Ask a Travel Nurse: Will I be able to find an ICU job after traveling in med surg/tele?


Ask a Travel Nurse Question:

Hi! I am looking into travel nursing and have been an RN for 1.5 years. I did my first year on med surg and the last 6 months on a surgical tele unit in a 300 bed community hospital. I want to start traveling in 2 months and have been in contact with several agencies who all make it sound possible but maybe a little more challenging because of my lack of experience. I have a million questions but one that is most pressing. My ultimate dream is to be an ICU nurse. If I start travel nursing now, with the experience I have, how difficult will it be to find an ICU position after about a year or two of travel nursing as a med surg/tele nurse? Will I have to wait until I go back to a permanent position? Also, if you could give me your top 3 nursing agencies, what would they be? Thanks for your help!!

Ask a Travel Nurse Answer:

I can certainly provide you with the information you seek, but I feel like I should first provide you with some advice.

You asked how hard it would be to find an ICU position after a few travel years in med/surg/tele. I hate to burst any bubbles there, but making that transition will be nearly impossible. Once you start traveling in a certain specialty, it is tremendously hard to attempt to cross-train. You are a temporary employee when you work at a facility as a traveler and additionally, a new face. A facility contracts you to fill a need in a certain specialty. Why would they then put the time, effort, and expense in allowing you to go work in another unit? Plus, why would they cross-train someone who might be gone in 13 or 26 weeks? They want someone who is going to stay and benefit their hospital.

Now, the good news. If you want to get where you want, you should now have a clear focus on that path. You mention several agencies have told you that it might be possible with your experience, but hard. PLEASE, take this as a sign. Your best path is to try to transition to a critical care unit in your hospital, or seek out another facility if they don’t offer that opportunity, and get your experience there before traveling. Once you have a year of critical care, you will have a total of two and a half years of nursing experience in med/surg, tele and critical care. You will look SO much better on paper, but that is not the only benefit.

What if you get into critical care and find you don’t like it? If you are in your own hospital, not a huge deal to go back to tele. But what if you accepted a travel contract in ICU and discovered you didn’t like it? Major deal there. At the very least, you’d be looking at probable expenses from having to cancel your contract and at worst, something might happen while you were in the critical care environment that could jeopardize your nursing license.

Plus, if you wait and get your year of critical care now, you would possibly have the potential to open yourself to assignments in any area (ICU, tele, or med/surg). I was actually offered a tele contract to get me where I wanted to go on my first assignment (as an experienced ICU nurse). I ended up waiting and eventually found a critical care assignment, but if I wanted to get to a location bad enough, I know that with my background I would probably be very welcome on any tele or med/surg floor.

I know that you want to get started and I completely understand that. Travel nursing has been a very rewarding profession, but it’s also one that is not going away any time soon. There will still be travel opportunities for you in a year; actually, you will have MORE opportunities in a year if you just wait and transition to critical care before you start traveling. If you start traveling now, you might like it too much to want to go back into a permanent position to get your critical care experience later. Plus, if I had to encourage you to travel in any specialty, it would be critical care (but I’m sure I’m biased there). I just don’t see you ever having a problem finding an assignment as a critical care traveler.

So, while that may not be the answer you wanted, it’s the honest answer. Dishonest travel companies may tell you different, but they have a vested interest in getting you on the road to start making money for them.

The advice I have given you is the best recommendation I can make from what you have told me. Again, I know you want to get started, but I firmly believe you will be a much happier traveler getting into critical care first, and then embarking on a travel career.

If you still want a few travel company recommendations, feel free to email me at the address below. I do hope this helps with your decision.


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About the Author:

Hello everyone. I’m a travel nurse originally from Ohio who graduated in 1993 from Mount Carmel School of Nursing in Columbus. I completed a critical care fellowship at Riverside Methodist Hospital in 1994 and started traveling in that specialty a year later. My first travel assignment was in Maui and since that time I have completed close to 40 different contracts in various states with multiple travel companies. I am the author of Travel Nurse’s Bible (A Guide to Everything on Travel Nursing), in addition to my writings here and in the pages of Travel Nursing publications such as Healthcare Traveler Magazine and American Nurse Today. I am presently on assignment in Phoenix, AZ and travel anywhere from six to eleven months of the year.

3 Comments on "Ask a Travel Nurse: Will I be able to find an ICU job after traveling in med surg/tele?"

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  1. Hector says:

    Hi David, I had the same question as in this post, and am in the same situation as the person who posted this. I think what the poster was trying to ask is, is it possible to get a permanent job in ICU after traveling as a ms/tele nurse … not about getting an ICU travel assignment, which I think is what was really being asked (and you are right, he/she would not get an ICU travel assignment without first getting the experience iin a perm job role). I personally would like to get a permanent ER position after I travel as a ms/tele nurse, thinking my experience would be a plus to help me stand out from all other candidates. I even plan to complete an emergency department certificate program which includes two online courses and a live preceptorship in an ER. Please advise if my interpretation is corrent on the above and whether obtaining a permanent job in a new specialty is feasible after traveling in a different one. Thank you!

  2. David says:

    Hello Hector. Obtaining a permanent position in just about ANY specialty is possible, after travel or not, if the facility into which you hire, is willing to train you.

    When I graduated from nursing school, I went back to work at the nursing home where I was an aide, prior to entering nursing school. From there, I was accepted into a critical care fellowship and the hospital trained me for an entire six months (essentially, to be a critical care nurse).

    So, if a hospital is willing to train you, you can hire in at any position you like. The amount of experience you will already need to possess will depend on the particular facility. I know a few emergency departments that hire new grads.

    Will any other experience or specialty-specific academic courses above and beyond make you look better? Certainly. However, if an ER is only willing to hire those with previous ER experience, it wont matter how many years you have as a med-surg or tele nurse, or what courses you have taken.

    Long story short, it all depends on the particular facility and the experience level they are demanding at that particular time. But yes, what you describe is certainly possible.


  3. Margarita says:

    Hi David, I have a question for you. I have an opportunity to gain experience in ICU/PCU in Magnet hospital, but I would like to go to another country after that for 1-1.5 years, I would not work as a nurse there. So how possible is coming back once in two years to work for half a year on temporary contract? or the experience needs to be consistent?

    Thank you, Margarita

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