Physician's assistants work alongside doctors to perform physical exams, diagnose conditions and write prescriptions. You'll likely earn an income closing in on six figures, depending on where you live and work. You'll be in demand, as well: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 30 percent growth in PA jobs through 2020, as the population increases and ages.
If you’re looking for a career that pays well above average, you can’t go wrong as a physician's assistant. The field’s median annual income as of 2012 was $90,930, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- nearly three times the $34,756 median for all U.S. jobs. If you’re just starting out, you’ll make less: the bottom 10 percent of earners in the field, which is likely to include new physician assistants, took home $62,430 on average. The top 10 percent banked $124,770. You can work your way into that upper tier with time on the job, and by choosing work in a specific sector or location.
Pay by Industry
You might be surprised at where you’ll find the best pay; neither general hospitals nor doctors’ offices made the list. Rather, physician's assistants earned the most on average inside specialty hospitals, or clinics that treat specific needs such as orthopedic problems or physical therapy and rehabilitation. PAs with specialty hospitals made an annual mean income of $100,060 as of 2012, according to the BLS. Home health agencies ranked second for pay, at $98,230. Other sectors that offered relatively high incomes included office administrative services, employment agencies and outpatient clinics.
Pay by State
To make the most, consider moving to a state with generally high physician-assistant wages. In several states, employers pay more than $100,000 on average. Rhode Island was tops for pay as of 2012, with an annual mean wage of $112,250, according to the BLS. At $104,540, Connecticut ranked second. PAs in Washington averaged $103,890, while Oregon-based PAs made $103,400. Nevada rounded out the top five with an average salary of $102,670. PAs in California and New Hampshire also averaged more than $100,000. Mississippi ranked last for pay, at $50,200.
Pay by City
If you’re looking for the city with the best pay, think smaller town rather than urban center. Sure, big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston had the most physician assistants. But PAs in Racine, Wis., took home the most pay as of 2012, at an annual average of $145,860. In Texarkana, a town that straddles Texas and Arkansas, the mean was $143,890. Other cities in the top 10 included Tyler, Texas; Flint, Mich.; Gainesville, Ga.; and Fresno, Calif. Average pay in those cities ranged from $119,290 to $127,160.
Getting the Job
To earn the salary, you’ll need the right education. Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from a PA program. The curriculum looks a lot like med school, but it takes about half the time to finish -- usually between two and three years. To get in, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. Major isn’t important, but you do need to have taken classes with labs in biology and chemistry, plus courses in microbiology and English. Programs also prefer candidates who’ve taken advanced science classes such as anatomy and physiology. In grad school, you’ll study physical diagnosis, pharmacology, psychiatry, pediatrics, principles of surgery and emergency medicine, among other topics.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012-Physician Assistants
- CNN Money: Physician Assistant
- Weill Cornell Medical College: Admissions
- Northeastern University: Physician Assistant
- American Academy of Physician Assistants: Physician Assistant Census Report
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Job Outlook
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