Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Choosing a Graduate Program and a Career Path

Deliberating over a Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant career path? While both professional roles have overlapping duties, they may also feature different approaches, philosophies, and scopes of practice. And, their differences start with the graduate education required for each career path.Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant Graduate Programs

Though both nurse practitioners and physician assistants must earn at least a master’s degree from an accredited program[i][ii], prerequisites may vary. Nurse practitioners must have a registered nursing (RN) license prior to pursuing a master’s degree, and graduate nursing programs for NPs may prefer candidates to have earned their bachelor’s degree in nursing.[i]

Physician assistants must generally have a bachelor’s degree and some patient care work experience before pursuing a master’s program. Most candidates have pursued undergraduate coursework with a focus on science, and many come from registered nursing or EMT/paramedic backgrounds.[ii]

9 Graduate Schools Offering Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner Programs

We’ve put together a list of sponsored graduate schools offering nurse practitioner programs, physician assistant programs, or both. Requesting information about a program that interests you may be a great way to learn more about how to prepare for either an NP or PA role. You can also skip to the bottom of the list to learn more about NP vs. PA salary, job duties, and scope of practice.

written by Shannon Fandler

1. Georgetown University

Georgetown University is an academic and research university based in Washington, D.C. The institution also happens to be the nation’s oldest Catholic, Jesuit university, dating back to 1789.

Georgetown’s nursing program was founded in 1903 and offers multiple paths to pursuing career goals in nursing. Select nursing graduate programs may be available on campus or online. The Master of Science Program offers several potential advanced nursing tracks, including Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, Family Nurse Practitioner, Nurse-Midwifery/Women's Health Nurse Practitioner, and Women's Health Nurse Practitioner.

Program(s) Offered:

2. Simmons College

Simmons College is a private college located in Boston, Massachusetts. They are home to undergraduate programs with a liberal arts focus, as well as graduate and professional programs in nursing, health sciences, and more.

The School of Nursing and Health Sciences (SNHS) at Simmons is located in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. Online programs may also be available. Among the graduate nursing programs on offer at Simmons is the RN to MSN bridge program, which may allow eligible registered nurses to earn their MSN in as few as three years. In this program, candidates may prepare to take the family nurse practitioner (FNP) certification exam.

Program(s) Offered: RN to MSN – Family Nurse Practitioner

3. A.T. Still University of Health Sciences

Founded in 1892, A.T. Still University (ATSU) is the first institution of osteopathic healthcare, a form of American medical care that regards the body as an integrated whole. ATSU offers healthcare education at campuses in Kirksville, Missouri, and Mesa, Arizona, as well as online.

The Department of Physician Assistant Studies at A.T. Still University focuses on both the art and science of medicine, while also delving into the osteopathic tradition of caring for the whole person. The program incorporates elements like face-to-face instruction, clinical experiences, Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs) that feature standardized patient actors, and more. Students also must participate in a year of supervised work experiences in hospitals or clinics.

Program(s) Offered: Advanced Masters in Physician Assistant Studies

4. University of New England

As Maine’s largest private university, University of New England is the site of the state’s only medical and dental schools, as well as many programs in pharmacy, nursing, and allied health professions. They serve students on two Maine campuses; in Tangier, Morocco; and online.

The Master of Science Physician Assistant Program at University of New England is designed to help students prepare to deliver patient care within an interdisciplinary team. The 24-month program features both coursework and clinical experiences, including an InterProfessional Geriatric Education Practicum in which students work with elderly patients in the community.

Program(s) Offered:

5. South University

South University is a private educational institution that has been serving students since 1899. They offer undergraduate and graduate programs online and on multiple campus locations in nine states. They are accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

South University offers a variety of graduate nursing and nurse practitioner programs both online and in person at multiple campus locations. A Master of Science in Physician Assistant program is offered at South University’s Savannah, Georgia campus.

Program(s) Offered:

6. Baylor College of Medicine

Baylor College of Medicine is a health sciences university based in Houston, Texas. They are known for fostering education, healthcare, and community service that has impact both locally and around the world.

Baylor’s Physician Assistant program has ranked 13th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. In the program, students pursue curriculum backed by numerous learning resources and taught by experienced faculty. They may also have the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning with students and faculty in Baylor’s School of Medicine, as well as nursing, social work, and pharmacy programs.

Program(s) Offered: Master of Science – Physician Assistant

7. University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences

University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences is a graduate educational institution offering health-focused educational programs. The university has four campuses in St. Augustine and Miami, FL; San Marcos, CA; and Austin, TX. They are accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

The College of Nursing at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) takes pride in offering practice-based and career-focused graduate nursing programs, including programs designed to help students prepare for nurse practitioner career paths. Both the MSN and DNP programs may be pursued in a flexible online format.

Program(s) Offered:

8. Tufts University

Established in 1852, Tufts University is a private research university primarily based in Massachusetts. They serve nearly 6,000 graduate and professional students. Tufts University School of Medicine offers graduate professional and public health programs in Boston, MA.

The Tufts University School of Medicine Physician Assistant (PA) Program requires both coursework and clinical experiences in and around Boston. The curriculum includes working with human cadavers and high-fidelity mannequins, conducting physical diagnoses on standardized patients, and more. This program is accredited through Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA).

Program(s) Offered: Master of Medical Science – Physician Assistant

9. Walden University

Walden University is an accredited institution that focuses on the educational needs of the adult student. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as certificate programs – all in a flexible, online format.

Walden University offers a variety of paths to enhancing a nursing career. Online graduate programs at the master’s and doctoral level offer career-focused concentrations designed to help candidates prepare for new professional challenges.

Program(s) Offered:

Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant Scope of Practice and Duties

Physician assistants, or PAs, work on teams that may include physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare professionals. They may examine, diagnose, and treat patients. PAs may be limited in their scope of practice depending on state. Their duties also depend on what area of medicine they work in, such as primary care, emergency medicine, or surgery.

Like PAs, nurse practitioners may offer examinations, diagnoses, and treatments. And, their scope of practice may depend on state. They may also work independently, prescribe medications, and order lab tests. However, NPs may differ from PAs in that they provide nursing services, rather than medical services, to specific populations like geriatric adults or children.

One way to think about the difference between physician assistants and nurse practitioners is by considering the nursing model vs medical model of patient care. A nursing model is sometimes said to focus on a more holistic view of patients, including their environments and other aspects of their health and wellness. A medical model, on the other hand, focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of patients’ diseases and abnormalities. Of course, both MPs and PAs may use elements of both models, but the differences behind these approaches may influence the philosophy and practice of a nurse or PA.

Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) such as Nurse Practitioners earned a median salary of $107,460 per year or $51.67 per hour in 2016.[i] Physicians Assistants earned a median salary of $101,480 per year or $48.79 per hour.[ii]

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