Degree Comparison: Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Nursing

A nurse practitioner (NP) and physician assistants (PA) are both advanced health care professionals who work in many medical organizations, including hospitals, clinics, and medical practices. These professionals work closely with primary care physicians to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. Both an NP and a PA are qualified to prescribe medications.

Although the two specialties entail different education and training, NPs and PAs have some responsibilities in common:

• Obtaining medical histories of patients
• Performing physical examinations and assessments
• Screening patients
• Diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries
• Prescribing medications
• Administering vaccinations
• Conducting and analyzing diagnostic and laboratory studies
• Referring patients to medical specialists and other health care providers as necessary

Job Descriptions

Nurse Practitioner

NPs complete extensive education and training to provide primary and specialty care to patients. They are a vital part of the medical profession and provide many of the same health care services as a physician.

An NP can diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses, offer medical advice, and prescribe medications. They may also perform minor surgeries and procedures, such as lumbar punctures and biopsies.

Physician Assistants

PAs may diagnose illnesses, treat patients, and prescribe medications under the direction of licensed physicians. They play a critical role in a medical team and are instructed by a physician to determine diagnoses, apply therapies, and provide preventive health services.

A PA is trained to advise patients on health care and treat minor injuries and illnesses. Working in an interdependent relationship with physicians, they order laboratory tests and contribute to the analysis of test results.

Educational and Training Requirements

Nurse Practitioner

To qualify as an NP, a nurse must hold a master’s degree in nursing. To be eligible to enter a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program, students must be a registered nurse (RN) with a bachelor’s degree in a nursing or medical-related field.

Most graduate programs require nurses to have more than five years of practical experience in the medical field before applying. Many accredited universities and colleges offer online programs for working nurses to study part time toward an MSN. A typical curriculum may include courses in cardiology, endocrinology, pathophysiology, anatomy, physiology, orthopedics, health policy, health management, and nursing theory.

Different MSN programs offer various concentrations in the fields that students want to specialize in after graduation. These fields include adult care, psychiatry, pediatrics, gerontology, family care, women’s health, nursing education, and health management. Before graduating, students are typically required to complete a period of residency in a particular field under the mentorship of an experienced clinician.

Physician Assistant

Although prior health care experience is not always a prerequisite for a PA program, most students have a bachelor’s degree and several years of health care experience before applying. Students without a bachelor’s degree normally need to complete a minimum of two years of coursework in chemistry, physiology, anatomy, biology, and microbiology to be eligible for the program. Qualifying practical experience for a PA program can be gained in a variety of medical-related occupations, such as paramedic, emergency medical technician, medical assistant, clinical laboratory assistant, or emergency room technician.

A PA master’s program typically takes three academic years to complete. The curriculum focuses on theoretical and laboratory instruction and includes courses in human anatomy, biochemistry, pathophysiology, pharmacology, physiology, behavioral science, and medical ethics.

A typical PA program also includes over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations to allow students to gain practical experience. Rotations can include work in emergency medicine, psychiatry, family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, general surgery, and obstetrics.

Licensing Requirements

Nurse Practitioner

After graduation, NPs must be licensed and certified by state nursing boards before they can practice. Requirements vary from state to state, but there is some consistency from state to state about the NP’s primary duties and degree of provider independence.

Physician Assistant

After graduation, students are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers. All states require PA graduates to pass this exam before being licensed to practice.

Career and Salary Outlook

Nurse Practitioner

NPs may pursue a career in many different fields, including pediatrics, cardiology, geriatrics, oncology, neonatology, anesthesiology, midwifery, women’s health, family care, emergency room, or primary care. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for NPs in 2022 is $123,780 per year.

Physician Assistant

There are several settings available for PAs to work in after graduation. These include surgery, emergency care, neonatology, anesthesiology, geriatrics, pediatrics, and family practice. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for PAs in 2022 is $121,530 per year.


Learn More

When you consider graduate programs that can boost your career, it’s important to weigh the benefits of being a nurse practitioner vs. physician assistants. As a current RN, it’s possible to earn an NP graduate degree in a specialization that you love while having the autonomy of a provider. Our online Master of Science in Nursing program has the flexibility to accommodate your current work schedule and the rigorous coursework to prepare you for a possible NP career.

Recommended Reading:

FNP vs NP: What’s Right for Me?
5 Areas of Study for the Master of Science in Nursing Student
Pediatric NP Job Roles and Responsibilities


American Association of Physician Assistants, How Are PAs Educated and Trained?
American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Planning Your NP Education
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physician Assistants
National Center for Biotechnology Information