If you want to work in medicine but not in the role of physician, you might be considering a career as a physician assistant, or PA. Physician assistants are an indispensable and rapidly-expanding facet of our medical system in the United States. Physician assistants are also high-earners: the average physician assistant salary is $108,430, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Physician Assistant Salary Range
Your salary as a physician assistant depends on multiple factors, including where you live, your level of experience and education, and the industry in which you work.
The BLS reports the full range of BLS salaries in the United States:
- 10th percentile – $69,120
- 25th percentile – $90,150
- 50th percentile (median) – $108,610
- 75th percentile – $127,220
- 90th percentile – $151,850
According to this data, the lowest-earning 10% of physician assistants earn an average salary of $69,120. The median physician assistant salary (the point at which half earn more and half earn less) is $108,610. The highest-earning 10% of physician assistants earn an average salary of $151,850.
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) breaks this range down even further in its 2018 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants by Specialty.
(According to NCCPA data, the average physician assistant salary in 2019 was $110,567. This figure differs slightly from the BLS average due to the NCCPA’s data-gathering methods.)
Here’s the range of certified physician assistant salaries (in all specialties), as presented by the NCCPA:
- $40,000 or less – 1.9% of PAs
- $40,001 – $60,000 – 3.0%
- $60,001 – $80,000 – 6.1%
- $80,001 – $100,000 – 26.1%
- $100,001 – $129,000 – 31.7%
- $120,001 – $140,000 – 16.1%
- $140,001 – $160,000 – 7.4%
- $160,001 or more – 7.7%
According to this data, the majority of physician assistants earn between $80,000 and $140,000 per year.
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Average Physician Assistant Salary by Location
Where you live can make a considerable difference when it comes to your salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides data on which states, cities, and rural locations have the highest salaries for physician assistants.
Keep in mind that locations with higher average physician assistant salaries may also have greater costs of living.
The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) offers a useful Cost of Living Calculator to help present and future PAs compare costs of living and salaries between participating U.S. cities.
Top-Paying States for Physician Assistants (BLS)
- Connecticut – $125,610 average PA salary
- Washington – $123,980
- Alaska – $122,260
- Hawaii – $121,120
- California – $117,230
Top-Paying Cities for Physician Assistants (BLS)
- Danbury, CT – $146,000 average PA salary
- Salinas, CA – $145,700
- Visalia-Porterville, CA – $141,400
- Olympia-Tumwater, WA – $139,770
- Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA – $138,900
Top-Paying Rural Areas for Physician Assistants (BLS)
- East Central Illinois nonmetropolitan area – $148,810 average PA salary
- Big Thicket Region of Texas nonmetropolitan area – $130,060
- Balance of Lower Peninsula of Michigan nonmetropolitan area – $125,400
- Central Louisiana nonmetropolitan area – $124,890
- Northwest Minnesota nonmetropolitan area – $124,870
What is the Highest-Paid Physician Assistant Specialty?
The average physician assistant salaries we listed above were calculated for PAs in all specialties. However, you may earn more or less depending on if and how you choose to specialize.
The NCCPA provides salary data for the following physician assistant specialties. The average physician assistant salary for each specialty, according to the 2018 Statistical Profile, is displayed below.
- Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery – $132,071
- Dermatology – $126,084
- Emergency Medicine – $123,006
- Neurosurgery – $121,927
- Surgical Sub-Specialties – $119,852
- Orthopedic Medicine – $117,479
- General Surgery – $112,397
- Hospital Medicine – $111,426
- Psychology – $110,466
- Pain Medicine – $109,273
- Occupational Medicine – $107,897
- Urology – $107,837
- Cardiology – $107,566
- Oncology – $104,438
- Otolaryngology – $103,510
- Family Medicine/General Practice – $102,674
- Internal Medicine, General – $102,442
- Primary Care – $101,846
- Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation – $101,344
- Neurology – $101,091
- Gastroenterology – $100,363
- Obstetrics and Gynecology – $96,244
- Pediatrics, General – $92,194
Average Physician Assistant Student Debt
As with most degree programs (especially those related to science and medicine), student debt can be a formidable barrier to entry for prospective physician assistants.
You may be wondering if earning your credentials as a physician assistant is worth the financial obligation.
The good news is, you don’t have to commit as much time and capital to your education to become a physician assistant as you would to become a doctor.
Instead of completing medical school, physician assistants must finish a specialized master’s degree program. This can cut the time it takes to finish education nearly in half if you consider medical residency. But it doesn’t mean physician assistant programs are cheap.
The NCPPA provides data about the educational debt of recently-graduated PAs.
The average physician assistant college debt is $114,488.
Here’s how that figure breaks down in detail:
- No student debt – 10.9% of PAs
- Less than $50,000 – 8.6%
- $50,000 – $74,999 – 8.1%
- $75,000 – $99,999 – 11.0%
- $100,000 – $124,999 – 14.9%
- $125,000 – $149,999 – 14.4%
- $150,000 – $174,999 – 13.7%
- $175,000 – $199,999 – 8.7%
- $200,000 or more – 9.7%
According to this data, the majority of recent-graduated physician assistants carry between $75,000 and $175,000 in student debt.
What’s the Difference Between Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners?
Physician assistants practice medicine independently or in correlation with supervising physicians. The capabilities of a physician assistant depend on the state in which they practice.
In some jurisdictions, physician assistants are permitted to practice medicine independently, without the supervision of a medical doctor. In others, a physician must be either partly (via telephone or email communication) or fully present for medical consultations. In some cases, physician assistants can prescribe medication, while in other cases, they cannot.
The role of a physician assistant is similar to that of a nurse practitioner in many ways. However, there are some key differences.
1. PA vs. NP: Specialty
If you want to focus on surgery, you’ll have more success entering your niche of choice as a physician assistant. According to NursingLicensure.org, one in four PAs have a surgical specialty. Physician assistants rarely perform surgeries, but they can assist surgeons and carry out some minor outpatient procedures on their own.
If you’re more interested in neonatal or maternal care, advanced practice nursing may be a better option. As a nurse practitioner, you can go on to become certified as a nurse-midwife.
H3: 2. PA vs. NP: Program Focus
The requirements for entering a physician assistant program are much the same as those to join a nurse practitioner program. However, physician assistant prereqs may be more science-heavy.
Physician assistants graduate with a broader scope of medical knowledge, while advanced practice nurse education tends to focus on specific patient demographics.
In general, NP programs are patient-centered, while PA programs are more disease-centered.
H3: 3. PA vs. NP: Degree Requirements
To become licensed, nurse practitioners need to earn a minimum of a master’s degree from an accredited school. The Master’s in Nursing (MSN) takes about two years to complete.
However, standards for NP training are changing. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends increasing the requirement to become an NP to a professional degree: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which takes four years to complete.
To seek licensure as a PA, students need a minimum of a master’s degree from an accredited center of medicine or medical school.
H3: 4. PA vs. NP: Average Salary
A slight difference between NPs and PAs is their respective average salaries. However, the two careers are nearly identical in this way.
The average nurse practitioner salary is slightly higher than the average physician assistant salary, at $110,030.
Ultimately, your decision about whether to become a PA or an NP will depend more on what you want to do daily in your career.
Where Do Physician Assistants Work?
As a physician assistant, you can work in a variety of different settings. The industry you choose will impact your earning potential.
The NCPPA’s 2018 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants by Specialty reports that most PAs work in hospitals or office-based private practices.
The U.S. military is also a significant employer of physician assistants.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industries below employ the most considerable numbers of physician assistants in the United States.
1. Offices of Physicians – 64,540 | 2.49%
This industry employed 64,540 PAs in 2019; approximately 2.49% of this industry’s staff are physician assistants.
Average physician assistant salary in this industry (BLS): $108,180
2. General Medical and Surgical Hospitals – 28,050 | 0.51%
This industry employed 28,050 PAs in 2019; approximately 0.51% of this industry’s staff are physician assistants.
Average physician assistant salary in this industry (BLS): $109,140
3. Outpatient Care Centers – 8,910 | 0.97%
This industry employed 8,910 PAs in 2019; approximately 0.97% of this industry’s staff are physician assistants.
Average physician assistant salary in this industry (BLS): $116,780
4. Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools – 2,620 | 0.09%
This industry employed 2,620 PAs in 2019; approximately 0.09% of this industry’s staff are physician assistants.
Average physician assistant salary in this industry (BLS): $102,370
5. Employment Services – 2,240 | 0.06%
This industry employed 2,240 PAs in 2019; approximately 0.06% of this industry’s staff are physician assistants.
Average physician assistant salary in this industry (BLS): $108,420
More Industries for Physician Assistants
Other industries that have significant concentrations of physician assistants include:
- Specialty hospitals, in which 0.55% of the staff (1,440 PAs) are physician assistants; and
- Ambulatory health care services, in which 0.18% of the labor force (560 PAs) are physician assistants.
Resources for Current and Future Physician Assistants
Whether you’re just starting to explore the possibility of becoming a PA or you’ve been in the field for some time, the following resources can help further your career and gather additional salary information.
The American Academy of Physician Assistants AAPA provides several key resources for PAs and students.
Its Career Central provides checklists and guidance to help you plan your career as a PA. The AAPA’s PA JobSource allows you to browse thousands of open PA jobs, upload your resume, and apply for positions online. The Cost of Living Calculator helps physician assistants calculate how much they should earn in different locations.
To become a certified physician assistant, you must pass a test provided by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). All U.S. States and territories rely on the NCCPA to assess PA students’ knowledge and skills before they enter the field.
The NCCPA is an essential resource for current and future PAs alike. It provides yearly statistical reports on physician assistant specialties.
In the 2018 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants by Specialty, the NCCPA provides in-depth data about the careers of physician assistants in the United States, including their salaries.
The formerly-named Association of Physician Assistant Programs was renamed the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) in 2005.
PAEA represents and serves PA educational programs and faculty in the United States. PAEA provides membership programs for educators, as well as services for job-seekers, students, and other members of the PA community.
If you’re applying to PA programs, your school may use an application service provided by PAEA, known as CASPA (the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants). Applying to schools which use this centralized application (currently 95 accredited programs) can simplify your application process.
PAEA also provides ample information about the PA career and allows you to send an inquiry about becoming a PA.
The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) is the accrediting agency that defines the standards of PA educational programs and evaluation.
The ARC-PA website provides in-depth information about each of the 246 accredited PA programs in the United States.
If you’re applying to a PA program, make sure you check with the ARC-PA database to make sure your program is accredited. Otherwise, you won’t be able to gain certification.
The American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants provides information for PAs who are—or are interested in becoming—surgical specialists.
Average Physician Assistant Salary: Summing Up
If you want to go into medicine but not as a physician, becoming a physician assistant may be the right choice.
Physician assistants get to work hands-on with patients every day, and they can choose to specialize in a broad array of body systems and practice types. As an added bonus, physician assistants have the opportunity to earn high salaries, without finishing medical school.
What’s more, the BLS projects job growth in physician assistant career of 37%, which is much faster than average. Between 2016 and 2026, the Bureau expects an increase of 39,600 jobs for PAs in the United States.
With an average physician assistant salary of $108,430, it’s a career that’s likely to be highly rewarding, now and well into the future.
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