You don’t have to go to medical school to get a great job in the healthcare industry. Two popular career paths that allow healthcare professionals the rewarding opportunity to work directly with patients are registered nurse (RN) and physician assistant (PA). While these jobs are similar in some respects, they are also very different – especially in terms of the job duties and the education required.

Philosophy and Job Duties

Both nurses and physician assistants take care of patients, and neither one is a medical doctor (that is, an M.D. or D.O.). They often share similar job duties, like participating in the development of treatment plans, instructing patients on their care and providing life support when required.

However, RNs approach patient care from a nursing model that focuses on assisting the patient, while PAs take an approach more similar to that of physicians, Rasmussen College reported. This allows PAs to have a more direct role in ordering tests and diagnosing patients’ medical conditions, though RNs also develop their own diagnoses, according to Rasmussen College. Ultimately, PAs always work under the supervision of doctors, while nurses simply work in collaboration with doctors.

Education and Career Preparation

A major difference between RNs and PAs is the educational preparation necessary to begin working. Physician assistants must earn a master’s degree in physician assistant education, which requires two years of full-time study at the graduate level on top of the four (or more) years spend earning a bachelor’s degree.

On the other hand, candidates can become registered nurses in about half the time it takes to become a PA. They have options for attaining the required nursing education, ranging from diploma and associate’s degree programs that take just two years to bachelor’s degree programs that take four.

Both careers require candidates to earn a license in addition to a degree. This typically requires a passing score on an exam, like the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) or the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Salary and Job Outlook

On the surface, it may seem that physician assistants have better earning potential and job opportunities than nurses, at least if you look at data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They enjoy a median annual salary of $90,930, compared to $65,470 for registered nurses. Opportunities for physician assistants are growing much faster than average, with the BLS predicting a 38 percent increase in jobs over ten years compared to just 19 percent expected for RNs.

Keep in mind, though, that the education required to become an RN is significantly less than the master’s degree required to become a PA. When nurses go on to earn a master’s degree and become a nurse practitioner, they attain a comparable salary and job outlook. The median wage for nurse practitioners jumps up to $96,460 per year and expected job growth rises to 31 percent.

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