The market for physician assistants is booming. Physician assistants can help with diagnostic tests, medical histories, and much more. There are currently 118,000 PAs employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That number is expected to grow to 155,700 — an increase of 31% — by 2029, with salaries expected to continue rising as well. The median annual salary is $115,390 as of 2020. A few key factors play into that growth, including locations and specialties that pay better than others.
When you assess physician assistant earnings in various parts of the U.S. and consider general PA work versus specialties, you can gain a better understanding of what you’re in for if you pursue a career as a PA. Reviewing this information can help you decide whether a PA degree — with the time and tuition it requires — is worth it and can help you maximize the average physician assistant salary.
How much do physician assistants earn per year?
Physician assistants’ yearly salaries average just over $100,000, according to various sources:
- $115,390 (Median, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020)
- $95,172 (Average, Glassdoor)
- $107,509 (Average, Indeed.com)
Some PAs earn $10,000 to $20,000 more or less than the average, however, based on where they live or what they specialize in. For example, your salary will likely be lower if you work in places like Oklahoma, Delaware, Iowa, or Nebraska compared to New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, or California.
Physician assistant salary by state
Location matters for most jobs. Areas with a higher cost of living or a shortage of professionals typically pay more. Let’s take a look at two sources for information on PA salaries in different states.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects reported salary data, these are the top five highest paying states for physician assistants:
- Connecticut: $125,610
- Washington: $123,980
- Alaska: $122,260
- Hawaii: $121,120
- California: $117,230
These are the top-paying states for PAs according to ZipRecruiter, which bases its numbers on recent job postings:
- New York: $120,653
- New Hampshire: $116,960
- Vermont: $110,559
- Wyoming: $107,725
- Maine: $107,514
Because the BLS numbers are reported actual salaries, they can give a more accurate sense of the average salary. ZipRecruiter is a great tool for finding jobs, but its data is related to job postings, not actual salaries earned or negotiated.
With that in mind, let’s look at the states with the lowest PA salary, according to BLS:
- Mississippi: $81,130
- Louisiana: $85,990
- Tennessee: $87,700
- Kentucky: $91,010
- Missouri: $94,480
Sometimes it’s not how much you earn, it’s how far those dollars go. Most of the lower compensating states have a lower cost of living. Earning $91,000 in Kentucky might actually put a person in a higher relative income bracket than a person earning $117,000 in California, for example.
Finally, let’s take a look at average physician assistant income in the most populous states, where many PAs are likely to live:
- California: $117,230
- Texas: $109,590
- Florida: $105,930
- New York: $117,000
- Pennsylvania: $98,510
Now you should have a pretty good indication of how the location where you work as a PA will affect your income. The top states pay $10,000 to $18,000 more than the national average while the lowest paying states pay $14,000 to $27,000 less than the national average.
Physician assistant salary by specialty
Like doctors, physician assistants can focus on any number of specialties within medicine. And similarly, they can earn higher pay for some specializations.
A recent survey by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) covering 89% of all certified PAs for 2018 found that these are the top-paying PA specialties by average salary:
- Dermatology: $126,084
- Emergency medicine: $123,006
- Critical care: $122,957
- Surgical subspecialties: $119,852
- General surgery: $112,396
These are the lowest paying PA specialties:
- Adolescent medicine: $90,588
- Pediatrics: $92,194
- Obstetrics/Gynecology: $96,244
There’s a $36,000 difference from top to bottom in PA salary ranked by specialties. These salaries also line up closely with the range of physician salaries in those given specialties too.
Physician assistants should choose a concentration that best resonates with them. Emergency medicine and surgery are at the top in terms of compensation, but they could also be the most stressful. It’s better to pick a field that is a good fit for you so that you don’t experience burnout.
Average physician assistant student loan debt
Based on the income data, becoming a PA is a pretty good way to make a six-figure salary. But getting to that income may also come with six-figures of student debt.
The NCCPA survey found that the median student loan debt for physician assistants is $112,500. That number could be higher for many PAs who partake in an accredited physician assistant program, though. At Student Loan Planner®, the average PA we’ve done a consult for has $186,000 in student loans.
To decide whether that kind of debt is worth taking on, you can compare average PA student debt to potential income and then check out Public Service Loan Forgiveness plans for PAs. Loan repayment options for PAs can get confusing, so take the time to review your options and determine whether it’s better to pay off your student loans aggressively or make smaller payments while maxing out loan forgiveness through a PSLF or income-driven repayment plan.
Physician assistants have a bright future
The good news is that the career and income prospects for PAs is bright, and there is definitely a student loan repayment strategy that can fit around your career, life and financial goals.
PA incomes are likely to rise as the country approaches a projected shortage of doctors. The American Association of Medical Colleges estimates there will be a shortage of 40,000 to 100,000 doctors in 2030. About 40% of that shortage will be in the primary care field.
If that trend actually plays out, physician assistants and nurse practitioners are going to be in high demand to fill the gap.
If you’re thinking about becoming a PA, Student Loan Planner® consultants can help you figure out the best way to manage the student loans you might have to take on in order to pay for your education. And if you’re already a PA who is trying to find the best way to pay back your loans, get a consultation with a Student Loan Planner® expert. We’ve helped dozens of PAs find a clear and optimal path forward.
If you have any other questions about PA salaries or student loan repayment, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]