If you’re exploring your options for physician assistant degree programs, you probably have questions about whether these programs are the same as medical school and what to expect from your PA education. Like doctors, physician assistants are clinical practitioners of medicine, and they need an advanced education to prepare them for the challenges of this work. However, physician assistant is a distinct career path from physician, and PAs have their own education and training programs unique to their occupation.
Does a Physician Assistant Go to Medical School?
Prospective PAs often ask, “Do physician assistants go to med school?” It’s a reasonable question to ask. After all, PAs have to learn the basic science underlying medical diagnoses and interventions, as well as train for and develop the skills for clinical practice – just as doctors do.
The answer to this question depends partially on what specifically you mean by “medical school.” Medical schools and schools of health sciences that offer Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degrees for physicians may also offer PA programs. In this sense, a PA may technically graduate from a “medical school,” but they are still earning a master’s in physician assistant degree. Similarly, medical schools and schools of health sciences may offer doctoral degrees in psychology and master’s degrees in public health administration, biomedical sciences, behavior analysis, mental health counseling and other subjects related to medicine.
However, if you’re using the term “medical school” to refer to an MD or DO program that prepares you for a career as a medical doctor – as people most often do – then you would be mistaken in thinking that a PA is completing the same program as a physician. PAs and doctors go through separate programs of study to prepare for their careers. A medical school curriculum typically refers to the coursework and clinical training required to earn the MD or DO degree. Even though there is a good deal of overlap between the curriculum of a physician assistant program and medical school, there are also significant differences.
Medical school and PA school aren’t interchangeable. A graduate from a PA program isn’t qualified to become a medical doctor, and graduating from medical school does not make you eligible to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which you must pass in order to become licensed in the United States. Only graduating from an accredited physician assistant program will qualify you to take this exam, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
If a practicing PA decides they want to become a doctor, they have to go back to school to accomplish this. However, some medical schools now offer accelerated MD or DO programs for students who have already completed a physician assistant degree, The Houston Chronicle reported. Students in these programs still have to spend three more years in school but don’t have to start from scratch.
PA School vs. Med School
On a day-to-day basis, physicians and physician assistants perform many of the same duties in clinical practice. Physician assistants aren’t the same as medical assistants, who may perform administrative tasks alongside more basic clinical tasks, such as taking patients’ vital signs. PAs are licensed medical practitioners, and although they work under the supervision of doctors, they are qualified to order tests, formulate diagnoses and administer treatments.
Still, there are significant differences in the overall responsibilities that doctors and physician assistants have, as well as the level and degree of expertise needed to work in these occupations. The two biggest differences between physician assistant school and medical school include the level of degree required and the curriculum of lecture and laboratory coursework and clinical experience.
A Different Level of Degree for PA vs. Medical School
One of the primary differences between physician assistants and doctors is the level of education and training required to work in these occupations.
To become a fully qualified medical doctor or physician, you need to complete a doctoral degree in medicine. For physicians, either an MD (a traditional allopathic degree) or a DO (a more holistic osteopathic degree) will do, and either educational path prepares the student for licensure after they pass the USMLE or COMLEX-USA licensing exams.
Physician assistants, on the other hand, don’t need a doctorate at all. Instead, they typically pursue a master’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Ambitious PAs sometimes choose to go back to school to earn their Doctorate of Physician Assistant or Doctor of Medical Science degree, but doing so isn’t necessary for most physician assistant careers. Instead of conferring the status of medical doctor, doctoral physician assistant programs prepare you for PA leadership roles such as senior PA, lead PA for an ambulatory practice group, chief PA for a hospital department, medical science liaison or C-suite executive. A doctorate in physician assistant studies may also prepare you to work in non-clinical roles in research and academia.
Comparing Master’s and Doctorates in Medicine
Generally, a doctorate degree program requires more advanced, extensive and lengthy study than a master’s degree program. Schooling for PAs is considerably shorter than for doctors. Earning your master’s degree in physician assistant studies can take two years or three years, while students pursuing their MD or DO will spend four years on their graduate education. Although the difference of only one or two years may seem small over the course of a lifelong career, consider that students of both PA programs and medical school programs have already spent four or more years pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
This difference in the time it takes to earn a PA degree vs. a medical school degree is further highlighted by the amount of post-graduate training required for the career. Once PAs graduate with their master’s degree and pass the PANCE licensing exam, they can acquire a license to practice medicine and begin to work as a fully qualified physician assistant. PAs don’t undergo internship and residency training that new doctors must complete, which can last between three and seven years, according to the BLS.
The Cost of Education and Training for PAs vs. Doctors
There’s also a substantial cost difference between master’s in physician assistant programs and MD and DO programs. The $70,000 to $90,000 average cost of a physician assistant program may not seem like a bargain – until you compare it to the $200,000 to $300,000 average cost of medical school, according to BeMo Academic Consulting. The sheer length of the degree program isn’t enough to fully explain the massive difference in the cost of these two educational paths.
Although doctors make considerably more than PAs, medical students often have to take on hundreds of thousands of debt, and they don’t earn full doctor pay during their residency years. Even though MD and DO graduates who pass their licensing exams are officially considered doctors, first-year residents earned an average salary of just $60,000 as of 2018, the American Medical Association reported – but they work up to 80 hours weekly. In comparison, the national average salary for entry-level PAs in the United States was $101,664 as of 2021, according to Salary.com.
The NCCPA reported that the median number of hours worked by all Certified PAs was around 40, and even in medical specialties known for having long hours, like cardiothoracic and vascular surgery, the median number of weekly work hours was 48.
Similarities and Differences Between Programs for Doctors and Physician Assistants
When physician assistants practice medicine, they perform many of the same job duties and procedures that a full-fledged physician would do. To acquire the skills to perform these tasks, aspiring PAs study some of the same subjects in their master’s degree program as medical school students complete while going for their MD or DO degree. PAs have to start with the basics, like graduate-level courses in anatomy and physiology. These introductory classes may have a lot in common with the foundational coursework a student pursuing a medical doctorate would complete.
However, the courses in a PA program may not be as comprehensive or go into the same depth of knowledge that you would find in medical school. A doctoral degree is a more advanced level of education than a master’s degree, and so the coursework required to earn a medical degree is going to be more advanced than that required for a master’s degree in physician assisting. This general principle holds true even as PA students get deeper into their programs, taking classes such as evidence-based medicine, physical diagnosis, pharmacology and professional practice.
Students in both PA programs and medical doctorate programs also complete both courses and clinical experiences in a variety of medical specialties. In both types of programs, classroom learning is a bigger part of the earlier half of your studies, and clinical rotations make up the bulk of your education and training later on in your curriculum. Because a PA program is shorter in duration, this may mean that physician assistants are typically going out into the healthcare world and gaining real-life clinical experience in their second year, while their peers in an MD or DO program are still largely confined to the classroom.
Clinical rotations for both physician assistant students and medical students usually encompass a variety of medical specialties, including family medicine, inpatient internal medicine, ambulatory medicine, orthopedics, surgery, emergency medicine, behavioral medicine, women’s health and pediatrics.
Both the didactic and clinical portions of an educational program for PAs and physicians are challenging in different ways.
Choosing PA vs. Med School
If you’re still wondering whether physician assistant or doctor is the right path for you, there’s a lot to think about. Either way, you need to invest in an advanced education and to have a passion for treating and caring for patients in clinical practice. Being a doctor confers more responsibility and comes with a higher earning potential, but this profession comes with a much bigger investment of time and money. Physician assistants can prepare for their career more quickly and will less expense, but throughout the course of their careers, they will generally have to work under the supervision of a licensed physician. However, PAs often have less of the non-clinical responsibilities that can distract medical practitioners from the part of the job they really enjoy.
If you decide to pursue a master’s in physician assistant studies, there’s a lot you should do in preparation. For one thing, you’re going to need to complete standardized admissions testing to get accepted into your intended degree program. Depending on which physician assistant school you choose to apply to, you may need to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test or the Physician Assistant College Admission Test (PA-CAT), which was first launched in 2020.
The GRE, which is used for graduate school admission to programs in a variety of subject areas, covers general content related to quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning and analytical writing. Like the MCAT (the Medical College Admission Test), which aspiring doctors take to get into medical school, the PA-CAT is a test with more specialized content. The questions you would encounter on the PA-CAT would cover topics in general biology, biochemistry, microbiology, genetics, anatomy, physiology, general and organic chemistry, behavioral sciences and statistics.
It’s also a good idea to research the top physician assistant schools. Although attending any accredited master’s degree program in physician assistant studies is sufficient to put you on the path to PA licensure, some schools may be a better choice than others – or simply a better fit for you. Some factors to consider when choosing a master’s in PA studies program include affordability and pass rates on the PANCE licensing test.
Whether you choose to be a PA or a physician, you will be working with healthcare practitioners in both roles. Physician assistants work under the supervision of a doctor and collaborate with doctors on a patient’s healthcare team. Doctors frequently work with PAs even if they aren’t personally responsible for supervising them, since the demand for healthcare services is too high for doctors alone to fill this need.