Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner: What's the Difference? -

Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner: Which Path is Right for You?

May 10, 2024
While you’ve undoubtedly spent time researching the differences between being a physician assistant and an MD or DO, a commonly overlooked comparison is that of physician assistant vs nurse practitioner. Both are categorized as advanced practitioners, have similar timelines to degree completion, and allow for individual patient oversight with diagnostic and prescriptive authority. The major divergence between them lies in their underlying training models. While physician assistants practice based on a medical model, nurse practitioners employ a nursing approach. 
When trying to understand the distinction between physician assistant vs nurse practitioner, it’s important to see what each entails so you can choose the profession that’s right for you. Check out the table below to find the key similarities (and differences) between these pathways!

The Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner Career Paths

TopicPhysician AssistantNurse Practitioner
Undergraduate degree/prerequisitesRequires bachelor’s degree (non-specific) with science-based prerequisite classesMajority require Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and RN license; some RN to NP programs exist
Terminal degreeMaster’s degree (specific degree varies based on program)Master’s degree (MSN-NP) or Doctoral degree (DNP)
Job experienceMinimum experience hours vary by PA program but generally 1,000+ hoursAt least 1-2 years of clinical nurse experience (RN)
Duration of schooling24-27 month program15-24 months full-time or 24-48 months part-time (BSN to MSN-NP)

3-4 years full-time or 4-7 years part-time (BSN to DNP)
School formatDidactic and clinical phases with very few online delivery options

Students are assigned standardized clinical rotations arranged by PA program

Must complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotation experience
Many hybrid or online options for the didactic portion with a clinical phase 

Students may have to establish their own clinical rotation sites/find preceptors 

Must complete at least 600 hours of clinical rotation experience
SpecializationTrain as a generalist with the ability to work in any specialty without additional certification

Additional fellowship programs and competency exams are offered for specialty care areas
Train with a concentration of a specific patient population: acute care, adult, family, gerontology, neonatal, oncology, pediatric, or women’s health

Must recertify to change specialty areas
CertificationCertified through general exam (PANCE) with generalist recertification required periodicallyDidactic and clinical phases with very few online delivery options

Students are assigned standardized clinical rotations arranged by the PA program

Must complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotation experience
Professional oversight, responsibilities, and liabilityRequire a supervising physician with some states moving toward independent practice authorityMay have independent practice authority (depending on the state) without the need for supervising physician
Sources: AAPA Career Central, AANP News Feed

When it comes to actually practicing as a physician assistant vs nurse practitioner, many of the regulations and standards pertinent to day-to-day practices in either profession are similar, such as the need to be licensed in each state, maintain the required amount of continuing education credits, and patient care responsibilities.

Both PAs and NPs evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients while filling the practitioner shortage need with compassionate and personalized patient care.

Are you starting PA school soon? Try some free pre-PA practice questions!

The Bottom Line: Knowledge is Power!

Distinguishing between these two career paths will not only allow you to find the best fit for your goals as a clinician, but you’ll also be able to give more educated answers as to why you have chosen a particular path when you are asked that question during interviews.

For example, because I researched the similarities and differences between the physician assistant vs nurse practitioner career paths during my own pre-PA journey, I felt more confident and reassured that I was investing in the right pathway based on my personality, skills, and background. This allowed me to better articulate to the interview panel at my school of choice why I wanted to be a PA and helped me narrow down what I wanted out of a career as a clinician.

By taking into consideration your educational and professional background, approach to medical care, and desire to serve specific populations, you can hone in on the best pathway for you! Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be a stronger applicant at the school of your choice.

Further Reading

Interested in more pre-PA content? Check out these additional (free!) Rosh blog articles:

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By Brandi Curioz, PA-C

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