Registered Nurse: The Differences Between an ADN and BSN Degree

RN interacting with patient

A career in nursing is a rewarding and impactful choice, and a vocation that requires both medical acumen and empathy. Registered nurses can be found in every type of medical setting, from hospitals and assisted living residences to outpatient facilities and physician’s offices. RNs also often work in schools or in home healthcare.

The field of focus for placements can be anything from primary to acute care. In short: your opportunities for a career in nursing are diverse and manifold. No matter where you choose to practice, there are certain duties all RNs are expected to be able to perform. They include:

  • Performing physical exams
  • Delivering direct care and medications
  • Implementation of physician orders
  • Patient education and counsel
  • Emotional support
  • Supervising assistants, LPNs, and nursing aides
  • Medical record maintenance
  • Developing nursing care plans
  • Ensuring room prep and decontamination

Overall, a nurse’s role is equal parts tactical, supervisory, and compassionate. An exceptional RN balances these functions seamlessly and expertly. But before you can practice, you’ll need to earn a degree and nursing license. And before you decide your course of entry into a career as an RN, it’s important to understand the two primary types of RN degrees: an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Both types of RNs must pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam) in order to legally practice nursing.

So what’s the actual difference between the two types of nurses in terms of educational requirements, professional responsibilities, and employment opportunities? Here’s a quick rundown of each:

ADN Nurse

An RN with an associate degree (ADN) is qualified to practice in many of the same ways as a BSN nurse, and in the same types of facilities. An ADN degree typically takes two years, with similar clinical training to that of a BSN student.

  • Two-year degree
  • Community college or vocational school
  • Comparable duties to BSN

ADN nurses often opt to return to school for an additional two years to get an RN-BSN degree. Many schools offer working ADN nurses flexible study options, and even online RN-BSN programs, to accommodate schedules.

The key difference in training is that an ADN course of study stops short of the additional skills taught in a BSN four-year program. An RN-BSN includes coursework in evidence-based practice (research), leadership, and community and public-health nursing, aligned with AACN (American Association of Colleges of Nursing) BSN essentials.  

An ADN RN degree also may not be as competitive for a job opening as a BSN – often preferred by employers.

BSN Nurse

Unlike an RN with an associate’s degree, an RN with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing studies for four years, or adds an additional two years to an already completed ADN.

  • Four-year degree (or about two if starting from an ADN degree)
  • University or nursing school
  • Typical advantage in employment opportunity

A BSN degree expands on the primary nursing and clinical skills taught through an ADN program. These additional skills may include technology as it relates to care, research, and safety measures in healthcare. As a Bachelor of Science Nurse, you may have additional opportunities in management.

If you’re a practicing RN already and would like to advance your nursing education even further with a graduate-level degree, you may pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), picking up from your existing degree, through an MSN program. From there you can take your degree even further, to a post-graduate nursing degree.

To learn more about nursing degree programs and the nursing profession, keep reading our WCU blog.

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.