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PA vs. MD

By Clay Walker - Aug 05, 2020

PA vs. MD

A common debate for a student completing their undergraduate degree is what they want to study.  When you decide that you want to pursue a career in medicine there are several options; however there are two careers that are very similar at the initial phases. Not only do their pre-requisites basically mimic each other but so does their initial training. These careers are that of a physician assistant and medical doctor.


Today we will be discussing the two options as well as differences regarding student loans, lifestyle, and salary.  So, without further a due, let’s talk about the decision of physician assistant vs. doctor.


Undergraduate Pathway

Regarding the undergraduate path, again, these routes can and often will be very similar.  Most pre-med and pre-PA student will study some sort of biological science or other core science degree.  However, truth is, you can study whatever you want in undergraduate as long as you are meeting the medical school/PA school pre-requisites.



Even the entrance examination for physician assistant school and medical school can be the same.  An overwhelming amount of physician assistant schools will allow for the medical college admission test (MCAT) to serve as the admission exam, and all medical schools require this test for admission.


Graduate School – PA vs MD

Next, for the actual profession school. 

  • PA school are roughly on average 2.5 years, whereas medical school is 4 years in length.
  • PA school is designed in a medical model, similar to that of medical school, where you are learning the clinical medicine aspect of the third and fourth years of medical school in the two years of PA school.
  • Whereas in the first two years of medical school the focus is on the core sciences, biochemistry, and pathology for the USMLE board examination.


Loans and Debt

As you can imagine with physician assistant school being around 2.5 years, and medical school being 4 years the student loans will be much different. 

  • The average debt of a PA student is between $80,000 to $180,000
  • Whereas medical school can often be around $300,000 to $400,000.

To see more about the cost of PA school see our article here!



Another part of the decision can often be compensation as well.  We know that physician will make more money than physician assistants, but how much more? 

  • The average physician assistant salary will be between $79,000 and $120,000.
  • Whereas the average physician salary will be from $237,000 to $341,000.


PA – Highest Paid Specialties

For physician assistants, the highest paid physician assistant specialty is cardiothoracic surgery with the 90th percentile average being $178,000.  For more information on PA salary in 2019 see the chart below and out article here

PA Salary by Specialty



The last topic that comes into discussion between PA and MD is the lifestyle.  In an outpatient clinical setting the patient responsibility between a PA and MD is relatively mirrored.  However, the physician often will have more practice management and administrative work and meetings that take up time outside of the clinical hours.



Additionally, when we rewind and look at the training there are a few other things to take into account when making the decision as well.  We discuss the length of PA vs medical school, however, after medical school there is a required residency that is a minimum of three years.


During the residency the pay is a fraction of the salary in which a physician makes, and is less that a practicing PA.  In addition, the hours of clinical responsibility are 80 hours at minimum.  At this time a PA who started at the same time as a medical student would be practicing medicine for a few years by the time that the MD finishes training.


Ability to Switch Specialties

The final thing to remember is that as a PA there is lateral mobility, meaning that you can switch from one position or specialty to another at any moment that you would like, where as a physician, once you decide your specialty, you are bound to it, unless you want to go back and do a different residency all over!


Again, a lot of information and decisions that need to be made to decide between becoming a physician assistant vs. doctor.  I hope this article helps lay out some of the information between the two wonderful career options!


This article or blog post should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing standard of care in a legal sense or as a basis of expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast or blog.


  1. https://medgeeks.co/articles/pa-school-cost
  2. https://medgeeks.co/articles/pa-salary-2019
  3. https://www.kaptest.com/study/mcat/doctor-salaries-by-specialty/