Highest paid specialties for physician assistants

June 20, 2014

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Not all physician assistant jobs are created equally. Just as nurses and doctors have areas in which they can specialize, so do physician assistants. Before you can specialize, you need to become licensed as a physician assistant.

Requirements for becoming a physician assistant include completing a physician assistant education program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Requirements for admission to physician assistant programs vary. Most students already have an associate or bachelor’s degree before applying. Programs for physician assistants are usually between 24 and 27 months in length.

After graduating and taking the licensing exam—and depending on your area of interest—you may be required to undergo additional training in the form of a fellowship or residency. In other instances, finding employment with a doctor who specializes in your area of interest is a good way to start.

There are many different specialties a physician assistant can choose. When choosing a specialty, it is important to consider your interests and how much extra training you are willing to take on. Knowing what specialties pay the most may also factor into your decision. Below are some of the specialties with the highest salaries.


According to a survey conducted by the Medical Group Management Association in 2013, the average salary for a dermatology physician assistant was $130,000 a year.

A dermatology physician assistant works under the supervisions or direction of a dermatologist. Dermatology physician assistants evaluate and treat a large variety of skin disorders or diseases. They may also perform cosmetic procedures. The scope of practice (or what a dermatology physician assistant can do) is determined, somewhat, by the supervising dermatologist. For instance, a physician assistant in dermatology may assist with a surgical procedure, such as removing skin cancer.

Working in the field of dermatology as a physician assistant has several advantages. Emergencies are infrequent in dermatology, which means hours worked are usually during the daytime. Salary can be high, especially if you are working for a physician who performs a lot of cosmetic procedures.

Urgent care

Another high salary area for physician assistants is urgent care. Salaries for urgent care physician assistants may vary depending on what part of the country you are working in. The median salary for an urgent care physician assistant in the United States in 2013 was $130,000 a year.

Urgent care clinics provide medical care for injuries and ailments that are not life-threatening, but still require treatment. For example, an illness or injury, such as an ear infection or sprain, is not serious enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room, but may still require a remedy. People often visit urgent care clinics when they do not want to wait to schedule a doctor’s office visit, or they do not have a primary care doctor.

Urgent care clinics may be affiliated with a hospital or be independent businesses. Although the supervising physician may not be onsite, the physician assistant still works under the direction of a doctor. Standing protocols or guidelines are often in place for an urgent care physician assistant.

A couple of advantages for urgent care physician assistants include the opportunity to work independently and treat a wide variety of patients. On the flip side, if you are looking for a fast paced area of medicine, working in an urgent care clinic may not rate high on the excitement level, which may be a negative for some people. Since urgent care clinics are often open at various hours, expect to work evening and weekend hours.


Surgery is often a high paying specialty for doctors and the same holds true for physician assistants. The average salary of a surgical physician assistant in 2013 was $115,000 a year according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Surgical physician assistants work under the supervision of a surgeon. They may conduct pre-operative tests, exams and assist during surgical procedures. Physician assistants working in surgery may also monitor a patient’s recovery after surgery and continue to provide follow-up care.

After becoming licensed as a physician assistant, a surgical residency for physician assistants is often the path to becoming a surgical physician assistant. Usually, surgical residencies for physician assistants are two years in length.  Just as doctors can become general surgeons or specialize within surgery, physician assistants may do the same. Thoracic, orthopedic and plastic surgery are all areas physician assistants can work in.

Because surgery can occur at all hours, surgical physician assistants often need to work overnight or be on call. Hours can also be very long. On the plus side, the work can be varied and exciting.

Emergency medicine

Emergency medicine is another area physician assistants can work in, which pays pretty well. Depending on your geographic location, salaries may range from about $116,000 to $140,000 a year according to the Society of Emergency Medicine Physician Assistants.

If you are interested in becoming an emergency medicine physician assistant, you will usually need additional training after graduating from physician assistant school. Emergency medicine physician assistant residencies are available, which are generally 18 months to two years in length.

In some cases, especially in smaller hospitals, physician assistants may be able to get hired to work in the emergency room without completing an ER residency. Those with urgent care experience may have the upper hand when it comes to moving into the emergency room.

If you are someone who craves excitement, you may find your calling as an emergency medicine physician assistant. Working in the ER, you are likely to treat patients with all types of medical conditions, ranging from mild to life-threatening.

A disadvantage may be having to work all types of shifts, including overnight. In addition, you will be treating the sickest and most critical of patients at times, which can mean high stress.

Although salary is a legitimate consideration when choosing a physician assistant specialty, there are other equally important factors. Think about the lifestyle you want. Certain specialties require being on call or to work long hours. Consider your personality and strengths. For instance, not everyone is cut out for emergency medicine and would prefer a slower pace. The great thing about becoming a physician assistant is there are many specialties to choose from. With proper consideration, you are bound to find the right fit.


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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.