Registered Nurse to Physician Assistant Career Switch

Making the transition from RN to PA can be a natural progression in a nurse’s career. As a registered nurse, you’ll provide direct, hands-on care to patients. Your role may be limited to administering medications, monitoring vital signs, patient education and carrying out physician orders. 

A physician assistant also provides direct, hands-on patient care, but has more independence. Although laws vary by state, a physician assistant can often order diagnostic tests, perform patient exams, assess progress and prescribe medication. A career change to a physician assistant can be satisfying in that it allows you to have more direct influence over patient care and outcomes.

Why Switch From Registered Nurse to Physician Assistant

As an RN, you can have a significant impact on the quality of a patient’s medical care. You may provide medical assistance and spend time building rapport and advocating for patients. However, your functions may be limited by physician directives. 

A benefit of being a physician assistant is that in addition to providing hands-on patient care, you may also direct the nature of the care by ordering diagnostics, interpreting results and prescribing medication. 

As you gain more clinical knowledge and experience as a PA, you may be given additional responsibilities and make more money. This shift can be satisfying if you are an RN wanting to have a more proactive healthcare role. Becoming a PA also allows you to apply your RN skills and education, while improving your career trajectory.

Do RN to PA Programs Exist? 

Currently there are no RN to PA programs that allow a registered nurse to seamlessly enter into a PA program. Each state specifies different requirements for how to become a nurse, ranging from an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree. Physician assistant education pathways may vary depending on state regulations. Because of the variations, the pathway from RN to PA may look different for everyone.

If you are an RN looking to become a PA, you may expect to take the following steps:

  • Apply for and complete an accredited Master of Science degree in physician assistant studies. If you are an RN who completed an associate degree, you may be required to earn a bachelor’s degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), before entering a program.
  • Take prerequisite courses as determined by the PA program. If you have an RN background, especially a bachelor’s degree in nursing, you may find that you have already taken some of the required courses. If you have an associate degree, you may have completed some of the foundational courses already. 
  • Take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). This five-hour exam consists of 300 multiple-choice questions covering medical and surgical knowledge. 
  • Apply for and receive state licensure once all requirements, including passing the PANCE test, have been completed. 

State requirements vary, which makes it important for you to fully understand all of the educational and licensing requirements before starting a PA program. Consulting the PA program you’re applying to is the best way to get a clear picture of what you need to make the transition.

Physician Assistant vs. Registered Nurse Roles and Responsibilities

There are some distinct differences in the roles of a PA vs. RN. A PA can do many of the tasks a doctor does, like order tests or prescribe medications. A registered nurse works within the larger healthcare team to provide patient care as the primary physician directs.

An RN’s responsibilities vary based on the setting and state regulations, but may include the following: 

  • Observe and assess patients and document findings.
  • Take patient histories and document symptoms.
  • Monitor patient’s vital signs and operate medical equipment.
  • Report patient status to other healthcare providers.
  • Administer medications and medical treatments as prescribed.
  • Educate patients and provide aftercare instructions. 

The physician assistant role also varies based on the setting and state regulations. Some have specialties that dictate their responsibilities. As a PA, you may have the following duties: 

  • Examine, take and review patient histories.
  • Order diagnostic tests and interpret the results. 
  • Diagnose illnesses and injuries.
  • Create treatment plans and provide patient education.
  • Provide patient treatments, assess and monitor the results.
  • Prescribe medications.

Physician Assistant vs. Registered Nurse Job Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), healthcare careers are expected to grow around 16% from 2020 to 2030. 

The BLS expects 31% employment growth for physician assistants from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all other occupations. The expected growth of registered nurses’ employment is 9% during that period. Job openings for RNs and PAs are expected to result from retirements or nurses switching careers. 

Salary differences are also something to think about when considering any career change. The salary you can expect to earn as a nurse depends on various factors, including your experience, role, location and education. The salary of a PA vs. an RN salary can also vary based on those factors. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for an RN as of May 2020 was $75,330 while the median annual salary of a PA was $115,390 in 2020. If you’re going from an RN to PA, you may earn more.

Is a Career Switch From RN to PA Worth It? 

Career changes are personal decisions to consider carefully due to the time, energy and cost involved. Making a career change from a registered nurse to a physician assistant can take considerable resources and involves a significant increase in responsibilities. 

Instead of following directives from doctors, a PA gives directives, works more independently and can order tests, diagnose conditions and prescribe medications. If you prefer to remain in a nursing career, you may consider pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree which may help prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Beyond that, APRNs may also consider advancing to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)—the highest nursing practice-based degree. If you are unsure of which path to take, it may be wise to look into different ways to advance in nursing outside of the PA path. If you are set on making a career change to a physician assistant, look for an accredited program to reach your goals.

Last updated in February 2022