Physician Assistant vs. Doctor: Which Medical Pathway is Right for You?

A career in medicine is rewarding in many ways, but as you enter the journey toward becoming a medical professional, you need to choose the right career path. This starts with understanding your options. For many, it also means deciding between becoming a physician assistant vs doctor. What are the differences between these two fields, and how can you choose the right path for you? Here is a breakdown to help.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a medical professional trained to assess, diagnose, and care for patients. These professionals can treat illnesses and minor medical conditions under a doctor’s supervision. They can prescribe medicine and perform some medical procedures. Physician assistants can be trained in medical specialties, such as geriatric or pediatric care.

What Is a Doctor?

This question is a little easier to answer because chances are you’ve had experience with a doctor in the past. A medical doctor is a patient care expert. These professionals hold medical degrees and are credentialed to work independently if they wish. Doctors can order tests, perform medical procedures, diagnose illnesses, and provide prescriptions. They may also have specialty training in a specific field.

Differences Between Physician Assistant and Doctor

So, after reading those definitions, you may be thinking that these two professionals are the same. While they are quite similar, there are some key differences. These include:


The primary difference is the amount of education required to become a PA vs. an MD. Both professionals start with a bachelor’s degree, often in a pre-med or science field, but they take a different path in graduate school. Physician assistants will take a 27-month certification program followed by a year of medical rotations for clinical experience. It takes about seven years of education, without stopping, to become a physician assistant.

In contrast, medical doctors attend four years of medical school after graduation. This is followed by a residency in their specialty area, which can take three to seven years. It takes up to 15 years to complete all of the training for a license to practice medicine.

Roles and Duties

The roles and duties of a physician assistant vs doctor are quite similar, but there are some differences. Both of these professionals can diagnose, care for, and treat patients. They can also both prescribe medicine. However, PAs usually operate under the supervision of an MD, while MDs can practice independently. That said, in many practices, a PA will have a significant amount of autonomy, and they may treat patients without the doctor in the room. Also, some states allow PAs to practice independently but limit what procedures they can perform. When a patient presents with a complicated medical condition, the PA may need to defer to the MD, and PAs are not allowed to perform surgeries.


Salaries also vary between physician assistants and medical doctors. On average, a PA will earn around $121,00 a year, while an MD may earn over $180,000 a year. The higher income accounts for the higher level of training and specialty services performed by a medical doctor.


Another area of difference between these two professions is demand, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 2022 to 2032, the BLS estimates the demand for PAs to increase by 27%. In contrast, the expected job growth for physicians and surgeons is only projected to be around 3%. Since most patients can see a PA for their medical needs, and seeing a PA may cost less, the field with less training has a higher demand in the coming years.

Work Environment

For many doctors and physician assistants, the work environment is not different. They work in a clinical setting in an office and see patients during regular business hours. However, medical doctors are more likely to add hospital rotations or spend time on call. This can extend the hours outside of a typical eight-hour workday. It may require overnight or weekend shifts. However, if a doctor is in private practice, they may have more flexibility in choosing their shifts than one who is employed in a clinical or hospital setting.

Doctor or Physician Assistant – Which Is Right for You?

With these differences between physician assistant and doctor careers in mind, how can you choose the right career path for your needs? The answer depends on your goals.

First, evaluate how much time you want to spend in school before you start your career. Do you love school and want to learn all you can, or are you excited about starting your career and helping patients as quickly as possible? It takes more time to become a doctor than a physician assistant. You could also start as a PA, then continue your education to eventually become an MD if you want to launch your career more quickly without closing the door to additional education.

Next, consider whether you want to work independently or alongside others. This is a highly personal decision, and it will depend on your personality and character traits. If you value working independently, then you will want to consider a medical license. If you love working alongside other medical professionals, either career path will work for you.

Third, consider the importance of prestige and salary. While both career paths are respected and well-paying, a medical doctor carries a little bit more potential in this area. If these are less important to you, then you can make a good income as a physician assistant with less time spent in school.

Finally, consider the type of flexibility and work/life balance you want. You may have more flexibility as an independent practitioner, which requires a medical license, than a physician assistant, which requires you to work alongside a doctor in most states. Again, this is a personal choice.

Get Career Guidance to Make the Right Choice

Weighing the pros and cons of a doctor or physician assistant career isn’t easy, but Advanced eClinical Training can help. At Advanced eClinical Training, we provide resources like certifications for Pre-Med students and Pre-PA students to bolster your school application.

Our Mentorship Programs connect you with Pre-Med student advisors and Pre-PA student mentors, licensed medical professionals who can answer your burning questions. This mentorship is an invaluable step in determining which medical career aligns with your ambitions and passion for patient care.

Whether you’re set on becoming a physician or see yourself thriving as a physician assistant, our programs are designed to prepare you for a fulfilling medical career. By equipping you with the necessary knowledge and skills, we help ensure that you’re not just ready for the next step but that you’re also a standout candidate. Enroll now and begin your journey to a rewarding career in medicine with the guidance and support of our expert team.


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