It can be a major investment going through the training necessary to become either a physician assistant or a pharmacist, so it’s definitely worthwhile to consider what the return on investment (ROI) is likely to be for either of these two careers, so you can make the most informed decision about a profession.
In terms of educational requirements, a physician assistant (PA) will generally have to commit 4 to 6 years beyond high school to more advanced education, earning either a BA or BS degree, and generally accumulating clinical hours as well. A residency is optional, but generally any specialty within the field will require one to two years of residency. At the end of all that, you will have earned a physician assistant certification (PA-C), and as of 2014, you can expect to earn an average salary around $97,280.
By contrast, a pharmacist can expect to commit 6 to 10 years for ongoing education after high school, which will probably include at least three years of coursework and another year of clinical internship, with an optional residency lasting between one and two years. The reward for this commitment is a Pharm.D degree and an average salary in the neighborhood of $118,470.
Cost vs. Reward
The rewards offered by these two professions are easy to learn about, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles such information annually, and makes it available publicly. Information about the total cost of the education necessary to embark on one of these professions is much harder to calculate however, because student loans are almost always involved, and these can take a considerable amount of time to pay off, and the duration of payments will differ from person to person. A person who aggressively pays off a student loan each month will end up paying far less than someone who stretches out payments longer and accumulates greater interest along with the original amount owed.
Pharmacy school debt load and repayment
According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), the total cost of going to a good pharmacy school program can range between $65,000 and $200,000. For a program which costs a total of about $100,000, it would take roughly 11 years for any graduate to pay off that loan, assuming the starting salary mentioned above, and monthly payments of about 10% of that annual income.
Obviously there are several variables in this formula, so the total duration of payments and the total amount repaid can be much different for individuals, depending on the beginning loan total and the monthly amount paid on that loan. It’s easy to see that a fairly large monthly payment is more advantageous for a graduate, because it not only reduces the number of payments to be made, but the total amount eventually repaid. Of course, not every graduate will be able to pay the loan down so aggressively, and that will result in many more years of payments, plus a larger total repayment.
Physician assistant debt load and repayment
Since the length of programs for physician assistant are generally shorter than those for a pharmacist, most graduates from PA programs have accumulated considerably less debt load by the end of their academic careers. Findings from the American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA) showed that about 25% of PA graduates in 2011 had accumulated $100,000 or more in debt load, with 33% accumulating student loan debt between $50,000 and $100,000, and about another 25% accumulating debt less than $50,000.
Although the overall debt load is less across the boards than it would be for a pharmacy program, the expected salary is also somewhat less, which means that it may not be possible for PA graduates to pay off loans as aggressively as their pharmacist counterparts. Still, it might reasonably be expected that the total duration of payments for a student loan debt incurred by a PA graduate would be significantly less than for a pharmacist graduate, which means the total amount repaid would also be significantly less.