Physician Assistant (PA) vs. Registered Nurse (RN)

People often believe a nurse’s duties are similar to those of a physician assistant. In reality, these two professionals have very different roles in healthcare. In fact, a physician assistant’s role is more similar to that of a nurse practitioner. Learn more about the difference between an RN and a PA.


To become a registered nurse, you must obtain either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. You also need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN exam).

To be a physician assistant, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, then earn your Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. After graduating from an accredited master’s program, you’ll take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to become certified as a PA.

While the national standard for certification is to pass these respective exams, individual states may have additional requirements to get licensed as a registered nurse or physician assistant. Make sure you check the state which you intend to practice in for any additional education or professional requirements.

Overall, it usually takes two to four years to become a nurse. Physician assistants generally spend six to seven years obtaining the necessary education. Both nurses and physician assistants also need to complete continuing education and recertification.

Job Duties and Responsibilities

Registered nurses and physician assistants both work closely with patients, but physician assistants have greater responsibilities in patients’ care. PAs diagnose medical conditions, prescribe medication (under a doctor’s supervision), and order diagnostic tests.

Nurses work closely with a doctor or PA to care for patients. They perform important tasks such as assessing a patient’s condition, monitoring medical equipment in a hospital setting, and administering medications and treatments. However, they are not able to diagnose or make decisions about a patient’s care.

Registered Nurse Physician Assistant
  • Observe and assess patient’s condition
  • Record medical history and symptoms
  • Create and contribute to treatment plans
  • Give patients medication and other treatments
  • Operate medical equipment
  • Assist in medical testing
  • Educate patients and their families on how to manage conditions at home
  • Collaborate with the rest of a patient’s treatment team
  • 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

Registered nurses earn a median salary of about $75,330 ($36.22 per hour) and RN jobs are projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS also reports that physician assistants earn a median salary of $115,390 and that PA jobs are expected to increase by 31% in that same time period.

Keep in mind that salary will also vary depending on geographic area and specialty. Overall, however, physician assistants tend to earn a higher salary than RNs.

Practice Areas

There is a need for both RNs and PAs in every healthcare setting, from hospitals to outpatient clinics. You can also specialize in a particular area of medicine regardless of whether you become a nurse or physician assistant. However, physician assistants often have an easier time switching between fields since PAs receive a broad education that delves into almost every area of medicine.

Work Schedules

Your work schedule as a nurse or physician assistant depends largely on your practice area. Both RNs and PAs may work over 40 hours in a week and may have to be on-call periodically. This means that you must be ready to come into work at a moment’s notice. In some environments (like hospitals), being on-call means staying at work for 24 hours or more.

Physician assistants usually work full time (40 hours per week), but nurses may work part time (30 hours or less) or full time.

Should I Become a Nurse or a Physician Assistant?

Both RNs and PAs perform important roles in the healthcare industry. Nursing might be the right career for you if you prefer working in a collaborative team. Physician assistants tend to make more decisions about a patient’s care and work with less supervision, often seeing patients by themselves.

Getting certified as a physician assistant involves more time and education, but PAs tend to earn a higher salary. You should weigh all considerations when deciding between a career as an RN and a career as a PA.