Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Which Career Is Right for You?

Nurse Practitioners (NP) and Physician Assistants (PA) are advanced healthcare professionals found in many health organizations. At first glance, determining the differences between the occupations might not be clear. Both NPs and PAs treat illnesses, prescribe medications, and work closely with primary care physicians. The differences lie in the training and education of each specialty. If you find both positions intriguing but are not sure which to choose, continue reading to determine your best fit.

Some of the responsibilities of both positions are:

  • Prescribe medication
  • Obtain medical histories
  • Perform physical assessments and examinations
  • Diagnose and treat common illnesses and injuries
  • Administer vaccinations, screenings and physicals
  • Perform and interpret diagnostic and laboratory studies
  • Counsel and teach health and nutrition
  • Screen and refer patients to specialists and other health care providers

The amount of overlap may surprise you but NPs and APs are not identical positions. Each has its own specific role in the healthcare industry and doctors rely heavily on both to provide quality care. Understanding the key differences will better help you determine what career path to pursue. Use the links below to quickly navigate the page:

Nurse Practitioner

Formal Definition: A nurse practitioner is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who has completed their advanced education and extensive training. NPs make up a very large and vital part of the medical care community. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the role of a nurse practitioner as follows: “Nurse practitioners serve as primary and specialty care providers, providing a blend of nursing and healthcare services to patients and families.” Primary is the key word in this definition. NPs provide many of the same primary care services as a physician.

Education Required: Nurse practitioners must be registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree in nursing or related field from an accredited college of university in order to apply. During their graduate studies, NPs take classes which focus on disease prevention and health maintenance. NPs also train to work in a particular specialty. Most graduate programs require candidates to have over five years experience in the medical field before applying to an educational program.

Licensure and Certification: The licensure and certification requirements for nurse practitioners vary by state. All NPs must be licensed and certified through the state nursing boards in order to practice. Some states have a collaborative agreement in place that determines an NP’s level of independence and primary duties. These agreements establish a practice model within which NP will provide medical care.

Primary Job Duties:

    • Taking the patient’s history, performing physical exams, and ordering laboratory tests and procedures
    • Diagnosing, treating, and managing diseases
    • Prescribing medication, in varying degrees
    • Coordinating referrals
    • Performing certain procedures and minor surgeries, such as bone marrow biopsy or lumbar puncture
    • Providing patient education and counseling to support healthy lifestyle behaviors
    • Difference: Exercises autonomy and initiative in clinical decision-making

Work Envioronment: Nurse practitioners work in a variety of settings and are often trained to practice in a specialty area. These may include:

  • Cardiology
  • Emergency
  • Family practice
  • Geriatrics
  • Neonatology
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Primary care
  • School health
  • Women’s health

Salary and Job Outlook: Depending on the scope of practice, many NPs earn up to $113,000 a year. The BLS predicts excellent career prospects for registered nurses. Notice in the chart below the projected growth. These jobs are expected to increase at a much higher rate than other occupations for the foreseeable future. With an advanced degree, salaries and career opportunities are much greater for NPs.

Physician Assistant

Advanced Master’s in Physician Assistant Studies

Formal Definition: A physician assistant (PA) works under the direction of a physician to provide diagnostic and preventative care. PAs are an integral part of the medical team and are increasingly relied on to assist doctors in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the role of physician assistant as follows: “Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive healthcare services, as delegated by a physician.”

Education Required: Full-time students enrolled in a PA educational program typically complete all required coursework in two years. The program focuses on the medical aspects of health care such as classroom and laboratory instruction in biochemistry, pathology, human anatomy, medical ethics, and other subjects. Similar to nurse practitioners, PAs also train to work in a particular specialty. Note: Unlike NP programs, prior healthcare experience is not always required for applicants. Depending on the program, students can begin coursework after obtaining their bachelor’s degree. PA programs require fewer years of education and students can elect to transition to the master’s level at a later time.

Licensure and Certification: Laws vary by state, but all PAs must complete an accredited education program and pass the national exam prior to practicing.

Primary Job Duties:

  • Tracking patients’ medical histories and symptoms
  • Ordering laboratory tests and analyzing results with physicians
  • Providing a limited number of prescriptions
  • Advising patients on preventive health care
  • Treating minor injuries or sicknesses
  • Referring patients to specialists as required
  • Difference: Unlike NPs, PAs must practice medicine under the direct supervision of physicians and surgeons.

Work Environment: Physician Assistants work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Surgeon Assistant – assists surgeons in the operating room
  • Neonatology Assistant – assists in the care of newborns
  • Anesthesiology Assistant – assists the anesthesiologist
  • Emergency Medicine – assists emergency room physicians

Other Specializations:

  • Family Practice
  • Internal Medicine
  • Geriatric Medicine
  • Pediatric Medicine

Salary and Job Outlook: Depending on the practice area and experience level, the average PA’s salary is approximately $87,000 a year. The career outlook for PAs is promising. As one of the fastest-growing occupations of the decade, students can expect to find employment in hospitals, medical offices, and clinics nationwide.

What Career is Right For You?

Prospective students have important decisions to make when it comes to continuing education. Deciding what area of nursing in which to specialize is a good start. A career as a nurse practitioner or as a physician assistant are just two of the many available tracks. The level of autonomy you prefer and how much time you can dedicate to your education are important factors to consider in determining which path is right for you. Some hospitals and medical clinics require NPs to have ten years of experience before starting their practitionership. Alternatively, PAs may start their career with considerably less on-the-job training and no advanced degree. Review our list of accredited schools to find the best program to help you meet your professional goals and take your career to the next level.

Essential Facts to Know about MSN Programs

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate-level degree sought by nurses who wish to go into advanced practice. Those who opt for a master’s degree in a nursing related field should already have or be in pursuit of an undergraduate degree in nursing or related field. Once an undergraduate degree is earned, you can choose to apply to a master’s degree program.

There are many different types of MSN degrees, so it’s important to find the right program for your career goals. Below you’ll find a list of accredited schools that offer a number of options.

Walden University
Walden University

  • HLC
  • NCA
Grand Canyon University
Grand Canyon University

  • HLC
Sacred Heart University
Sacred Heart University


Click here to see more schools offering Masters in Nursing degrees