Physician Assistant FAQs

How would you describe Physician Assistant (PA) education?

Most Physician Assistant programs enable the student to earn a master’s degree, with the average program lasting 27 months. The classroom, laboratory study and clinical practice that PA students complete trains them according to the medical model used by physicians and results in the PA being a generalist. PA programs are now as competitive, if not more competitive, than MD programs. For example, at the national level, for every three applicants (via the centralized PA application service), there was only one seat available in PA programs.

How do I decide between a career as a Physician Assistant and Nurse Practitioner?

Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioner careers are more similar than they are different.

  • Both PAs and NPs have short, intensive training programs.
  • Both are required to accumulate numerous clinical hours prior to their training program.
  • Both can prescribe medications and practice medicine in all 50 states.
  • Both PAs and NPs make a similar salary and have similar employment opportunities.
So what are some of the differences between PA and NP?
  • Training model: Physician Assistants are trained with the medical model, similar to medical school with basic sciences and then clinical rotations where disease is discussed in the context of pathophysiology. Nurse Practitioner training follows the nursing model, which concentrates on skills and individual cases.
  • Autonomy: Physician Assistants are required to have a relationship with a supervising physician. The degree of supervision involved in this relationship varies greatly from monthly case discussions and chart review, to direct supervision. Nurse Practitioners are not supervised and can establish their own independent practices.
  • Clinical focus: Physician Assistants are trained to be generalists. While they can specialize in varying fields, they are also required to maintain their general knowledge and use it to enhance patient care. This makes it much easier for Physician Assistants to change specialties. Nurse Practitioners are certified in a particular field, and must limit their practice to that particular field.
  • Prior clinical experience: Nurse Practitioners all have previous clinical experience as RNs and BSNs, however Physician Assistants may have clinical experience in a wide variety of roles including EMT, CNA, medical assistant and others, prior to applying to PA school.
Where can I get more information?
  • AAPA – American Academy of PAs
  • CASPA - Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants
  • NCCPA - National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants