Being asked why you want to be a doctor over a physician’s assistant (PA) can sometimes come up in medical school admissions interviews. But how should you go about answering this question? And how do you do it in a respectful way?
What’s the best reason why you should be a doctor and not a PA?
Autonomy and expertise are the two best answers. As a doctor, you have the highest possible education, lead the medical team, and take on the most complex cases. Your responsibility is not only for patients but for the entirety of the care team involved.
Rising to that occasion is what makes a truly great doctor. But that’s not saying there aren’t distinctive advantages to becoming a PA instead!
This article aims to take a broader look at the question, compare the two roles, and potentially help you come up with ideas on what to see when/if confronted with this question.
Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- Other reasons to choose to become a doctor over a PA
- Possible benefits of both
- PA Vs doctor salary
- Other common questions surrounding the two roles
As a med student myself, I know how tough it can get reasoning out such questions. Discussing some of the key things to think about can maybe help.
Ready to learn more? Let’s go.
The PA Vs doctor question
As previously mentioned, medical school interviews commonly ask prospective candidates why they want to become doctors over other popular healthcare roles.
For them, it’s something of a test to see if a candidate has really thought through the pros and cons of each role. And to see how far their research and experience have gone arriving at their conclusion.
Answering the question well and demonstrating that you have a sound understanding of the differences between the two positions, can really go a long way in terms of how successful your interview is.
But you also need to be careful to be respectful and not denigrate the other role.
That’s why most of the advice here is very similar to that given in my article on another common question; “why be a doctor instead of a nurse?”
Check that out below for additional food for thought…
But before you attempt to answer the question in the case of an interview; definitely make sure you understand the key differences between each.
List of reasons why you should be a doctor and not a PA
Let’s take a closer look at some of the main reasons. I’ll present them here in what I personally think is the best or most appropriate order.
I appreciate that not everybody will agree!
Depth of knowledge
Although becoming both a PA or a doctor starts with obtaining a 4-year college degree, doctors go on to have a more increased level of education.
The typical path of a PA is a 2 or 3-year course out of college (compared to 4 years of med school). Doctors then go on to residency where they learn to specialize (this isn’t a requirement for PA’s).
From an educational standpoint at least; doctors have a wider length and breadth of training. They need to pass more exams, spend more years studying and develop a deeper knowledge in a specific area of medicine they wish to practice in.
Not counting fellowships, which might prolong a doctor’s training (and knowledge) even further, the average doctor trains longer than the average PA.
While becoming a PA potentially offers more flexibility in the area of medicine they can choose to work, their qualifications also close them off to certain sub-specialties.
Fellowships, as I mentioned before, are something offered to doctors that aren’t normally extended to PA’s.
These give doctors the opportunity to learn and become preeminent specialists in a narrow area of medicine that few other people can (an orthopedic surgeon gaining fellowship training in hip and knee surgery for example).
The fact that doctors can also practice without supervision, whereas PA’s always need the supervision of a doctor, also makes them more autonomous.
This was one of my main reasons for choosing to become a doctor in the opening of this article!
The wider education and knowledge doctors receive also tend to give them more chances to do meaningful research.
Being attached to a medical school during training, especially research-heavy medical schools, give prospective doctors more opportunity to get involved and get publications.
It’s just another avenue that the average PA might find more difficult to gain access to.
More career options
Although PA’s are widely respected and undertake difficult training that involves fulfilling many prerequisites, it could be argued a medical degree opens more alternative career doors.
Because of its higher level of training, coupled with the fact the general public (and recruiters) have a clearer understanding of the role and nature of a doctor’s training over that of a PA, this could be possible.
For an idea of the types of career opportunities that could be open to a doctor outside of practicing medicine, check out the following article…
Note: that many of these roles would be open to PAs too!
One thing that is closed off to PA’s that is available to prospective doctors is the chance of becoming a surgeon.
Going through medical school and entering into a surgical internship and residency is the only path (in the U.S. at least) to do this.
According to the BLS, MDs make an average of around $208,000 compared to PAs at $112,260.
Although I wouldn’t advise focusing on this in an interview, it would be disingenuous to pretend this isn’t a factor in many students’ decisions to pursue medicine.
But it’s also contentious and complicated (jump to the related questions section to find out why).
Of course, many of these reasons can be partly counterargued by existing or interested PAs with more familiarity with their career options and the types of opportunities available to them.
That’s why I strongly recommend anyone unsure about what PAs do (but interested in medicine), explore what they do just as much as they do doctors.
There are many advantages to becoming a PA over becoming a doctor, most of which involve turning many of these reasons (responsibility, autonomy, length of training, etc). on their head.
For a clearer idea of what PA’s do and why they could be a better choice for you check out beingapa.com.
There’s a lot of authoritative information there written by Ben, a PA since 2014!
Why Be A Doctor And Not A PA: Reddit’s Best Reasons
Another great place to search for well-considered answers is among the pre-med community of Reddit.
I’ve curated some of the best comments (that I feel could add an extra element to the discussion) here:
Biochemical molecular detail
If this question comes up in interview, say that you don’t just want to learn about symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, you want to learn what is going on in the biochemical molecular level and have a deeper understanding of medical science. Express true love in the entirety of medical science and its real-world application. Med school will be more enjoyable if you love what you are learning.u/sentriculus
Authoritative decision making
Former nursing student turned future applicant. I quit nursing due to the fact that there were multiple ethical dilemmas I had in my clinical rotations that as a nurse/nursing student I wasn’t allowed to do anything until OK’ed by a physician even if I knew what needed to be done to fix the situation.u/vicinadp
The reason I want to be a doctor is because I want to lead clinical trials, especially for neglected conditions. Moreover, investigating those conditions might involve testing out surgical procedures, and I would like to be able to do so when I need to, and not be limited by my lack of a license as I would be if I decided to lead clinical trials as a PhD.u/umpteenth_
As for answers you should probably avoid, here’s what the community also suggests…
- I am passionate about caring for other people
- I love science and have a strong desire to learn
- I want to do everything I can to help as many people as possible
- I’m mechanically minded and love to work with my hands
- I’ve always been academically gifted and want to pursue higher education
The general consensus is that each of these answers is cliched.
What benefits does becoming a PA have over becoming a doctor?
Can a doctor become a physician assistant?
Yes, a doctor can become a physician assistant. But given the length of training involved and the higher projected salary (more on this later), there’s probably not much point.
There could be an argument for doctors to transition to become PA’s to decrease their level of stress, but to suggest that working as a PA is more relaxing is also problematic!
PA vs Doctor salary
As mentioned before, doctors have a higher earning ceiling than PAs over the lifetime of their careers.
But this advantage is tainted a little when you consider the following:
- PA training is shorter (meaning their earning trajectory is faster)
- PA training is less expensive (meaning the average PA acquires licensing with less debt)
- PA’s can’t practice independently without supervision (meaning few are business owners taking on further costs)
When you consider that (with full licensing) both jobs earn well over $100K per annum, is the extra earning potential of becoming a doctor all that more meaningful?
That’s for you to decide!
Do you call a PA doctor?
No. Technically, as a PA isn’t a doctor, they shouldn’t be called one. “Physician Assistant” and then using the individual’s surname/family name is the professional way to call one.
But it’s not at all a huge deal to call a PA a doctor. Because the roles are very similar, especially in outpatient settings, it’s a common thing to call a PA a doctor.
Most patients don’t know the difference while most PAs (or doctors) won’t get offended either.
No harm, no foul!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.