Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant? Choosing Your Career

The decision between becoming a nurse practitioner or physician assistant is difficult.  Which career will offer the most job opportunities?  Which path provides the best education?  As a nurse practitioner, I personally had to make this difficult decision.  Here's how I made my choice.

I always thought I wanted to be a physician.  I enrolled in my undergraduate program as a premed student, majoring in biology.  As graduation neared, I realized I was uncertain about my medical career.  I wasn't sure the long road to becoming a doctor was for me.  So, I began to pursue the obvious alternatives, becoming a physician assistant or nurse practitioner.

I researched programs for both careers as well as the job market.  I wanted to remain in my current city and found the job market to be favorable for both professions.  While local schools offered both NP and PA programs, the university where I was currently enrolled featured an accelerated nurse practitioner program.  This created a  more seamless transition from my undergraduate education to my master's degree.  Ultimately, the NP vs. PA decision was not crucial to my career as both professions offer similar opportunities in my location.  So, I picked the university I liked the best, which offered nurse practitioner programs.

This decision may not be so straightforward for everyone.  Here are a few things you need to consider when deciding between the nurse practitioner or physician assistant route:

  1. What are the legal constraints to each profession in the state where you want to practice?  In some states, nurse practitioners are allowed to practice independently while physician assistants are never awarded independent practice.  If you hope to own your own clinic this means you should become a nurse practitioner.  In other states, PA's can prescribe medication while NP's cannot.  In these states, working as a physician assistant would offer you greater opportunity.  Yes, laws can change but you should take them into account when making your decision.
  2. Which universities offer NP and PA programs in your area?  How do these programs differ?  If you want to study in a specific location, availability of nurse practitioner and physician assistant programs will dictate your decision making.  If you have the option of attending either type of program or are willing to move or complete your program online, weigh the differences of each type of program.  How long will the different programs take to complete?  How much will they cost?  It is also important to note that PA programs are notoriously competitive.  It is more likely you will be accepted to a nurse practitioner program.
  3. Is the job market more favorable for NP's or PA's in your state?  Although nurse practitioners and physician assistants have a similar scope of practice in most states, some areas of the country traditionally favor one profession over the other.  In Seattle, where I am from, physician assistants seem to be most common.  In the South, where I currently reside, nurse practitioners are more prevalent.  Take an informal survey of healthcare providers working in the area where you hope to practice.  Determine which degree, NP or PA, will offer you the most job opportunities when you graduate.

Although choosing between the nurse practitioner or physician assistant profession is difficult, the good news is you can't make a bad decision.  The salaries and scopes of practice for these two groups of providers are overall very similar.  Job markets for both NP's and PA's are projected to increase making either path a desirable choice.

 

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