Savanna Perry is a physician assistant (PA) and founder of ThePAplatform.com, a site dedicated to guiding others toward a career as a physician assistant. She also runs a podcast and Facebook group and is a wife and mom.
She had the choice of a private college for PA school but realized that her total program would cost over $200,000. Instead, she chose a public program in her home state of Georgia, which ended up costing around $45,000.
But not every state has a public PA program, and you can end up with a lot of student debt if you don’t know what to look for.
Here are some insider secrets from Savanna that can help you pick the best PA program, figure out how to pay for it, and know what salary to expect when you start your career.
What is a PA?
A physician assistant is someone who works in the medical field and who can see patients independently. As a PA, Savanna can diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medication, and order imaging and lab testing.
PAs can do a lot of the same things doctors do, but becoming a doctor takes more time, commitment, and money. While she makes a lot of decisions on her own, she has a physician to rely on if she needs to, and Savanna appreciates and values that collaboration and teamwork.
“We need doctors as much as we need PAs, and I just never felt I needed to be in that role where I was making every single decision,” said Savanna.
What does PA-S and PA-C stand for?
In the medical field, you’ll come across several abbreviations for different medical professional roles. You may notice that PAs often have PA-S or PA-C designations. In PA-S, the S stands for “student.” And the C in PA-C stands for being “certified.”
“We do all have to be nationally certified, and that’s how you get that little C behind your name,” said Savanna. “So, technically, I’m a PA-C.”
Is an NP different than a PA?
Savanna notes that a nurse practitioner (NP) is very similar to being a PA, but the roles and responsibilities vary according to state regulations.
“Here in Georgia, we’re basically the same, so it’s more about how you get there. Nurse practitioners have more nursing background — they have to go do nursing school and become [a registered nurse] before they become a nurse practitioner,” said Savannah.
Do PA students need to complete a residency?
There’s no residency requirement for being a PA or NP like there is when you go to med school. You also don’t have to pick a residency, which Savanna said is something she really liked about being a PA.
“In my case, being married to someone in med school, it was great when we weren’t sure where he was going to end up for residency. I didn’t worry about it because I knew that no matter where we went, I could get a job,” she said.
Picking the right PA program
PA programs last between 24 and 30 months and are generally much cheaper than medical school. But Savanna warns it isn’t easy to get financial aid, and there aren’t many scholarships available. Her best advice is to pick your PA school carefully.
The best PA program for you depends on what you’re looking for:
- Some people want a shorter program that’s 24 months, while others prefer a longer one.
- Schools offer different titles, such as a Master of Physician Assistant or Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. Some schools build Master of Public Health degree into the program.
One of the best things about being a PA is the flexibility it offers. You can also go straight from college or undergrad into a PA program, but it was designed as more of a second career path. Because you can start a program to become a PA at any time, a lot of people are making a career switch from corporate America.
“It really is a very individualized thing,” said Savanna. “That’s why when I’m helping people and coaching them toward PA school. We really look at what’s important to them in deciding which schools are going to be a good fit. It’s not something that you just blindly apply to a bunch of schools.”
Paying for a PA program
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) reports the median student loan debt for PAs is $112,500 as of 2017. At Student Loan Planner, we’ve seen clients in every profession with student loan debt, and the average debt of the PAs we’ve worked with is around $190,000.
The cost of a PA program varies by state and whether you pick a private or public school. To pay for the program to become a PA, most people take out either private student loans or federal student loans. Which type of loans are best for you depends on your employment goals.
For instance, a lot of PAs go to work for a hospital. Most hospitals are nonprofit employers, so their PAs can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). If this is your desired career path, you’d be better off sticking with federal loans because they allow you to apply for loan forgiveness.
If you’re not sure what your career has in store, starting with federal loans is a smart move. After all, you have the option to refinance them into a private loan for a lower interest rate if that makes sense after you graduate from the PA program. If you don’t want to work for a nonprofit, however, you might consider private loans sooner, which could offer a lower interest rate but no loan forgiveness.
Savanna has interviewed several PAs and found there are a lot of payment options people might not know about. The National Health Service Corps has a loan forgiveness option for PAs, for example, and if you “work in an underprivileged area in a certain specialty for two years, they’ll give you $30,000 toward your loans,” said Savanna.
How much can you expect to earn as a PA?
Figuring out if pursuing a PA degree is worth the investment depends on the expected salary of the profession. For a PA, Savanna says the average pay for a new grad is around $75,000 to $80,000. “And that’s just across the board and not taking any [specialty and experience] into account.”
That range makes sense if you’re just starting out but after a few years, your salary should increase. The NCCPA report indicates the median salary for PAs is $95,000.
With the median PA student loan debt coming in at $112,500, you should be able to pay off your loans over time without too much trouble.
If you earn significantly more than the average PA, you should pick your student loan repayment plan carefully. Some repayment plans base your monthly payment on your income, and a higher income can mean higher student loan payments
Savanna has seen PAs in certain specialties make as much as $300,000 or more, but you don’t make that much if you work hourly or part-time. Savanna says if you break it down to an hourly wage, “the median pay for a PA is about $50 [an hour].”
Overall, being a PA consistently ranks in the top three jobs in the nation and is a growing field. “It’s a great profession just because of what you’re able to do and how quick you’re able to do it,” said Savanna.
Is becoming a PA the right career choice for you?
“If you’re not happy in your profession or your area or your current job, start looking for something else,” said Savanna. She suggests looking into new possibilities by doing the research and crunching the numbers to see if maybe you should be looking at a new career path.
“And as someone who recently switched jobs, I’ve seen that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, and you don’t know that until you start investigating it.”