Both registered nurses (RNs) and physician assistants (PAs) work alongside doctors and play an important role in the healthcare industry. For prospective college students considering these two career paths, there is so much overlap that it might be unclear what the differences are. The preparation, professional philosophy, increase in job opportunities and wages differ between these two fields within the healthcare industry. Both paths have their advantages, but the benefits of opting for a nursing degree over a PA degree include having job opportunities with an undergraduate degree, focusing on patient care over diagnosis and treatment and enjoying more new job opportunities and a higher salary with a master’s degree.

Jobs With Bachelor’s Degree

Nurses have options when it comes to getting started in their career. Currently, a diploma program, associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree can all lead to a career as an RN, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Even as the pressure grows for RNs to have a baccalaureate degree, either when starting out their nursing career or within the first 10 years of licensure, an undergraduate degree is enough to prepare for this career.

Physician assistants have far fewer choices and more educational requirements. A master’s degree is typically required to begin working as a physician assistant, the BLS reported. On top of the four or more years aspiring physician assistants must spend earning their undergraduate degree, they will devote at least two more years of full-time study as part of an accredited master’s degree program in physician assistant studies.

To even get accepted into a PA program, candidates may also need work experience in a job that involves direct patient care, such as nursing assistant, nurse, paramedic or EMT, the BLS reported.

Emphasis on Patients, not Diseases

From a standpoint of professional perspective and philosophy, physician assistants have more in common with medical doctors than with nurses. A nurse’s primary job is to care for a patient, while a doctor or physician assistant’s job is to diagnose and treat medical conditions.

Neither philosophy is better than the other, but one of these perspectives may fit your personality and preferences more closely. Would you enjoy the challenging work of figuring out the possible causes of patients’ symptoms and then narrowing down those causes test by test to find the answer? Or are you more interested in caring for the patient directly, making him or her comfortable and coordinating his or her care with other providers involved in the medical episode? For the ideal candidates for the RN occupation, the emphasis of a nursing degree and career on patient-centered care is an important benefit of the career path.

Physician assistants in many states are qualified to do tasks that registered nurses are not, including diagnosing and treating medical conditions and prescribing medication. However, nurses that go to graduate school and become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) often can do those tasks.

More New Job Opportunities

The healthcare industry is seeing rapid job growth, and opportunities for both registered nurses and physician assistants are growing at much faster than average rates, according to the BLS. Based solely on these growth rates, it would seem that PAs have a far better job outlook. The BLS expects jobs for RNs to increase by 15 percent, while opportunities for PAs should rise by an astounding 37 percent.

However, nurses will still see far more new jobs than physician assistants will. Since only 106,200 PAs currently work in the United States, that massive percentage increase will translate to just 39,600 new jobs over a decade. Nursing, on the other hand, is a huge occupation. The smaller growth rate will still add 438,100 new opportunities to the existing 2,955,200 jobs for RNs.

Upwards of 60 percent of registered nurses work in hospitals, the BLS reported.

Higher Salary with a Master’s Degree

Registered nurses are not required to go to graduate school, but those who do can advance to a new job role as an APRN. Nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives are all types of APRNs. The median salary for APRNs is higher than that of PAs, though income potential fluctuates depending on the specialty in which the nurse practices.

Physician assistants earn a median wage of $104,860, while APRNs as a whole make a median salary of $104,860 per year. However, there is a wide salary range within this occupation. Nurse midwives make barely over $100,000, while the median wage for nurse anesthetists is $165,120, according to the BLS. Nurse practitioners, who account for most APRN jobs, earn a median wage just below that of a PA, at $103,880. When it comes to median salaries for the highest paying top employment industries, APRNs earn more – $117,850 working at hospitals – than PA, earning $114,780 in the employment services industry.

The median wage for registered nurses without an advanced degree or APRN certification is $70,000, the BLS reported.

Additional Resources

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