The top-ranked physician assistant degree programs are popular with graduate students who want to work in the field of healthcare. There are crucial differences between physicians (MDs, with a Doctor of Medicine degree, and DOs, with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree) and physician assistants (PAs). Although physician assistants aren’t qualified as doctors, there are a lot of benefits to choosing a PA path over that of an MD or a DO. You might decide to become a physician assistant instead of a physician because you can get into the occupation faster and with less expense and achieve a better work-life balance without missing out on the job satisfaction of helping patients.
Earlier Entry Into the Career
The level of education required to become a PA is considerably different from that needed to be a physician. A master’s degree is the typical level of education required for entry-level roles as a PA, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Around 50 percent of physician assistants have a master’s degree as their highest level of education, O*NET reported. These programs usually take a minimum of two years of study to complete, the BLS reported. Physicians, on the other hand, must earn a doctorate degree in medicine, which requires four years of study.
A couple of additional years of study may seem like a worthwhile tradeoff to officially be called “doctor,” but prospective students should know that it’s not only two more years of school. Once a PA graduates from school, they are ready to take the certification exam, acquire a professional license and start practicing in their field. Doctors, on the other hand, need to complete on-the-job training, in the form of a residency, that can last anywhere from three to seven years, according to the BLS. Although this training is paid, the salary for residents is nowhere near what they expect to make after residency.
Getting into the workforce earlier, and at full capacity, means earning more money early on in your career. Besides starting earning two years earlier, PAs make more money than medical residents, who in their first year earn an average salary of around $60,000 but work up to 80 hours per week.
Cheaper Cost of Career Preparation
Another consequence of finishing your education two years earlier than you otherwise would have is saving money. Naturally, paying for just two years of school instead of four cuts your cost of college in half. However, the difference is even larger than that. A physician assistant program costs, on average, one-third to one-fourth of the cost of medical school, with a price tag of $70,000 to $90,000 and $200,000 to $300,000, respectively, according to BeMo Academic Consulting. Starting off your career with less debt puts you in a better position financially than many new medical school graduates.
The high costs of medical school begin piling up even before you’ve been accepted into a program. You can expect to spend $5,000 to $10,000, on average, just to apply for medical school, according to CNBC.
Better Work-Life Balance
Neither physician nor physician assistant is an “easy” job. Both careers can be physically and emotionally demanding, especially if you work in a specialty – such as emergency medicine, trauma, infectious disease, or oncology – where you are often unable to save patients. However, when it comes to work-life balance, physician assistants tend to do much better than physicians with reconciling their professional duties with their life outside of work. As a result, physician assistants, along with nurse practitioners, report higher rates of job satisfaction than doctors do and are less prone to suffering from burnout.
Full-time physician assistants usually work 40 hours per week, according to the Mayo Clinic. On the other hand, most doctors work between 40 and 60 hours each week, and almost one-quarter of doctors work 61 to 80 hours per week, according to the American Medical Association. One reason for this is because doctors are the ones with the primary responsibility for a patient, so they’re more likely to be called in for an emergency than a PA is.
However, it’s important for aspiring PAs to have realistic expectations. Some physician assistants do work longer hours, and many work evenings, weekends and holidays. Your work environment has a big impact on your work schedule. PAs who work in hospitals are much more likely to work overnight shifts and holidays than those who work in a doctor’s office that observes regular business hours.
Because physician assistants still work in clinical practice providing direct care to patients, they enjoy many of the most fulfilling aspects of a career practicing medicine. Although they can’t practice independently, most PAs don’t feel that they are missing out on anything by not earning an MD.