PA vs. Doctor: Which Is the Right Career Choice for You?

Updated September 30, 2022

In the medical field, there are a lot of options to consider when choosing which career to advance in, such as becoming a physician assistant or a doctor. Both physician assistants and doctors care for patients, but each has different requirements and responsibilities. In this article, we discuss the differences between physician assistants and doctors to help you determine which path is right for you.

What is a PA?

A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who is licensed to diagnose patients and provide treatments under the supervision of a physician. They have a vast knowledge of different medical fields to provide well-rounded care to patients. A PA’s responsibilities include examining patients, recording the patient’s history, developing and carrying out treatment plans, diagnosing illnesses and counseling patients on their healthcare plans. In most states, a PA can also prescribe medications.

What is a doctor?

A doctor, also known as a "physician," is a medical professional who can diagnose patients and prescribe treatments in independent practice. A doctor will see a patient through diagnosis, treatment and after-care. Some doctors specialize in certain medical disciplines, such as family medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, oncology and urology. Some may also perform surgical procedures as needed. Also, a doctor is licensed to prescribe medications in all states.

A patient sees a doctor when they are seeking someone with full knowledge in a specific field of medicine. With this full knowledge, doctors can answer all questions and concerns, fully diagnose and treat patients without needing to request further assistance from anyone else.

Differences between a PA and a doctor

There are some key differences between a physician assistant and a doctor, including:


Aspiring PAs are required to have about six years of education to obtain their medical license. Though the qualifications to obtain a medical license as a PA vary, some of the requirements are:

  • A four-year degree from college or university, typically in medical science like biology, chemistry or nursing

  • The completion of an accredited physician assistant program that lasts about 27 months and includes coursework in lab sciences, medical terminology, healthcare principles and patient care practices

  • Hours of clinical rotations and training in a variety of medical disciplines

  • Continued education by attending classes and seminars to re-test their medical expertise

The path to becoming a medical doctor takes at least nine years to complete the education requirements to obtain a medical license. Some of this education and training may include:

  • A four-year undergraduate degree, often on a pre-medical track in a healthcare science like biology or chemistry

  • Passing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

  • Completion of a four-year medical school program, which includes coursework in medical science, laboratory science, medical terminology and patient care practices and results in the distinction of Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)


Before and during their education program, PAs complete a variety of training outside the classroom as well, including:

  • A one-year clinical rotation to obtain hands-on medical experience

  • Three years of healthcare experience, such as being an EMT, paramedic or nurse

  • Additional certification in specific disciplines, such as ultrasound technology and nutrition

Doctors complete training during their medical school program and after they earn their degree. Here are some examples of the training a doctor must go through:

  • Two years of clinical rotations in a variety of medical disciplines to gain a general knowledge of patient care practices

  • Three to seven years of residency training after graduation focused on their chosen specialty

  • Passing a board certification exam based on their medical specialty

  • Obtaining a medical practice license in the state where they practice

Role and responsibilities

The differences between a PA and doctor also extend to what they can and cannot do in the office. Here are some things that make a PA different:

  • Has knowledge in multiple medical fields

  • Must work under a doctor in most states

  • Has the ability to easily change specialties

  • Can counsel patients on a variety of medical problems that may come up during a wellness visit

Here are examples of how a doctor is different than a PA:

  • Can run their own independent practice

  • Have full knowledge of their chosen specialty

  • May work long hours and have more on-call expectations

  • Recognized internationally upon receiving their medical license


Salaries for doctors and PAs vary based on each professional’s level of experience, type of practice and geographic location. Specializations and certifications may also increase earning potential.

For a PA:

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $105,116 per year

  • Salaries range from $33,000 to $217,000 per year.

For a doctor:

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $199,519 per year

  • Salaries range from $48,000 to $456,000 per year

Related careers

If you are seeking employment in the vast medical field, you have many diverse options to choose from. If a position as a physician assistant or medical doctor isn’t right for you, here are some similar careers you may be interested in:

1. Medical assistant

National average salary: $14.80 per hour

Primary duties: A medical assistant works in the front office of a medical office taking phone calls and scheduling appointments. They are responsible for filing paperwork, keeping records and assisting the nurses and office manager with maintaining the inventory.

2. Registered nurse

National average salary: $33.83 per hour

Primary duties: A registered nurse (RN) assists doctors and other healthcare professionals in the care and examination of their patients. This includes keeping the work environments sanitized and hazard-free, assisting doctors in medical procedures and providing emotional support for patients and their families.

3. Nurse practitioner

National average salary: $109,601 per year

Primary duties: A nurse practitioner specializes in giving primary, acute and specialty healthcare services. They have advanced clinical training that assists them in treating conditions, diagnosing illnesses and providing health education to their patients. They are often required to practice under the supervision of a licensed physician. In some states, they may be eligible to practice independently and prescribe medication.

4. Surgeon

National average salary: $216,124 per year

Primary duties: A surgeon performs surgical procedures on patients in various fields. Additionally, they diagnose patients with medical illness or injury, maintain detailed patient records and counsel the patient on their journey to surgery and recovery.


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