Should I Study to be a Nurse Practitioner or a Physician Assistant?

Guest Post by Arctic Dinks.

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For nurses ready to take the next step in their education, it can sometimes be challenging to choose the best route. A graduate degree in healthcare opens so many doors, and knowing what path to choose can get confusing!

The most common decision though, is choosing between a career as a Nurse Practitioner (NP) or a Physician Assistant (PA).

For a typical BSN prepared nurse, they have the requirements to apply to either program, and often see the two performing similar roles. Many wonder – what are the pros and cons of each, and how can you decide which is best for you? This article explores the question.


Training and Curriculum

Both programs are typically master’s degree level. The average time to completion for both is around 2-3 years though there are NP programs as short as 15 months. The PA curriculum is typically more science-heavy, and includes courses in histology, microbiology, and human gross anatomy with lab. The goal of PA training is to mimic medical training, but with fewer overall courses and in less time. Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, practice “advanced nursing” rather than medicine. The framework on which the curriculum is built is entirely different, and there are many courses that focus on nursing history, evidence based practice and population health.

Courses such as pharmacology and pathophysiology are still there, but the overall number of science courses is lower than in the PA program. Another consideration is clinical hours: NP programs have between 650-1000 while most PA programs have between 1500-2000.

The thought is that NPs need fewer clinical hours since they are typically experienced nurses.


If you’re happy with both curriculums, then the most important consideration is specialty. While both professions can typically practice in any specialty, sometimes there are employer preferences for one over the other. If interested in mental health, for example, NP is the way to go. Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioners are specifically trained for counseling and psychotherapy, and are widely used in mental health over physician assistants.

The same is typically true in women’s health as well, where Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners and Certified Nurse Midwives is the provider of choice. For emergency department or surgery, PA is often the more marketable of the two, as they do rotations in both emergency and surgery as part of their curriculum.

For primary care, it’s a bit of a toss-up.

Family Nurse Practitioners are “designed” for outpatient primary care, but PAs have the training to take on the role too!


Independence and Scope of Practice

The last point is about independence. One major difference between NPs and PAs is that the former is capable of being entirely independent. Nurse practitioners, through a series of legislative changes, have achieved full independence in 19 states, which means they practice under their own license, can open their own practice, and do not need physician supervision.

Physician assistants, on the other hand, are required to have physician oversight in every state. While they can own their own practice in some cases, they still need a physician to supervise them on paper, and must also come in and check off a certain percentage of charts.










If you plan on being a private practice owner, NP is likely the way to go.

That covers the main differences between the two professions. For the most part, both nurse practitioners and physician assistants practice similarly, and both are excellent clinicians.

Studies show that outcomes for NPs and PAs are quite positive, and both provide care equal to that of a physician. Whichever path you choose, it will be an exciting and rewarding career!


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  1. WNJ says:

    What a collection of awesome advice! Aspiring nurses should definitely consider these options but whatever path you may choose, follow your instincts. Kudos to all nurses!

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