There are many options if you’re planning to embark on a career involving patient care. Two of the most popular and widely-respected career paths involve being a physician assistant (PA) vs. a doctor (MD).
You know that you’d like to work by using your clinical skills to treat injuries and sickness. However, before you decide on your career, evaluating the roles of a PA vs. MD is vital.
Understanding the primary differences can help you choose the best career path that gives you a more fulfilling life. We’ll break down how the two jobs compare and help those still undecided about their careers.
PA Vs. MD: What’s Better?
There isn’t a right answer for a better career between PA vs. MD. Both are unique and have their own benefits and drawbacks. Physician assistants enjoy a typical work-life balance, but doctors earn a more lucrative salary. The choice boils down to your personal interests and what you want out of your job.
Let’s dive deeper into both professions and answer common questions you may have when comparing the two.
Is It Easier to Become a PA or an MD?
Physician assistants require less education and training than physicians. They only require six years of education to get their medical license. This includes a four-year degree, an accreditation physician program, and one year of clinical rotation.
Related: Check out our PA Programs articles here – we cover all major schools!
Medical doctors require at least nine years to obtain their medical license. They need a four-year undergraduate degree, pass the MCAT, and complete a four-year medical school program.
Physicians will take three to seven years of residency, two years of clinical rotations, and pass a board certification exam.
It’s important to consider the road that it’ll take to become a PA or MD. Physicians demand more extensive education and training path since they’ll need specialization training. However, the perks of the career might be worth it.
Who Works in a Better Environment?
Physician assistants work under the guidance of MDs and therefore don’t have as much autonomy. Some PAs can work autonomously and only confer with doctors in complex cases.
MDs run their own clinics and are in control of their own business, which has different advantages and disadvantages. PAs are employees rather than an owner of a practice. MDs have different responsibilities and business concerns that come with running their practice.
While PAs lack autonomy, they do have more flexibility in specializations. It’s much easier for PAs to change their field of specialization or environment to avoid burnout. However, it’s difficult for MDs to change their environment since they are running their own clinic.
Both can move between clinics and hospitals and meet with patients. MDs may perform surgeries and treat complex cases, therefore are required to be on-call.
What is the Difference in Roles and Duties?
PAs are a critical part of the healthcare team. They see many patients daily and provide MDs with the flexibility to tend to more complex cases and surgeries.
Their core function is to collect imaging and patient histories and perform diagnoses and physicals.
Doctors do all of the tasks that PAs do, along with performing surgeries and prescribing medications. Since doctors are the lead medical professional, they also assume liability should anything go wrong.
PA vs. MD: Which is More Stressful?
Stress plays a huge role in whether you enjoy your work. Physician assistants are more likely to arrange for a typically 9-5 workday and 40-hour workweeks. Occasionally, they’ll be asked to be on call or work additional hours.
Medical doctors usually work longer hours than PAs. Many MDs will work between 40 to 60 hours per week, while 22% will work over 60 hours per week. They commonly work on weekends, nights, and holidays along with being on call.
Stress is perceived differently based on the individual. According to one national survey, most PAs were satisfied with their career choices.
Job satisfaction for MDs depends on the specialty. Geriatric, dermatology, and pediatrics have higher job satisfaction than family medicine.
Related: Medical Specialties With The Best Quality Of Life (Who Are The Happiest Doctors?)
While MDs work longer hours and may suffer in terms of work-life balance, they have much more autonomy. Many own clinics and receive more varied and dynamic work compared to PAs.
Do PA vs. MD Earn More Money?
There’s an incredibly high demand for both types of medical practitioners. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the market for physician assistants is expected to grow by 31% by 2030. In comparison, MDs only will grow by 3% in the same time frame.
However, there is a large discrepancy in each profession’s earnings. PAs make about $121,520, while MDs make $208,000. Salaries will vary depending on your location, experience, specialty, and setting.
While MDs can be perceived as more stressful due to longer work hours, they certainly are well compensated for it.
Which Profession Has More Job Flexibility?
Most physicians will move to where their career takes them. This includes moving to wherever you match for a residency program.
Since there are fewer job openings, physicians search for positions hope an opening matches somewhere they hope to live. Physicians usually have to be open to different cities and states as options.
That being said, a physician could start their own clinic in the location of their choice. However, there still at the whims of market demands. For example, they may want to choose an area close to hospitals and other medical offices to attract patients. A crowded area may be too expensive, affecting their ability to open up their practice.
PAs can decide where they want to live first, then look for a job within their desired area. The flexibility of selecting where you want to work is a significant advantage of being a PA. This means you have the ability to stay close to your family or choose where you want to live.
Which Should You Choose: PA Vs. MD
There are many questions you’ll want to ask yourself when deciding, such as:
- Do you want a simple job that pays well, or do you crave a more lucrative job with more responsibility?
- Do you want autonomy?
- How many hours do you want to work?
- How much time do you want to spend on your education and training?
- Do you want flexibility in your career?
- Are you someone that prioritizes work-life balance?
Whether you become a PA or an MD, both are fulfilling professions that perform valuable medical work that impacts many people’s lives. Ensure that it fits your personal interests, career aspirations, and preferred lifestyle.
Colin is a healthcare writer who focuses on generating impactful content for young med
students. Particularly, he specializes in the finances and money-making opportunities that a
career in the medical field can provide.
As a once-struggling college student, he now has built a career from freelance writing and other
side hustles. Hailing from Chicago, he loves writing, reading, and weight lifting.
His goal is to become a world-class copywriter, using his creativity and words to inspire others
to improve their lives.