Medical School vs. PA School: What to Consider

With the increasing need for health care providers who can augment the role of doctors, nurse practitioners and physician associates — commonly called PAs — are taking on many of the same responsibilities as medical doctors and playing an influential role in the U.S. health care system.

The PA role has become commonplace as more and more physician assistant schools open across the country, with currently close to 300 programs in the U.S. PAs care for patients and make high-level clinical decisions under the supervision of a physician.

To become a PA, you must first receive a bachelor’s degree, complete a master’s program in physician assistant studies and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. In 2021, PAs in the U.S. earned a median annual salary of $121,530, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Recognizing the significantly shorter training path and the competitive salary, a considerable number of students who start their college careers as premed begin to ponder whether they should continue down the long and arduous medical school path or opt for becoming a PA instead. The decision to enter PA school versus medical school is significant and requires careful deliberation.

Students who find themselves in this situation should consider a few points:

— PA school is not necessarily less competitive than medical school.

— PA school is faster.

— Physician associates have more flexibility.

PA School Admission Is Not Necessarily Less Competitive

Many students who choose to go to PA school do so assuming that it’s much easier to get accepted. This is not necessarily the case.

A 2020 report conducted by the Physician Assistant Education Association revealed that successful applicants to PA school had a median science GPA of 3.53 and an overall GPA of 3.6 in July 2019. This is slightly lower than the average GPA of successful applicants to allopathic medical schools in 2018-19, who had average science and overall GPAs of 3.65 and 3.72, respectively.

[READ: The Difference Between D.O. and M.D. Degrees.]

Further, many PA schools require applicants to demonstrate extensive clinical experience as a medical assistant, emergency medical technician or phlebotomist. Some programs expect students to gain a minimum of 2,000 hours of patient care experience in these fields before they apply.

Medical schools do not have such stringent clinical experience requirements, making them less competitive in this respect.

PA school admission may be less competitive from a standardized exam standpoint, as PA schools don’t require the MCAT. Many PA schools require the GRE and some are beginning to require the PA-CAT, but both are by most standards considered less difficult than the MCAT.

Given these realities, we discourage students from basing their decision solely on the competitiveness of the field. While some elements of PA school admission may be less rigorous than med school, it is nevertheless competitive in its own right and the level of competition is expected to increase.

PA School Is Faster

One clear distinction between training as a physician and a PA is the length of time. To become a medical doctor, you must spend four years in medical school and at least three years in a residency program specializing in a specific area of medicine.

[READ:How Long Is Medical School and What Is it Like?]

PA training, on the other hand, is approximately two years. While some individuals opt to do additional training, many go straight into practice after PA school. If the idea of being in training for many years does not appeal to you and you are eager to start your career, the PA path may be a better option for you.

However, one misconception that deters people from going to med school is not wanting to be in school for a long time. While this is a fair concern, it’s worth remembering that only the first two years of medical school involve regularly going to class, attending lectures and labs, and taking exams. In the third and fourth years, the course load is significantly reduced and the majority of time is spent in the clinical setting.

Similarly, during residency, little time is spent in the classroom and most of your week will be focused on caring for patients. Also, you even get paid a salary during residency, albeit lower than that of a fully trained doctor or PA.

Physician Associates Have More Flexibility

Many individuals entering the PA profession are drawn to the lateral mobility offered by the profession, allowing them to change settings and specialties. According to the American Academy of Physician Associates, nearly half of all PAs surveyed in 2010 had worked in two different specialties, according to four decades of data. Given that PA training is broad, PAs can opt to practice in different specialties whenever they wish.

Doctors, on the other hand, go through specialty training in one field, which limits them to practicing in that particular field unless they retrain in a different specialty.

[Read: Take 3 Steps Before Abandoning Premed Concentration.]

If you like change and the variety of being able to work with different patient populations, the PA profession may be a better option. If you prefer to focus on one area and continue to build your skills in that area, becoming highly specialized and contributing to new and cutting-edge innovations in that field, a career as a physician may lend itself better to your aspirations.

How to Decide Between PA and Med School

The best way to decide which field is right for you is to spend time shadowing both doctors and PAs. Ask them questions about what they like and dislike most about their careers and try to get a sense of their day-to-day activity to see if it appeals to you.

As you deliberate, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make a hasty decision. Many of the requirements for PA school and medical school overlap. Whether you want to be a PA or physician, you will need to take courses in chemistry, general biology, and upper-division biology.

Furthermore, community service, leadership and experience in the clinical setting can bolster your application for both. In particular, both medical and PA schools seek applicants who show a commitment to working with underserved populations. This means that as you take time to carefully explore each field, you can begin to fulfill the requirements for both PA and medical school while arriving at a well-informed decision.

Just remember: Whichever you opt to go for in the end, both schools are competitive, so make sure to do well!

More from U.S. News

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Pros, Cons of Declaring a Medical School Specialty

Advice for Premed Students Who Speak More Than 1 Language

Medical School vs. PA School: What to Consider originally appeared on

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