and their response to treatment, suggesting changes as necessary
  • Use high-tech equipment to provide quality care for the patient
  • Stay educated on the latest evidence
  • Document appropriately

Can A New Nurse Get a Job in the ICU?

Now that you know what an ICU nurse is and what that job requires of you, do you still want it as your first job right out of school?

If so, keep in mind that getting this job right away is going to be really difficult. It is one of the hardest jobs to obtain and even more difficult for new nurses.

Yes, it is absolutely possible, but getting this job can feel as life-consuming and challenging as the job itself.

Why Is Getting A Job in the ICU So Difficult?

Yes, becoming an ICU nurse is a very selective process. The hiring managers have to be selective and choosy. There are a lot of reasons that this is a competitive job and tough to land.

First, this job requires a lot mentally from nurses. So people that are hiring to fill it must make the process rigid and difficult to pass, especially for new grads.

Another reason it’s tough to get is that the training is so costly. There are so many high-tech pieces of equipment and lots of critical situations for which to train. They don’t want to invest all of this money and time into someone that isn’t ready mentally or emotionally for it.

The ICU is the Deep End of the Pool

I like to compare learning how to become a nurse to learning how to swim. And the ICU is the deep end.

First, you start out in nursing school, which is the kiddie pool. It’s safe and you have lots of support.

Then, med-surg is a bit more difficult but still manageable. This is comparable to the 3-foot area. Patients are typically stable, and while it still is very challenging, you can still put your feet on the floor and touch the ground.

But then critical care is the deep end of the pool. And when you try to get this job right out of nursing school, it’s as if you are jumping from the kiddie pool into the deep end.

You’re learning how to swim while trying not to drown. For some, they can pull it together and learn how to tread and keep their head above water. But for most (myself included), they need some time in the shallow end before heading out into deeper water.

It Is Possible for New Nurses to Work in ICU

After reading all of this, do you still want to go for ICU as your first job? If so, that’s awesome! It’s going to be exhausting and challenging and push you to your limit.

Here are a few tips that will help you get that ICU nurse job:

  • Nail the interview – I have a guide just for you. It explains how to ace the interview and what things will set you apart from the competition.
  • Bring glowing references – While you are in school, network and make connections. Their recommendations will speak volumes.
  • Job shadow – Ask ICU nurses if you can shadow them on your day off. Then use this experience in your interview.

Once you land the job, get ready! Life will be quite hectic and centered around becoming acclimated to your new role. You’ll need to study at home about disease processes, meds, labs, diagnostics, and more so that while you’re at the bedside you’re focused on practical preparedness.

Chat with your loved ones about your orientation time, as it will be very draining both mentally and physically. You will need support and grace from your loved ones as you navigate this new challenge. If possible, find a mentor who is also a critical care nurse. They can provide valuable perspective and support that you preceptor (even if they’re awesome!) won’t be able to do while training you.

What to do if ICU isn’t for you?

This happens. A new nurse is super excited and works really hard and gets the job in ICU. But after awhile discovers this isn’t the right job for him or her. When I was working in critical care, for every 10 that started, only about 3-4 made it through orientation and stayed long-term.

If you go home and realize it is draining you too much and you don’t think you can be your best in the ICU, then tell someone. It’s admirable to ask to be reassigned to a different unit or floor rather than suddenly quit. Then you can work hard and maybe even try to apply for that job again someday.

It’s better to know your limits and find a job that uses your strengths than to keep working in a place that is either over your head or so difficult that you don’t have enough to give. Management doesn’t want you miserable.

There is a place for everyone and a job for you. It’s ok to realize that maybe you have some more areas to grow in or perhaps this is just not a place you enjoy working. You’ll be a better and stronger nurse when you work in a place that utilizes your strengths the most.

More resources for those interested in ICU: