ADN vs. BSN: Differences and Which Degree Is Right for You

Updated June 30, 2023

Nursing is an engaging career for people who are passionate about helping others. If you're interested in becoming a nurse, there are several educational paths you can consider. Knowing common degrees that can prepare you for this career, such as an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN), can help you make an informed decision about your education.

In this article, we compare ADN and BSN degrees and explain how to decide between them, list eight jobs you can get with either degree and share nursing specialties you might want to pursue.

Key takeaways:

  • An associate degree in nursing, or ADN, typically takes two or more years to complete and a Bachelor of Science in nursing, BSN, often takes four or more years to complete.

  • ADN programs tend to focus primarily on hands-on skills, while BSN programs teach students more in-depth theory in addition to hands-on skills.

  • You can become a registered nurse with either an ADN or a BSN degree and both can successfully prepare you for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).

What is an ADN?

An ADN, or associate degree in nursing, provides you with a complete understanding of the basics of health care and nursing. The ADN program includes:

  • Clinical hours

  • Coursework like anatomy and physiology, biology 

  • Related general education classes like psychology and statistics

  • A focus on foundational nursing skills

You may earn an ADN in as little as two years. Upon graduation, the next step is to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). You can then apply for a registered nurse (RN) position or continue your education.

Related: What Can You Do With an Associate Degree in Nursing?

What is a BSN?

A BSN, or Bachelor of Science in Nursing, also provides a reputable educational background for your career as a healthcare professional. It includes:

  • Clinical hours 

  • Similar coursework to the ADN degree

  • An emphasis on theory and evidence-based practice

A BSN degree usually takes about four years to complete. With a passing score on the NCLEX, you can immediately begin a career as an RN or continue your education by pursuing a higher degree.

Read more: BSN Degree: Definition and Program Types


Registered nurses can enter the field with either an ADN or BSN degree. Here are a few differences that may help you distinguish between the two:

Educational focus

In both ADN and BSN programs, student nurses spend ample hours practicing taking care of patients. This can take place in the on-campus simulation lab or an actual clinical setting. Here are some differences between the educational opportunities that may be available for each degree type:

  • BSN: BSN nursing students spend a time focusing on nursing theory, clinical practice, health policy and population health. Many BSN programs have high-tech equipment in their simulation labs that allow student nurses to develop skills like decision-making and critical thinking in a controlled setting.

  • ADN: In an ADN program, there's more emphasis on developing hands-on nursing skills needed to perform patient care. An ADN program may integrate concepts around evidence-based practice and broad public policy into a course curriculum rather than holding a course with other of those specific areas of focus.

Related: Learn About Being a Registered Nurse (RN)

Career and workplace options

Nurses with ADN and BSN degrees both work primarily in hospitals, outpatient centers and home health settings. Other typical workplace opportunities may include:

  • BSN: Nurses with a BSN are may also work as school nurses, case managers or educators in a nursing education program. 

  • ADN: Nurses with an ADN degree may also work for retirement communities, assisted living facilities and outpatient clinics.

Related: 5 Types of Work Environments (And How To Find the One for You)

Years to complete

It takes an additional two years to complete a BSN degree. This type of program includes specialized coursework in subjects like policy and global healthcare trends. This means that an ADN may be the right choice for individuals who want to begin their careers quickly. 

Related: How To Become a Registered Nurse: A Complete Guide

NCLEX pass rates

Both BSN and ADN degree-holders take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to earn the right to work as an entry-level nurse. Those who earn a BSN degree may be more likely to pass this exam on their first try than ADN students. One reason for this may be because the preparation that BSN students receive during their more intensive program better prepares them for the exam. 

Related: 12 NCLEX Tips To Help You Earn Your Nursing License


While registered nurses with either an ADN or BSN may have similar starting salaries, the potential for advancement and higher pay is greater for those with a BSN. The average salary for a registered nurse with little experience is $90,795 per year. An RN with more than 10 years of experience may earn more. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the need for registered nurses may grow by 9% by 2030. There may be greater demand for RNs with either an ADN or BSN, due to increased preventive care, chronic conditions and an aging population.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

Related: How Much Do Nurses Make?

Deciding between an ADN and a BSN

If you're in the beginning stages of determining which career you should choose, try performing a job search for available nursing positions in your area. Read the job descriptions of those that seem interesting and pay attention to the required qualifications, skills, experience level and salary. Ultimately, whether you choose to pursue an ADN or BSN may depend upon your specific career path and goals. Here's a useful way to make the determination:

  • If you want to start working as a nurse right away and spend less time and money on schooling, an ADN degree may be the right choice. 

  • If your goal is to advance your nursing career in the long term, including becoming a unit leader or nurse educator, a BSN degree may be the best option.

If you earn an ADN and later decide you want to work in a leadership role, you can still obtain your BSN. A BSN candidate who already has an ADN can earn their bachelor's degree in as little as two years.

Related: RN vs. BSN: Differences, Careers and Pros and Cons

Potential jobs for those with ADN or BSN degrees

After you complete an ADN or BSN program and obtain your nursing license, you become a registered nurse. There are many specific jobs that RNs may consider, including the following. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, visit

1. Nurse case manager

National average salary: $81,655 per year

Primary duties: Nurse case managers coordinate care for patients in the inpatient setting and other healthcare facilities. They educate patients and families about complex issues like insurance and arranging home care equipment. Nurse case managers can work in the acute care or long-term care setting. 

2. Nurse manager

National average salary: $85,866 per year

Primary duties: This role involves supervising staff and making sure they follow policies and regulations so patients receive the best possible care. Generally, they recruit, train and manage staff rather than working directly with patients. They may also be responsible for finance and budgeting.

Read more: Learn About Being a Nurse Manager

3. Charge nurse

National average salary: $88,878 per year

Primary duties: A charge nurse oversees staff in a nursing unit and makes sure nurses can provide quality care to their patients. One way of doing this is by making safe nursing assignments for the oncoming shift. The charge nurse manages patient admissions and transfers, working with providers to decide which patients are safe to come and go from the unit.

Read more: Learn About Being a Charge Nurse

4. Clinical informaticist

National average salary: $90,052 per year

Primary duties: Clinical informaticists work with technology and computer systems to implement and improve data, communications and functionality of systems within a variety of health care settings. Typically, a clinical informaticist may focus on building storage systems and interfaces. They may also perform data entry and troubleshoot software or hardware issues.

Read more: Learn About Being a Nurse Informaticist

5. Pain management nurse

National average salary: $111,301 per year

Primary duties: Pain management nurses help acute and chronically ill patients manage their pain. They're experts in a range of pain relief techniques, including medications, massage and therapeutic touch and stress relief through relaxing activities. In the acute care setting, pain management nurses can troubleshoot pain management plans for patients who've had major surgery and require pain relief.

6. Telemetry nurse

National average salary: $125,098 per year

Primary duties: Telemetry nurses take care of patients in the hospital who need to be on a monitor to watch their heart rhythm. These nurses receive special training in analyzing heart rhythms and responding when a patient experiences a dangerous rhythm. These nurses may collaborate with cardiologists to create and follow health plans for patients with heart conditions. 

7. Critical care and ICU nurse

National average salary: $129,468 per year

Primary duties: Critical care nurses provide advanced therapies and close monitoring to patients in the intensive care unit (ICU). It's common for critical care nurses to assist surgeons with bedside procedures, like placing drains or even emergency surgery. These highly skilled nurses are accountable for noticing the slightest change in a patient's status and acting quickly in response to their findings. 

8. Psychiatric nurse

National average salary: $142,388 per year

Primary duties: Psychiatric nurses provide care to mental health patients. They may work with other nursing staff and medical teams to assess and treat patients experiencing mental health conditions. They may also communicate patient needs or desires to families and visitors.

Nursing specialties to pursue with an ADN or BSN

A nursing specialty is a field of nursing that focuses on either a particular patient population — such as pediatrics or geriatrics — or a specific health condition, such as orthopedic surgery or cancer. Many nurses work as RNs in a generalized setting first, and then, as they gain experience, they can choose to pursue a certification in a specialty. There are numerous certifications available from accredited professional bodies.

Some specialties include:

  • Cardiac care nurse

  • Community nurse

  • Dialysis nurse

  • ER nurse

  • Home health nurse

  • Hospice nurse

  • Medical-surgical nurse

  • Neonatal nurse

  • Nurse manager

  • Pediatric nurse

  • Public health nurse

  • School nurse

  • Travel nurse

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