Career OptionsOTA ExplainedOTA Field

Nursing or OTA: Which Is the Right Career for You?

If you are asking yourself whether nursing or OTA is right for you, then you probably have a desire to help people. You know you want to go into healthcare, but which is the right career: nursing or OTA? These two similar, yet very different, career paths will have you making a difference in your patients’ lives.

Nursing or OTA

Similarities between Nurses and Occupational Therapy Assistants

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.

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 10 years. Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 7 percent and employment of certified OTAs is expected to grow by 32 percent by 2029. The career outlook for occupational therapy assistant is great. 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

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.

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.

Key Difference between Nursing and OTA

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 cope with their illness and/or disability.

For many patients who have suffered a stroke or muscular dystrophy, occupational therapy is their last hope. They will never have the same physical abilities they used to have before their situation, so there isn’t much that a nurse could do for these patients. 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.

So, Nursing or 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 of an investment in higher education.
  2. OTAs are certified by the NBCOT.
  3. OTAs help patients who can’t be helped by modern medicine.

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.

Get Started Today

*Lab Travel will be required for 6 weekends throughout the course of one year, you are not required to reside in this state.

By requesting information, I consent to be contacted by St. Catherine University through my email, phone, and text using automated technology regarding enrollment.