How Much Do Physician Assistants Make? A Cost & Compensation Breakdown
If you’re on the path to becoming a PA-C, there’s a good chance you’ve wondered what your salary and overall compensation will look like at the end of the road. The short answer is that, according to the AAPA Salary Report, the median salary for a practicing PA in 2021 was $115,000.
The long answer is that in order to understand the overall return on investment as a PA, you should also consider the cost of earning and maintaining your certification. Here is the cost and compensation analysis for PAs, including salary, benefits, and the cost of PA education.
The first technical cost of becoming a PA-C is fulfilling the requirements to apply to PA programs. Usually, PA programs require you to complete prerequisite courses and a bachelor’s degree prior to applying. Many prospective PA students will already have student loans from their undergraduate degree before even applying to graduate school.
On top of that, some schools require applicants to submit a GRE score. The GRE has a $205 registration fee with an additional $30 fee to send your score to each program. It’s advisable to also factor in the cost of any accompanying GRE prep material, which can easily add up.
Besides the prerequisites, the PA school application process itself can add up to be pretty expensive as well. Most applications are through the CASPA portal, which costs $179 for the first program and $55 for each additional program. On top of this, some schools require supplemental applications with additional fees.
Therefore, it costs a minimum of $875 to apply to 10 PA programs, if at least one of those programs requires the GRE. This estimate only increases if you include supplemental application fees and factor in the cost of your undergraduate education costs. This “cost of entry” can pose a challenge because while applying to more programs may increase your chances of being accepted, it can also add up to be quite costly.
Like most graduate programs, PA school is expensive. According to AAPA, PA program tuition can vary between $30,000 to more than $120,000. This is a wide range due to public institutions generally having lower tuition than private programs. While you may be able to receive a scholarship, you should not bank on it when planning for education costs.
It is not advisable to have a job during PA school, given the rigorous coursework and schedule variability. With that, most students find themselves taking out loans to pay for both tuition and living expenses. It is important to consider the cost of living in the location of your school. Generally, rural schools may offer cheaper options for housing than urban areas would. So, if you plan to take out loans for rent, you should factor this into your total cost. Other notable costs of PA school include textbooks and course supplies including a computer.
Lastly, it’s important to note the opportunity cost that comes with pursuing this career path. In addition to the financial investment, you are also investing years of your time and energy into PA school! While this investment is all worth it in the end, the road to get there does require you to sacrifice other opportunities along the way.
After PA school, your final step to becoming a certified PA is passing your certification exam, the PANCE. This is a high-stakes exam that you’ll want to pass on the first attempt and transition into your career. Therefore, in addition to the $550 PANCE registration fee, most students also invest in study materials. Review materials include PANCE Qbanks, review books, and online courses (or even a combination of the three), which can quickly become just as costly as taking the exam itself.
In order to maintain your PA certification, you will also need to complete the 10-year certification maintenance process. This process includes earning 100 continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years, paying a certification maintenance fee, and passing a recertification exam before the end of your 10th year of certification. You can opt to take either the traditional PANRE (a 4-hour exam taken during your 9th or 10th certification year) or the PANRE-LA (an open-book, longitudinal exam taken over the course of 2-3 years). The PANRE and PANRE-LA both have a $350 registration fee and share the same content blueprint.
According to the 2022 AAPA Salary Report, the median salary for a practicing PA in the U.S. was $115,000 in 2021. Below you can see a breakdown of the earning spectrum by percentile:
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Now, there are many different things to take into consideration when it comes to total compensation. This especially includes years of experience, medical specialty, and location.
There are very notable differences in PA salaries based on their location’s cost of living. For example, PA jobs in New York City tend to pay salaries much higher than the national average because of the city’s high cost of living. In addition, your level of experience plays a huge role in your compensation. If you’re just starting out your career in a location with an average or below-average lower cost of living, you may receive salary offers on the lower end of the earning spectrum.
Another factor to consider is your medical specialty and work environment. PA-Cs working in more profitable areas of medicine—such as surgical subspecialties, emergency medicine, or dermatology—often find job offers higher than the average salary. In contrast, those working in less profitable settings with a set schedule—such as occupational health, pediatrics, or primary care—may find themselves with a lower average salary. These generalizations are not always accurate, however, so you may still find job opportunities that contrast with the average trend.
Additionally, jobs with an unconventional work schedule (e.g., swing or night shift positions) may have a higher salary considering these positions are harder for employers to fill. Traveling PA-Cs also tend to receive above-average compensation, as they serve an important role in filling vacant positions for a short amount of time. Working as a traveling PA is a very profitable option for more experienced PA-Cs who enjoy being contracted at different facilities around the country every couple of months.
It’s common for PA jobs to include additional benefits, such as investing in your ongoing PA education. More specifically, many employers will give yearly CME stipends and even paid days off to complete CME requirements. Because of your requirement to complete 100 CME credits every two years to maintain certification, this stipend will save you a lot of money out of pocket. Options for CME include completing PA practice questions, attending a conference, or taking a course. You’ll likely need to use your CME stipend by the end of each year or it will expire.
Other benefits that come with most PA positions include retirement matching, health care/dental/vision benefits, life insurance, and PTO. Depending on the position, you may or may not receive paid holidays off of work. However, even if you do need to work holidays, many positions will offer extra pay for these shifts.
Many PA positions are salaried, but you can also find hourly positions which could be beneficial based on your specialty. For example, if you work in a specialty that may cause unexpectedly long work days (e.g. surgical specialties), consider asking if your employer offers overtime compensation. Otherwise, you may find yourself receiving a 40-hour weekly salary while actually working 60+ hours per week.
Some positions may offer loan reimbursement, though this is not as common as the above benefits and I would not plan for your position providing this. If you have federal loans and have worked at a nonprofit hospital for 10+ years, you may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. This is something to consider when taking a position if you are concerned about paying off your student loans.
While being a PA can definitely be profitable in many ways, I recommend not going into this field (or any field, for that matter) for the money. Medicine is ever-changing and you will work throughout your career to learn the best ways to care for your patients. This job is anything but easy, and it is important that you love what you do!
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