Is a Physician Assistant Degree Worth It?

If you are interested in beginning or advancing a career in the medical field, one of your options is to become a physician assistant (PA). To become a PA, you must complete a physician assistant master’s degree. This takes considerable time, effort and financial investment. You need to decide whether it’s truly the right path for you. Read on to learn whether becoming a physician assistant is worthwhile for you.

How to Decide Whether a Physician Assistant Master’s Is Right for You

Some questions to ask yourself when considering a physician assistant master’s degree include:

  • How long do you want to be in school?
  • Where do you want to work after graduation?
  • Are you prepared for the time and financial investment in a master’s degree program?
  • What kind of work environment do you thrive in?
  • What soft skills (e.g., communication) do you bring to the table?
  • What soft skills do you think you can develop with training?
  • Are you sure you want to pursue licensure as a physician’s assistant?
  • Are you aware of any internship or training hours necessary to pursue licensure?
  • What career opportunities do you want after pursuing your education?

Financial Return on Investment for a PA Program

The financial benefit of a PA degree depends on your circumstances. You should consider the cost of the program, including whether you can obtain financial assistance through grants or scholarships. If you must rely on student loans, consider that you will have to pay off the loans and accrued interest after graduating.

Luckily, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts faster-than-average job growth in the profession, so PAs can earn competitive salaries. Going through a PA degree program can thus have a strong return on investment.

How Much Could a PA Degree Increase Your Salary on Average?

In May 2018, the median pay for physician assistants was $108,610 annually, according to the BLS. The 10% of PAs made less than $69,120 annually; the highest 10% of earners made more than $151,850. Salaries depend on several factors, including the industry, years of experience and geographic location.

The BLS reported the median salaries for PAs in 2018 varied by industry:

  • Outpatient care centers: $115,560
  • State, local and private hospitals: $111,540
  • Employment services: $109,890
  • Doctors’ offices: $107,230
  • State, local and private educational services: $102,870

Depending on the position you leave when you become a PA, you may increase your salary by tens of thousands per year.

Do you Qualify for Loan Forgiveness or Repayment?

Obtaining a PA master’s degree can be costly. You might have to rely on federal or private student loans.

Do not panic at that thought. After taking out federal loans, you may qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). If you work in the public sector for 10 years and consistently make your loan payments on time, you can apply for forgiveness. Also, PSLF is not taxable income. You will not be taxed on the loans that were forgiven.

Another option is working for the National Health Services Corps in a Health Professional Shortage Area. The Loan Repayment Program (PDF, 96 KB) requires you to work full-time or half-time. In two years, you could earn loan repayment of up to $50,000, depending on the circumstances.

What Are the Benefits of a Physician Assistant Program?

1. A PA degree program requires less time than medical school.

When you want to move up in the medical field, you might consider becoming a doctor. But medical school is a significant commitment. It lasts four years, and then doctors must go through a residency, which can take several more years. It is common for doctors to spend a decade in training.

You may not want to be in school/training for the next 10 years. You might already be working and not interested in a program that long. Perhaps you have children and don’t want to spend so much time away from your family, or you have hobbies and pursuits that you don’t want to put on hold for so long.

Pursuing a physician assistant master’s is a shorter time commitment than medical school. It’s a degree you can complete in two to four years.

2. You get to change and save lives.

As a PA, you interact with patients one-on-one. You get to know them and what is going on in their lives and with their bodies. You diagnose conditions, develop treatment plans, prescribe medicine and provide follow-up care. In many cases, you may be a person’s primary health care provider.

If your goals are to work in medicine and help people, becoming a PA gives you the tools and opportunity to fulfill these goals.

3. There is flexibility in where and when you work.

A significant benefit of becoming a PA instead of a doctor is that you can work in many specialties throughout the course of your career. Physicians train in a specialty and focus career on that one area of medicine. As a PA, you can change where you work if a certain specialty is not a good fit, you need a different schedule, or you are looking for a new challenge.

Being able to choose a schedule that fits your lifestyle and family’s needs is another benefit. Many physician assistants work a traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Others work only three or four days per week. You can find positions with or without on-call requirements.

You may not get your preferred schedule right away. But with more experience, PAs can find positions that are the right fit to help them maintain a good work-life balance.

4. PAs are in demand.

The BLS projects that employment of physician assistants will grow 31% from 2018 to 2028 which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Alternatives to a Physician Assistant Career

If you want to work in the medical field or already do, then there are many options to advance your career. You can consider various bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs or technical certificates. Each of these careers offers different skills, work environments and salaries.

Physical therapist

To become a physical therapist, you can obtain a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. The BLS reported the 2018 median salary for physical therapists was $87,930.

Occupational therapist

You can earn a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) or clinical doctorate in occupational therapy (OTD) degree. The BLS indicates that the 2018 median salary for occupational therapists was $84,270.

Advanced practice registered nurse

To become a nurse anesthetist, nurse midwifenurse practitioner or clinical nursing specialist, you must earn a Master of Science in nursing (MSN). Or, you can complete a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program (DNP), which opens the door to another range of career possibilities. According to the BLS, 2018 median pay for advanced practice RNs was $113,930.

Other medical careers

Not all medical careers require a master’s degree or doctorate. If you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or already have a Bachelor of Science degree, you may wish to consider:

  • Radiology technologist
  • Cardiovascular technologist
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer
  • Surgical technologist
  • Phlebotomist
  • Respiratory therapist
  • Dental hygienist

Is a PA Degree Program Right for You?

Once you get to know the job and salary prospects for physician assistants and the educational requirements, it is easier to decide if it is the right path for you. You may decide it is, in which case, you should learn more about obtaining a Master of Science in physician assistant studies.