Becoming a NICU Nurse: Salary Information & Job Description

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An NICU nurse's median annual salary is around $59,200. Is it worth the education and licensure requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about the career outlook to find out if becoming an NICU nurse is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as an NICU Nurse

A registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) has a stressful, but often rewarding, job providing medical care to sick newborns. Becoming an NICU nurse can be a solid career option, but you should consider all the pros and cons before making a decision.

Pros of a Career as an NICU Nurse
Can be rewarding helping sick infants thrive*
Good compensation (over $59,200 median annual salary)****
High job-growth field (19% job growth predicted for 2012-2022 decade)**
Variety in daily activities (may attend births, administer medications and educate parents)***

Cons of a Career as an NICU Nurse
Can be stressful, particularly when a child dies*
May work nights, weekends and holidays**
Can be physically tiring (lifting patients and equipment)**
Must pass state licensing test**

Sources: *St. Joseph's College of Maine, ** U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***National Association of Neonatal Nurses, ****PayScale.com

Career Information

Job Description

An NICU nurse typically works in a hospital in a Level II (acute care) or Level III (critical care) NICU. Many Level III neonatal units are in large metropolitan hospitals or children's hospitals. Infants in the NICU require high-technology care and may be on ventilators or in incubators. As a neonatal nurse, you must constantly monitor and care for 1-4 infants, including monitoring oxygen levels, heart rate, blood pressure and weight. Constant attention is critical because situations can quickly turn serious with these fragile patients.

NICU nurses must be compassionate and provide a positive atmosphere for patients and their families, even when the outlook is dire. These nurses often form close bonds with patients and their parents. They answer questions about the baby's care and medical condition and educate parents on how to care for a sick child. Like all registered nurses, NICU nurses may work nights, weekends and holidays. You may be on your feet for long periods and may have to move heavy medical equipment.

Career Prospects

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't keep employment figures on NICU nurses specifically, it projected that jobs for all registered nurses could grow by 19% from 2012-2022. Opportunities for NICU nurses should be good. Each year, about 40,000 low birth weight babies are born in the United States, according to the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, which says good care and improved technology in the NICU mean more of these babies are surviving.

Salary Information

As of September 2015, PayScale.com reported that registered nurses working in NICUs earned an annual median salary of approximately $59,500. However, with additional education, your salary could increase significantly. According to PayScale.com, the median salary of neonatal nurse practitioners (NNPs) employed in NICUs was more than $92,600 a year.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

Registered nurses can hold a bachelor's or an associate's degree in nursing or, less commonly, a diploma from a hospital nursing program. Nursing students explore chemistry, anatomy, medical terminology and physiology and gain clinical experience working with patients and performing procedures. Some NICUs want nurses who have at least one year of adult or medical-surgical nursing experience, but other hospitals will hire a new graduate who is licensed. Many hospitals have training programs and mentorships for nurses new to the NICU.

Licensing

To become a registered nurse, you must graduate from a nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN. Additional requirements vary by state. In order to renew your license, you must complete a set number of continuing education courses from a state-approved provider.

Useful Skills

An NICU nurse, like all nurses, must have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. Some employers are looking for nurses who are bilingual in English and Spanish. Nurses must be organized and possess sound decision-making abilities. They should have patience and compassion and be emotionally stable.

What Employers Are Looking For

April 2012 job postings for NICU nurses showed that experience was important, preferably in a Level III unit, but Level II experience was usually acceptable. However, some employers were willing to hire a new graduate. Here is a sampling of what real employers were looking for:

  • A hospital in Ohio needed a registered nurse with at least a year of experience to work in the NICU. The employer preferred someone with previous critical care experience.
  • In Florida, a hospital preferred to hire a night shift nurse with two years of Level III NICU experience, but would accept experience in a Level II nursery.
  • A hospital in Georgia was looking for someone with at least a 2-year degree and the ability to perform all necessary patient care and procedures.
  • In Texas, a 32-bed NICU needed an experienced nurse at neonatal Level II or III. The employer preferred someone with a bachelor's degree, but would accept an associate's.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Further Your Education

After you've had a couple of years of experience as an NICU nurse, you might want to return to school to become an NNP or a neonatal clinical nurse specialist (NCNS). These graduate specialties will allow you to expand your role in the NICU. NNPs work with physicians and other health professionals to manage a caseload of infants. An NCNS develops educational programs for parents and other nurses.

Earn Certifications

Earning professional credentials in neonatal intensive care nursing can demonstrate your knowledge and skill to potential employers and colleagues. Several organizations offer credentials to NICU nurses. You need to pass an exam, plus have 24 months and 2,000 hours experience to earn the Registered Nurse Certified - Neonatal Intensive Care (RNC-NIC) designation from the National Certification Corporation (NCC). The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) offers the CCNS certification for neonatal critical care certified nurse specialists. NNPs can take the NCC's Neonatal Nurse Practitioner certification examination.

Other Career Paths

Physician Assistant

If you want to work in the NICU (or another specialty area), but you'd like to have more authority and make more money than an NICU nurse, you can become a physician assistant. You'll need a master's degree and a state license. A physician assistant can diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medicines, order tests and interpret test results. The BLS predicted that jobs for physician assistants could increase by 30% from 2010-2020. The median annual salary for a physician assistant was nearly $89,000 as of May 2011, according to the BLS.

Licensed Practical Nurse

If the education requirements to become an NICU nurse are a bit much, with just one year of training, you can become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). You may not work in the NICU, but you can care for many other patients, performing tasks such as changing bandages and inserting catheters. The BLS forecast that employment of LPNs could grow by 22% from 2010-2020. The median annual salary for an LPN was about $41,000 as of May 2011, the BLS reported.

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George Mason University

  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

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Kaplan University

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  • Family Nurse Practitioner Graduate Certificate

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Johns Hopkins University

  • Post-Bachelor's Certificate in Biotechnology Enterprise

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American University

  • Master of Science in Healthcare Management

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Keiser University

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  • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant

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Baker College Online

  • Nursing Administration - Master's
  • Nursing Education - Master's
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Colorado State University Global

  • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration

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Herzing University

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  • Diploma: Medical Assisting

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