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How to Land a Job in the ICU as a New Grad

*Original post released 11/12/2020

So many of us have heard (and possibly even believed) the myth that new graduate nurses can’t land a job or work in a specialty unit like the intensive care unit (ICU). I’m here to provide living proof that this is most definitely NOT the case! Not only that, there are a few things you can be doing throughout your undergraduate nursing journey to increase your likelihood of getting one of those positions. If I was a hiring manager or director, I would prefer the new grad nurse for the critical care setting because they’re eager, unbiased, have yet to develop bad habits, and can be groomed and tailored to best meet the needs of the unit. PSSST! Make this one of your selling points if they ask, “Why you?” Be sure to back this statement up with any of your educational achievements and leadership positions. Anyway, I’m going to break this article down into things you can do during school and after/near graduation to help improve your chances of getting into the ICU (or really any specialty unit for that matter).

Once you’ve been accepted into a program, consider taking an entry level healthcare job such as patient care tech (PCT), certified nurse assistant (CNA), medical assistant (MA), pharmacy tech (CPht), etc. I know working during school is quite intimidating and may not be possible for everyone, but having a healthcare-related job on the side can not only help you succeed in school but get your foot in the door to these ‘hard to crack’ units. If anything, maintaining your grades while working will be great experience to add to your resume should you choose to apply to a different facility or move to a different state. Another thing to keep in mind is to get certified whenever possible if working in these positions! It shows your dedication to professional development and passion for healthcare. I worked as a pharmacy technician prior to and during nursing school and can attest to this!

Let’s say working during nursing school is not possible for your situation, don’t freak out! It won’t be realistic for everyone. In that event, these are some tips to still help improve your chances. During your clinicals, always arrive early, prepared, and be willing to get involved and offer your assistance to those staff members who need it. Your efforts won’t go unnoticed and will help the staff remember you should you apply to their unit in the future. This is crucial because many units will have you complete both an interview with managers as well as one with staff (more of a peer panel interview). Find ways to stand out during clinical in the best way possible. You can also take the extra step to become ACLS or PALS certified. Those are certifications you’ll want to be sure to include on your resume and any externship/internship applications.

During your clinicals, also take the time to *subtly* network with staff members, charge nurses, and managers as you’re able to do so. Towards the conclusion of your nursing program, if you are offered the opportunity to pursue an internship/externship…DO IT! Try to keep your grades up as high as possible so you can market that to your advantage if they require applications. Take advantage of leadership opportunities as well to show your initiative. Many times, internships or externships will give you that quintessential “foot-in-the-door” to the unit you’re interested in; they may even make you a job offer or provide the chance to discuss a position before your time there has come to a close. If you don’t get this opportunity, ask to have a meeting with the hiring manager or director about 2-3 weeks prior to the end of your time on their unit. Use that chance to sell yourself and make them realize what they’d be missing out on if they pass on hiring you as a new grad. Be confident in your abilities, but avoid coming off as cocky.

As you near the end of your program, start searching for new grad job opportunities. Prioritize those organizations with nurse residency programs. These programs include an orientation period in the specialty unit and combine this with an integrated classroom approach to help you transition from nursing student to nursing professional. This can help ease you into the intense setting of a specialty unit and bridge the gap between your current level of knowledge and the level expected of you. Also, don’t be afraid to accept a night shift position! Many experienced nurses don’t want nigh shift jobs, which may give you the chance to snag a job offer. I personally love the night shift and find it to be a great way to ease into the critical care setting. Sometimes things are slower paced at night, but conversely, patients may deteriorate at night with no physician present which forces you to think more critically. Night shift has a steep learning curve and can offer you more independence and autonomy as a nurse.

When applying for specialty unit new grad nurse positions, consider accepting a position with a longer commute. Acuity is the main draw to a specialty nursing position and you may have to drive to get the higher level acuity experience you need for your end goals. For instance, level 1 experience is considered highly favorable for nurses pursuing CRNA school. The commute may seem like a drawback at first, but let me enlighten you to some of the perks of a longer commute. First off, a longer commute can be used as a way to destress and unwind after a difficult shift. You can also use this time to study and hone in on your skills by listening to podcasts or training modules. This is the approach I used when prepping for my CCRN certification exam; I listened to Nicole Kupchik’s modules on my drive to work, applied that knowledge at work, and used the drive home to listen to music and unwind.

Once you’ve nailed your interview and secured an offer, continue to take the opportunity seriously by investing in some critical care (or other specialty unit) resources. The hard work doesn’t end simply because you’ve accepted a job offer. This is when the real professional development begins. Your first year as a new nurse will be one of the most growth. Your patients need a nurse who is driven and motivated. At the same time, set aside time for self care to prevent burnout. You may be tempted to take extra shifts (which I caution doing prior to finishing orientation), but you’ll need that drive to make it through that first year. You’ve got this! Now, use these tips to go out and land the new grad nursing job of your dreams. Happy studying!


Andra Alyse

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