ER and Critical Care Nurse

During the early 1800s in New York City, Lillian Wald created a first aid room on Henry Street Settlement—the first of its kind. It served as a space for residents who needed immediate care. 

 ER and critical care nurses are a hospital’s first line of defense. They receive, respond, and provide immediate care for a wide range of injuries and ailments for any patient entering the ward. As first responders, they activate triage based on their professional experience and skill set to treat those patients with life-threatening injuries and needs.

Thanks to the expertise of ER and critical care nurses, patients receive immediate care that can range from blood transfusions to reverse cardiopulmonary arrest to setting broken bones. No illness or ailment is too broad for these professional medical nurses. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), opportunities for registered nurses are expected to swell 6 percent nationally between 2021 and 2031. There will be 195,400 fresh openings for registered nurses during this time. 

ER and critical care nurses must thrive in chaotic, high-pressure settings. These healthcare professionals can benefit from a focused sense of organization, acute attention to detail, and a nature that lends itself to prioritizing the most necessary care, records, and collaboration. 

Completing a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) is the first step in higher education for an ER and critical care nurse career. Often nurses may continue their education with a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) and can pursue that further with a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree. An MSN generally takes two to three years, and a DNP degree can take four or more, depending on the candidate’s timeline. 

The following guide details the ER and critical care nursing field, including degree types, program options, and a breakdown of the steps to follow for this career pathway.

ER and Critical Care Nurse Specializations & Degree Types

ER and critical care nurses must have at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). 

ER and critical care is a specialization within the nursing field with unique licensing and certification requirements detailed below.

Admissions Requirements for ER and Critical Care Nurse Programs

Hopeful ER and critical care nurses must pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree to be eligible to complete the NCLEX-RN exam to become registered nurses (RNs). Typical admissions requirements to undergraduate nursing programs include a completed application, official transcripts, a competitive GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and a personal statement.

Some nurses in this field choose to complete graduate education. Admission to an MSN or DNP degree program typically requires an application, a GRE score, letters of reference, a statement of purpose unique to the candidate, and a resume citing the preparation made for the program.

ER and Critical Care Nurse Program Accreditation

The two leading accreditation organizations for nursing programs in the U.S. are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission For Education In Nursing (ACEN). These organizations oversee bachelor’s and master’s programs for nursing. They are both recognized by the US Department of Education, which assures prospective candidates that programs of their choice accredited by either organization can rest assured that the education will meet excellent standards.

On-Campus ER and Critical Care Nurse Degree Programs

Here is a variety of campus-based programs that can benefit aspiring ER and critical care nurses.

Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU)

The OHSU program is ranked in the top ten best undergraduate programs in the nation The BSN program focuses on four public health and communications areas: hospital critical care work, outpatient and traditional care clinics, research labs, and communities. Students enrolled in the BSN program can complete their degree within three years or nine terms of work.

OHSU has five regional campuses throughout Oregon, which include Monmouth, Portland, Ashland, La Grande, and Klamath Falls.

  • Location: Portland, Oregon
  • Duration: Three to four years 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $61,374.21 resident; $93,738.21 non-resident

University of Michigan School of Nursing

The University of Michigan offers an MSN and DNP degree in adult-gerontology acute care—an advanced study option for those interested in critical care settings. The school emphasizes diagnostic reasoning, advanced assessment, decision making, consultation, referral skills, and therapeutic interventions.

  • Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Duration: MSN (two years); DNP (three to four years)
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,383 MSN per credit for residents/ $2,831 per credit for non-resident

Loyola University Chicago

The Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing at Loyola University Chicago runs its adult-gerontology acute care clinical nurse specialist (CNS) program, focusing on improving nursing personnel, healthcare systems, and patient care. 

Graduates are trained to provide in-depth practice in system leadership, advocacy, acute and critically ill patient care within a variety of inpatient settings, research, consultation, and ethical decision-making. 

  • Location: Chicago, Illinois
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $1,150.00 per credit-hour

Duke University

Duke University prepares nurses to educate themselves within a diverse community of clinicians, researchers, and colleagues. The program focuses on the core values of research, community health, engaged alumni, global impact, educational excellence, and clinical practice. 

Prospective ER and critical care nurses may want to focus on the adult-gerontology NP (acute care) master’s program, which is ranked second in the U.S. News & World Report for 2023. 

The program boasts state-of-the-art simulation techniques, hands-on clinical rotations, and intensive courses that maximize student engagement. It comprises 48 credits and 728 clinical hours. The application process requires proof of one year of full-time acute care experience and a valid advanced cardiac life support certificate. 

  • Location: Durham, North Carolina
  • Duration: 16 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $12,896 per semester 

Emory University – Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing

The Emory University Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing has been educating nurses since 1905. It has grown into an internationally recognized program that has over 1,000 BSN, MSN, and DNP collegiates annually. It garnered an award from the U.S. News & World Report as the best grad school for its MSN adult-gerontology (acute care) program for 2023. 

The gerontology program incorporates advanced pharmacology, the management of acutely ill adult patients, clinical decision-making, and diagnosis. One component of the program that sets it apart is its seminars on the physiological and psychosocial impact on patients (and their families) facing chronic and acute illness. 

  • Location: Atlanta, Georgia
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges 
  • Tuition: $24,259 per semester

Online or ER and Critical Care Nurse Degree Programs

Purdue University Global

Purdue University Global is ideal for working professionals seeking flexible online options for higher education. This university offers an RN-to-BSN program and the chance to transfer 135 credits. Candidates can complete the flexibility of online courses based on their schedules and availability. 

Purdue’s online MSN offers multiple focus areas, including an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner option. The school provides one-on-one support, hands-on learning, preparation for career readiness, and the flexibility needed when working as an RN.

  • Location: Lafayette, Indiana
  • Duration: Two years (MSN)
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $22,680 to $34,020 for residents; $25,200 to $37,800 for non-residents

Capella University

Capella University is based in Minneapolis and functions virtually to provide the best fit for prospective and current online students. They offer CCNE-accredited programs for online BSN, MSN, and DNP-seeking candidates. 

The RN-to-BSN option provides students with 180 quarter-credits and the option to transfer up to 132 credits. With eight core courses, their program fits the needs of online transfer students seeking a degree completion with a competitive edge. They do not require a GMAT or GRE score for admittance. 

  • Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Duration: 14 months or more
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $13,500; $440-$850 per credit MSN/$2,470 – $2,875 Flexpath option billed each 12 weeks for MSN/ Less than $10,000 for RN to BSN

University of Connecticut

The University of Connecticut offers an online adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner program to fit the needs of the working professional. The program was initially designed for RNs who hold a BSN with two years of critical care experience, and UConn provides paths for MSN or DNP degrees. 

The master’s program comprises 45 credits taught by professionals in the field. The program courses last five to seven weeks, and require 700 to 800 clinical hours. 

  • Location: Online/Storrs, Connecticut
  • Duration: Two or Three year MSN program
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $925 per credit

Grand Canyon University

Grand Canyon University provides prospective BSN and MSN candidates with CCNE-accredited programs. The university aims to graduate experts in quality care for individuals and communities, promoting health and fostering wellness. 

GCU offers pre-licensure and post-licensure BSN options, as well as MSN and DNP programs. The tuition is competitive within the field of nursing programs, and the online program provides a special rate for active duty and active reserve students pursuing their education. 

  • Location: Phoenix, Arizona
  • Duration: 30 months (MSN)
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $470 per credit, RN-to-BSN; $580 per credit, graduate courses

Walden University

Walden University offers multiple tracks for higher education degrees in nursing. The online BSN-to-DNP or MSN-to-DNP are available with a personalized practicum support option to prepare nurses to positively impact their communities. The adult-gerontology acute care NP program is ideal for those looking to work in critical care. They allow a transfer of up to 40 credits and begin course-based learning at the end of each August. 

Admissions requirements include a current RN license, a completed BSN, online application, and general admission requirements. These degrees prepare nurses for advanced work in trauma centers, specialty care centers, intensive care units, and emergency departments.

  • Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Duration: 27 months (BSN-to-MSN)
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • Tuition: $325 per credit, BSN; $726 per credit, MSN

How Long Does it Take to Become an ER and Critical Care Nurse?

When considering how long it takes to become an ER and critical care nurse, it is important to factor in high school, college, and requisite career experience. At a minimum, it takes two years after graduating from high school to earn an associate degree—one possible starting point for a career in this field.

How To Become an ER and Critical Care Nurse – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

The first step to becoming an ER and critical care nurse is completing a high school diploma or GED program. While enrolled in high school, it would be helpful to complete courses in STEM fields.

Step 2: Complete an Associate or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Two to Four Years)

Completing an associate degree takes two years, and a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) takes roughly four years.

If the interested party chooses to complete an associate’s degree, degree completion programs are available to help fulfill the requirements for a BSN. Clinical practicum work is provided for hands-on work in all undergraduate programs. 

Step 3: Become a Registered Nurse (Timelines Vary)

Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is a fundamental requirement for ER and critical care nurse careers. The timeline for RN licensure varies on the interested party and the educational background choice of an ADN or a BSN completion. After one of those critical educational steps is completed, an application for an RN licensure must be completed. Then, the person may take the NCLEX-RN exam. 

Step 4: Gain Work Experience (Two Years Minimum)

There is no substitute for work experience in the field of medicine. Critical lessons are learned through hands-on practice, collaboration, observation, and practice. Studying the topic of medicine, nursing, and science is the basis from which experience draws. 

A minimum of two to three years of experience in critical care or emergency settings is required before a candidate is eligible for the certified emergency nursing (CEN) exam and job application process for hospitals across the country.

Step 5: Complete a Graduate Degree in Nursing (Two to Four Years, Optional)

Completing a graduate degree in nursing can take anywhere from two to four years, depending on the program (MSN, post-master’s certificate, or DNP) and student enrollment status (part-time or full-time).

Step 6: Obtain National Certification for Specializations (Timelines Vary)

National certification in ER and critical care nursing work is provided by three main organizations:

  • BCEN: Board of Certification For Emergency Nursing
  • AACN: American Association of Critical Care Nurses
  • NCC: National Certification Corporation 

The AACN offers 15 disciplines for care across the human age spectrum and health specialties within critical care work.

Step 7: Obtain State Licensure (Timelines Varies)

State licensure, procedure, and practice laws vary across the country. There are similarities in obtaining state licensures across the country, including completing a degree program and the NCLEX exam. 

Step 8: Maintain All Certifications and Local Licensure (Every One to Five Years)

Maintaining all certifications and local licensure for ER and critical care nurse positions may include continuing education credits, proof of work in the field, and fulfilling other unique local licensure requirements.

What Do ER and Critical Care Nurses Do?

ER and critical care nurses provide crucial diagnoses, procedures, and care for individuals with injuries or immediate trauma. They take on varied responsibilities within healthcare settings, including:

  • Offering first-response care and triage
  • Monitoring patient progress
  • Doing diagnostic testing
  • Transferring patients after stability and time allow
  • Providing sutures and stitches 
  • Performing tracheotomies and intubations
  • Managing medications

ER and Critical Care Nurse Certifications & Licensure

Certification and license requirements for RNs in the ER and critical care nurse specialization can vary from state to state. National certification boards for this specialization are included in the following list below:

  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • National Certification Corporation (NCC)

Board-certified licensure for this specialty could include the following certifications:

  • Adult Acute Critical Care Nursing (CCRN)
  • Pediatric Acute Critical Care Nursing (CCRN)
  • Adult Cardiac Medicine (CMC)
  • Adult Cardiac Surgery (CSC)

How Much Do ER and Critical Care Nurses Make?

Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), there are 3,047,530 employed RNs making an average annual salary of $82,750 with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $59,450
  • 25th percentile: $61,790
  • 50th percentile: $77,600
  • 75th percentile: $97,580
  • 90th percentile: $120,250

ER and Critical Care Nurse Career Alternatives

Check out three career alternatives to becoming an ER or critical care nurse.

Become a Nurse Educator

A nurse educator provides curriculum and education for the profession. The focus of the career is to give skills, knowledge, and training to the next generation of nurses in the field. This career requires at least an MSN degree from an accredited program.

  • Typical Education: Master’s of nursing education or DNP in nurse education
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) and Certified Clinical Academic Nurse Educator (CNE) through the National League for Nursing (NLN)

Become an Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists provide care and compassion for patients during stressful surgery situations. These nurses work for precision, medication disbursement, and collaboration with anesthesiologists and surgeons to provide continued care in surgery. 

  • Typical Education: MSN or DNP
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National board of certification and recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA)

Become a Nurse Administrator

Nurse administrators supervise, recruit, and hire nurses and care team members. The job details may also include giving performance reviews and building work schedules for the team members they oversee. Professional nurse administrators earn a master’s degree for their positions. 

  • Typical Education: MSN or DNP
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Completing an American Nurses Credential Center (ANCC); American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE)
Rachel Becker

Rachel Becker


Rachel Becker is a freelance writer who enjoys life in the PNW. She holds a master’s degree in education and taught in elementary classrooms for twelve years. When she is not running around after two toddlers, she makes time for daily movement, running two blogs, and reading.

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