PA vs. MD/DO degree: Which is Right for me?

While Physician Assistants (PAs) and Doctors of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) have similar job roles, their career paths and degree programs differ greatly when you look at them under the microscope (no pun intended).  

Both careers are generally fulfilling, as you get to work with individuals in need and apply your knowledge of medicine and the human body to your work day to day. 

Since the job description of General Physicians and PAs are very similar, it can be difficult for prospective students to decide which path to take.  

  • Do I want to spend 12 years in school, or do I want to graduate faster? 
  • How much money can I make as PA compared to an MD? 
  • What will my quality of life be like? 

Those questions are routine when it comes to deciding which major to pursue. Deciding a career path to follow is definitely one of the most important decisions one has to make, so we’ve put together a list of the differences between the two careers and considerations for each, so you can make your own decision. 

How Long Will I Be in School? 


While being a PA isn’t an easy path to graduation, it requires less time than a Doctor of Medicine degree path. Depending on your credit commitment per semester, PA degrees take about 2 years to complete after undergraduate school. 


According to most studies, it takes 12 years to complete an MD/DO degree. Eight of those are in college after high school, and then you have 2–4 years of residency before you can fully practice medicine. 

Job Satisfaction 

Because of their similarity in role and the industry that both jobs are in, both PAs and MDs/DOs report having high job satisfaction rates. That being said, MDs/DOs, or physicians, report a relatively high job satisfaction rate that decreases as their total hours worked increases.  

Overall, PAs report having a strong sense of job satisfaction. 

Career Flexibility 

MD/DO take a lot of time and effort to acquire their skills in their chosen fields. This limits the scope of work they can do, and different career avenues that they can pursue. A pediatric doctor wanting to be an oncology doctor, for example, has to go back through residency to acquire the training to be one. This is different for PAs. Their roles in the medical team allows them to switch specialties more easily, as they do not have to go through a residency. 

Working Hours 

Being a general physician is a time-intensive commitment. Often times, they work more than full-time and remain on call even after they clock out from the hospital. According to a recent USNews and Money article, if you work in a private practice or specialized clinic, you’ll typically work a normal 40-hour work week. However, if you’re working in a general hospital, you have the potential to work nights and weekends, leading to a less consistent schedule and different hours, sometimes up to 50 per week. (source link) 

Salary Outcomes 

One of the major factors in picking a healthcare major—along with time in school—is how much you stand to make in your career upon graduation.   


According to US News & Money, Physician Assistants make a median income of $101,480, as reported in 2016. On the high end, PAs make $142k, and $65k on the low end.  


Physicians’ career outcomes are a lot more diverse. According to a recent report by Medscape, physicians make an average of $294k annually, as reported in 2017. But, those salary outcomes can be much higher if you’re in a competitive field like plastic surgery or orthopedics.  

Career Opportunities 

Both PAs and MD/DOs are in demand jobs. Properly-trained physicians and PAs are needed in every corner of the country, from small towns in South Dakota to New York City.  


The career outcomes for Physician Assistants is completely up to the particular practice you work in, or what type of physician you work for.  


Unlike PAs, physicians’ career opportunities are very predetermined. Because the education and training is such a long process, it’s very, very difficult to change specializations. Often times, an orthopedic or cardiovascular doctor will remain in that field. The career flexibility and opportunity are a lot more static for MD/DOs than for PAs. 

If you’re interested in healthcare, the PA career path allows you a lot of similar opportunities as a physician, career flexibility, a competitive salary outcome, and great job satisfaction.

Learn more about getting your physician assistant degree at NGU. 

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