Nurse vs. OTA: Which Is the Right Career for You?

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OTA helping elderly woman with walker

If you’re comparing nursing vs. OTA as a potential career choice, then you probably have a desire to help people. You know you want to go into healthcare, but which is the better career to pursue: nursing or OTA? These two similar, yet very different, career paths will both have you making a difference in the lives of your patients.

What a Career in Nursing Looks Like

Registered Nurses (RNs) assess the condition of their patients with methods like taking vitals and administering physical exams, and later use that information to identify the patient’s needs. Once a medical plan has been established, RNs help to administer treatment and monitor progress.

Since the demand for care is widespread, nurses can work in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings such as hospitals, physician’s offices, schools, and homes.

The nursing profession is projected to add an additional 276,800 workers to its ranks by 2030. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this number is reflected in a 9% growth outlook for the profession. With this average growth, nursing is a steady career for the future.

What a Career in Occupational Therapy Looks Like

Occupational Therapy Assistants (OTAs) are responsible for aiding those facing injury, illness, or disabilities in their journey to recovery. In hopes to help clients regain independence, OTAs put treatment plans into action that are aimed to re-teach individuals how to perform daily tasks.

student helping elderly woman with stretch bands on her feet

Due to the variety of clientele that OTAs serve, there are job opportunities in many different environments such as hospitals, retirement communities, schools, and much more.

Employment of this profession is expected to grow by 34% by 2030, with an additional 16,800 workers being employed in that time frame. This projected growth is much faster than average, making a career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant a sound decision.

Similarities between Nurses and Occupational Therapy Assistants

Careers in nursing and occupational therapy are very similar in some ways, which might include their workplace environments, hours and the demand for their positions.

Both RNs and COTAs get to watch their patients improve first-hand.

Both nurses and certified OTAs implement treatment strategies that have been created by someone else. In nursing, doctors provide a diagnosis and prescribe medications and other treatments. In occupational therapy, the occupational therapist diagnoses the issue and develops an intervention plan (aka treatment plan). It is then up to the nurse and OTA to see these treatments through and work directly with each patient.

student sitting down with elderly woman

Both careers can have odd hours.

Neither profession, nursing or OTA, typically keep regular hours. Depending on the job environment you find yourself in, you could work long hours on weekends or evenings. You may end up with a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday schedule if you find work in a school system, but it’s more likely that you’ll end up in a hospital or home-care setting where you could be needed at all hours.

Both careers are in high demand.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted high growth and a high demand for both nursing and OTA professionals within the next 8 years. Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 9% and employment of certified OTAs is expected to grow by 34% by 2029. The career outlook for occupational therapy assistant is exceedingly positive. It is one of the professions listed among the fastest-growing occupations in the United States that require an associate’s degree.

Differences between Nurses and COTAs

Aside from their similarities, these two careers also have their differences. Some of the largest differentiating factors are degree requirements, certifications, and the impact they have on others.

You only need an associate’s degree for OTA.

You can become an RN with an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), however, more and more employers are looking for nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Many current ADN nurses are being asked by their employers to go back to school to earn their BSN.

As an occupational therapy assistant, you can enter the workforce with just an associate’s degree. This means less time in school, fewer student loans, and more people you could be helping sooner. St. Catherine University’s online OTA program could have you graduating with an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in just 16 months.

OTA school students in classroom studying together

Each profession has their own distinct licensing and certification process.

After graduating from either a nursing or OTA program, you will have to become a licensed professional. However, depending on which career path you chose, you’ll have a different process and organization to go through. Nurses take an exam called the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination) through the National Council of State Boards in Nursing (NCSBN). It is a complex exam designed to test what nurses know by asking harder and harder questions. Depending on how you answer, the test could have anywhere from 72 to 265 questions.

Occupational therapy assistants take the COTA© certification through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). The exam will have 200 questions. You can choose which questions to answer (leaving one blank won’t hurt your score), but you have to score 450 out of 600 to pass. To keep your certification, you’ll have to retake the exam every three years.

Nurses and OTAs have a different impact on others.

If you’re still stuck wondering if you should be a nurse or an occupational therapy assistant, this may be the deciding factor for you. Nurses focus on getting a patient healthy and well again, whereas OTAs focus on helping patients to be as independent as possible with their illness and/or disability using a holistic approach that is designed for each individual.

OT student with older man in kitchen helping crack an egg

For many patients who have suffered a stroke or muscular dystrophy, occupational therapy is very beneficial. They may never have the same physical abilities they used to have before their situation. For example, occupational therapy assistants help stroke victims find new ways of completing tasks, such as getting dressed or eating, by either moving a different way or using a new tool. These types of tasks are called “activities of daily living” (ADL) and include things we as people do every day, like bathing, cooking, writing, and typing on a keyboard.

Comparing Nursing vs. OTA

If you want to help people and make a difference in the lives around you, either career path is a good choice. Let’s recap the similarities and differences.


  1. Both professions work directly with patients.
  2. Both professions have odd hours.
  3. Both professions are in high demand.


  1. OTA requires less financial investment for this higher education degree.
  2. OTAs are certified by the NBCOT.
  3. OTAs help patients who can’t be helped by modern medicine.

When making the decision of becoming a nurse vs. OTA, you have to evaluate your lifestyle and career goals. What do you want to get out of your career and how much are you willing to invest to get there?

The choice is up to you and these questions can help you get clarity on which career choice is right for you. However, regardless of the decision you make, you can have the peace of mind knowing that both options can help you enter a valued and rewarding career.

Start Toward Your New Career

If you want to get started on your career path quickly and help those who have no one else they could turn to, St. Catherine’s online OTA program is the choice for you. Contact an admissions advisor today to learn how you can become an OTA in just 16 months.

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The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained