Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner: What’s The Difference?

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Are you deciding between becoming a physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner for your future career? You can choose between these two rewarding paths with different educational requirements, responsibilities and career outlooks. Both specializations are actively growing and can offer a quality career path for the right candidate.

male nurse helping a doctor with patient chart

In today’s healthcare environment, physician assistant (PA) and nurse practitioner (NP) are both desirable roles that offer great career prospects within the health care field. However, if you’re asking, “Is it better to be a nurse practitioner or physician assistant?” you might be asking the wrong question. Both roles come with educational and certification requirements, positives and responsibilities. Each will appeal to distinct groups of people who want different things in their careers.

Neither career path is objectively better; either could be your best choice. If you decide that a career as a nurse practitioner is the better option, Marquette University’s Master of Science in Nursing Second Degree Direct Entry for Non-Nurses program can provide a pathway to an MSN degree (which is often a stepping stone toward an NP career) in 19 to 21 months.

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See the versatility that an MSN degree can offer in your career.

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner: Key Differences

While both serve as advanced healthcare providers, physician assistants and nurse practitioners have different areas of focus and requirements. Read on to discover some of the factors that differentiate these two specialized roles.

Educational & Professional Requirements

Physician assistant and nurse practitioner positions both require certifications and a high level of education, but they have different requirements for those interested in entering each field.

miling portrait of nursing student holding clipboard

Physician Assistant Requirements

Physician assistants must first graduate from an entry-level PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Most programs require an undergraduate degree, the completion of prerequisites, and a certain amount of healthcare experience from applicants. After graduating from a program with a master’s or doctorate degree, you are then eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Lastly, you must meet state licensing requirements and obtain a license in the state you will practice in. More in-depth information can be found through the American Academy of Physician Associates.

Nurse Practitioner Requirements

To become a nurse practitioner, the first step is to achieve the status of a licensed registered nurse (RN). Afterward, you can pursue further experience and certification to become an NP.

You need an advanced degree to eventually become a nurse practitioner, either a master’s in nursing or doctor of nursing practice (DNP). This ensures that nurse practitioners are highly qualified to provide healthcare services to patients. Marquette University’s DE-MSN program is based on a curriculum that offers a pathway to a MSN degree in 19 to 21 months.

Learn more about post-master’s certification programs offered through Marquette.

After graduating with a BSN or MSN degree, you will need to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN®) before becoming a licensed RN. After gaining experience in the nursing field, you will be well-equipped to enter a post-master’s certificate program to become a nurse practitioner. Some of Marquette University’s certificate options include:

  • Acute care nurse practitioner (adult or pediatric)
  • Primary care nurse practitioner (adult or pediatric)
  • Certified nurse midwife

After completing your post-master’s certificate specialty program, you will be prepared to sit for your specified certification exam. Then, apply for your advanced practice nursing license.


Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are commonly found in most healthcare settings, such as hospitals or clinics. Regardless of which specialty practice one enters, both physician assistants and nurse practitioners have vital roles in caring for patients. Below, we will explore some of the specific responsibilities each role will likely require on a day-to-day basis.

nursing student with stethoscope practicing on manikin

Physician Assistant Responsibilities

Physician assistants are qualified medical personnel who can examine, diagnose and treat patients to support physicians. The day-to-day work that physician assistants take on is often focused on patient care. Physician assistants operate under a medical model, observing and treating symptoms as they occur. They assist with medical or surgical procedures and carry out many technically oriented tasks. Some typical PA roles and responsibilities include reviewing patient medical histories, diagnosing injuries or illnesses, prescribing medication and assessing patient progress.

Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

Nurse practitioners are advanced degree registered nurse clinical experts with a high level of autonomy to practice across multiple areas. Nurse practitioners, as opposed to physician assistants, operate under a holistic model. By taking a more complete and contextual view of where symptoms fit into a patient’s overall health, paired with health promotion and disease prevention, NPs can formulate comprehensive health plans that address each patient’s complete state of health. Nurse practitioners also work with communities to help them achieve their goals, with outreach and communication among some of the key factors they bring to patients under their care.

Some of their most common roles and responsibilities can include:

  • Conducting physical examinations and evaluations
  • Diagnosing and managing chronic and acute illnesses
  • Working with patients and families to achieve their individual health goals
  • Performing special procedures
  • Prescribing and adjusting patient medications and treatment plans
  • Ordering, interpreting and responding to blood work, x-rays and other diagnostic tests
  • Rapidly responding to patient care situations

Career Outlook

With rapid growth and demand across the healthcare field, you will have a positive career outlook regardless of whether you want to specialize as a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. According to U.S. News and World Report’s Best Health Care Jobs data, physician assistant and nurse practitioner are listed as the #2 and #1 best jobs, respectively, with ample opportunities and high median salary figures.

Marquette nursing students sitting in hallway

Physician Assistant Outlook

Physician assistants are in demand in today’s medical field, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that by 2031 the number of roles in this position will grow by 28%. Adding a projected 38,400 physician assistants to the field by the next decade means ample employment opportunities to practice in this position. Additionally, the median salary of $121,530 means your hard work will pay off.

Nurse Practitioner Outlook

Nurse practitioners are similarly in demand with an excellent overall job outlook. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the U.S. will fill 118,600 new nurse practitioner roles by 2031, constituting a 40% overall growth rate. This means nurse practitioners are highly sought after by employers. Apart from the in-demand nature of the career path, the median salary for nurse practitioners is reported by U.S. News & World Report as $120,680 per year, on par with physician assistants.

nurse standing at bedside with child patient

Learn more about the job outlook and positive career outcomes for nurse practitioners in today’s medical field.

Choosing Between Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

As you can see, choosing between these two specialized career paths ultimately depends on which one is more appealing to you personally. There are multiple similarities between physician assistants and nurse practitioners, but each role has a distinctive niche within the medical field. Physician assistants operate under a medical model of care, while nurse practitioners operate with a holistic model of care. Connecting with patients, as well as diagnosing and treating symptoms, help to make nurse practitioner an ideal role for a motivated person who wants flexibility and success in their future career choices.

Start Your Nursing Journey with Marquette

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When deciding between a physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner role, if you’ve concluded that nurse practitioner is a better fit, Marquette University’s DE-MSN program can help you reach your goals sooner while equipping you to succeed in your future career.

Contact us today to begin the conversation about your application and take the next step toward this rewarding and in-demand career path.