Career Options for Nurses with an Associate’s Degree
As a registered nurse with an ADN, you can work in many healthcare settings and pursue your passion with a specialty.
If you’re pursuing an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), you’re probably thinking about all of the coursework ahead. But the most exciting part might actually be deciding what kind of registered Nurse (RN) you’ll want to be and where you’ll want to work. You can expect many choices.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RN jobs are expected to grow by 12% through 2028, a much higher rate than the average for most other jobs.
Further, according to Joseph Dunmire, a board member of the National Association of Healthcare Recruitment, the U.S. will face a nursing shortage of nearly 1 million by 2024—from entry-level positions suitable for newly-minted grads to senior nursing jobs usually held by highly experienced and skilled specialists.
What Kind of Work Can a Nurse with an ADN Do?
According to the American Nursing Association, RNs are the backbone of healthcare. In virtually every healthcare setting, a nurse is present.
Nurses with ADNs and BSNs both qualify to be RNs, and they do similar work when they start their careers.
“Actually, ADNs are just as likely to work in the same medical settings as BSN-educated RNs,” Dunmire says. “Primarily, if not almost exclusively, new BSNs and ADNs both work in less intense areas” of healthcare, such as “medical, surgical, rehab, orthopedics, or psych/behavioral health.”
RNs with ADNs handle a wide range of basic tasks, such as taking health histories, giving medication, ordering tests, providing instructions to patients, and assisting doctors with patient exams.
And while hospitals may prefer RNs with BSNs, they will be hiring nurses with ADNs as well to fill many roles, Dunmire says.
New RNs with ADNs are generalists and handle a wide range of basic but critical tasks, such as taking health histories, giving medication, ordering tests, providing instructions to patients, helping patients prepare for procedures, and assisting doctors with patient exams.
With some experience, they may also become specialists in key health areas like women’s health, pediatrics and gerontology. They may also supervise less skilled nursing workers, including certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs).
Typical Career Paths and Workplaces
There are a wide variety of jobs and workplaces for nurses with ADNs. Here’s a sampling.
- Who this job is best for: Those who crave new places and new faces, like to travel, and prefer the variety of short-term assignments in different locations
- What you’ll do: Work wherever assigned as a staff nurse or specialty nurse to help cover during staff shortages, peak needs, crises, or emergency events
- Where you’ll work: Hospitals, regional medical centers, long-term care facilities, and rural medical clinics
Community Health Nurse
- Who this job is best for: Nurses with a strong desire to give back to the community and meet the needs of underserved populations
- What you’ll do: Work with an entire community or individuals—from infants to seniors—to provide health education, basic care, inoculations, nutrition counseling, and other services
- Where you’ll work: Public health centers, campus clinics, neighborhood outreach programs, and volunteer organizations
- Who this job is best for: Unflappable, empathetic nurses who are situationally aware and have strong problem-solving skills
- What you’ll do: Care for patients of all ages with a range of conditions—from mild panic attacks to severe incapacitation
- Where you’ll work: Hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, psychiatric clinics, and private practice
Long-Term Care RN
- Who this job is best for: Those who are good at multi-tasking and prefer established routines
- What you’ll do: Provide care for patients of all ages who are living with serious conditions, recovering from major surgery, and fighting major illnesses like pneumonia
- Where you’ll work: Nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- Who this job is best for: Flexible nurses open to rotating assignments in different hospital units
- What you’ll do: Care for medical or surgical patients who are stable but recovering from serious surgeries or illnesses
- Where you’ll work: Hospitals, urgent care clinics, emergency rooms, student clinics
Home Health Nurse
- Who this job is best for: Outgoing, engaging nurses who are comfortable in a variety of settings
- What you’ll do: Provide a range of medical care services and assistance with medications for people recovering from illness or surgery at home, or living with disabilities or limitations
- Where you’ll work: At the patient’s home
Occupational Health Nurse
- Who this job is best for: Nurses who want to educate and help other workers stay safe
- What you’ll do: Counsel employees on health and wellness, design disease-prevention programs, and ensure compliance with government regulations for workplace safety
- Where you’ll work: Various workplaces, including manufacturing and production centers, government offices, and hospitals
- Who this job is best for: Nurses with an interest in physiology, physical therapy, and sports medicine
- What you’ll do: Care for patients working to regain motion after serious injuries, illnesses, or medical conditions, or who need to learn new movements after elective surgical procedures
- Where you’ll work: Occupational recovery clinics, physical therapy clinics, hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, and large health organizations
Outpatient Care Nurse
- Who this job is best for: RNs comfortable with a range of tasks, from admitting new patients to assisting in surgery and monitoring patients in post-op recovery
- What you’ll do: Care for patients who undergo outpatient diagnostic procedures and surgeries
- Where you’ll work: Ambulatory surgical centers, orthopedic clinics, hospitals, diagnostic centers, and large health networks
- Who this job is best for: Nurses with a large dose of empathy, a generous heart, and deep respect for the end-of-life journey
- What you’ll do: Provide comfort and care to patients and their families through the final months and days
- Where you’ll work: Hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes
How Do RNs Compare to Other Entry-Level Nursing Careers?
What Can I Expect to Earn?
The average salary for an RN in 2019 was $77,460, according to the BLS. But salaries vary widely nationally and depend on many factors, including your education, experience, where you live, where you work, and the position you hold. For example, the BLS says RNs working in outpatient care facilities earned an average of $84,720, while nurses in skilled nursing homes earned an average of $69,740.
How Can I Advance My Career?
In addition to gaining clinical experience, you can advance your career by specializing with a certification or earning a BSN.
“ADN programs generally focus more on nursing fundamentals and clinical skills, whereas BSN programs focus on the clinical skills plus education related to evidenced-based research, leadership, and management,” Dunmire says. “Ultimately, an RN with a BSN has more opportunities to advance in clinical leadership and by pursuing more diversified career opportunities in areas such as management, administration, research, and informatics.”
He says many nursing students “find beginning with the ADN more financially feasible, as ADNs are usually secured through the community college system, which is much more affordable than the university system. From there, an ADN can secure initial employment while pursuing a BSN via online education.”
Specializations for RNs with an ADN
Specialty certification can be valuable in terms of career advancement and potential income, and it can make you more attractive when applying for a job in the field you’d like to pursue. While you can focus on a specialty when you start your career, you’ll need experience before you can pursue certification.
Generally, you’ll be required to hold an RN license and have a certain number of clinical hours and continuing education credits related to your specialty.
If you’d like to specialize in a particular area, there are a number of certifications that a nurse with an ADN can pursue. You can become board certified in fields such as pediatrics, acute care, oncology, critical care, trauma, flight nursing—and many more—after you’ve worked a period of time.
Specialty certification can be valuable in terms of career advancement and potential income, and it can make you more attractive when applying for the job of your dreams.
For example, according to the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), to qualify to take the exam to become board certified in medical-surgical nursing (RN-BC), you’d need:
You might have a lot of decisions and choices ahead, but remember: No matter which path you choose, there will be jobs to pursue.