Doctor vs. Physician Assistant

People often confuse physicians and physician assistants. Here are the key differences between a medical doctor and a physician assistant. If you’re considering a career in either field, this information will hopefully help you make the right decision for you.


One of the biggest differences between medical doctors and PAs is the amount of education required. In addition to their undergraduate degree, doctors must complete four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency. In other words, doctors complete seven to 11 additional years of schooling.

Physician assistants just need to complete a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. This can usually be accomplished in five to seven years. The shorter time period may be enticing to people who are looking to spend less time in the classroom and more time treating patients.

Another difference in education is the test that practitioners must pass. Physician assistants take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to become a certified PA, while medical doctors take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

Job Duties and Responsibilities

Doctors are able to take on more responsibility than PAs. While a physician assistant must always work under the supervision of a doctor, MDs can work independently and even open their own practice.

Physician assistants do share a lot of the same duties as doctors, such as diagnosing and treating patients in a primary care setting. PAs can even assist in surgery, but only a doctor can perform a surgical procedure.

Doctors Physician Assistants
  • Examine patients and record medical histories
  • Order, perform, and/or interpret medical tests
  • Diagnose and treat conditions
  • Create treatment plans
  • Educate patients and answer their questions
  • Prescribe medicine
  • Perform surgery
  • Examine patients and record medical histories
  • Order medical tests
  • Diagnose and treat conditions
  • Educate patients and answer their questions
  • Prescribe medicine
  • Monitor patient’s condition

Salary and Job Outlook

Doctors usually earn more than physician assistants, but salary varies widely based on geographic area and practice area. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2018, the median salary for physicians and surgeons was $208,000 (or $100.00 per hour) and the median salary for physician assistants was $108,610 ($52.22 per hour).

In terms of job outlook, physician assistant jobs are growing faster than the medical doctor jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for physicians and surgeons is projected to grow 7 percent from 2018 to 2028, while employment for physician assistants is projected to grow 31 percent in that same time period.

While physician assistants don’t typically earn as much as a doctor, most PAs appreciate the benefits of fewer years of required education and stronger job growth.

Practice Areas

There are opportunities for both doctors and physician assistants in every field of medicine. You won’t be limiting yourself by choosing one over the other. However, it’s worth noting that physician assistants often have an easier time switching specialities than doctors. This is because the education for physician assistants is more general, exposing students to many different areas of medicine.

Being a doctor allows you to become highly specialized in a particular field, but for people who prefer variety in their career, physician assistant is a great choice.

Work Schedules

Most physician assistants and doctors work full time (40 hours per week), and some work over 40 hours in a week. Like doctors, PAs have periods where they are on call. This means they need to be available for patient emergencies and may even be onsite at the workplace for twenty-four hours or longer. PAs and physicians may work holidays, nights, and weekends, especially if they are in emergency medicine. Be prepared to work long hours and irregular schedules if you choose one of these career paths.

Should I Become a Physician Assistant or a Doctor?

Ultimately, you must decide which career is better for you based on your own goals and circumstances. Physician assistant programs can be completed more quickly than medical school, but PAs typically do not earn as much as MDs. Both careers involve long hours and continuing education.

Whether you become a physician assistant or a medical doctor, you will have a rewarding career helping people!